Ah, poor Laird Cregar.
Cregar was born in Philadelphia in 1913 and spent a good deal of his youth in England. That was where he first appeared, as a child actor, with the Stratford-Upon-Avon theatrical troupe and it was also where he developed the English accent that would serve him well later in life. Cregar once said that, from the age of eight, all he wanted to do was be on stage.
For most of the years that followed, Cregar never stopped performing. Cregar went from acting on stage to eventually making his way to Hollywood. He first appeared on the big screen in 1940 and he went on to appear in 16 films. He appeared in nearly every genre of film, from comedy to film noir to even a western. As frequent viewers of TCM can tell you, he played a surprisingly charming devil in 1943’s Heaven Can Wait. But he was probably best-known for playing a mysterious man who might be Jack the Ripper in 1944’s The Lodger and for his role as the possibly mad pianist, George Henry Bone, in Hangover Square, obsessively playing the piano while his room burned down around him. Sadly, that will be his final role.
Cregar was an actor who had the talent to be a leading man but, because he weighed over 300 pounds, he found himself used as a supporting player in Hollywood. He was a character actor who yearned to be a romantic star and who feared he would be forever typecast as a villain. Perhaps because Cregar disliked playing villains, his villains often seemed to be conflicted about their actions. (Indeed, there was a vulnerability to Cregar that made it difficult not to feel some sympathy for his characters.) Determined to change his image, Cregar embarked on a crash diet that was aided by amphetamines. He lost over a 100 pounds but he also put his health in jeopardy. On December 9th, 1944, Cregar died after suffering a heart attack. He was 31 years old. His friend Vincent Price delivered the eulogy at Cregar’s story. Cregar’s final film, Hangover Square, was released four months after he died.
Gregory William Mank’s biography, Laird Cregar: A Hollywood Tragedy, not only tells the story of Cregar’s short life but it also examines how Cregar took his frustrations and his insecurities and used them in his performances. In Mank’s biography, Cregar comes across as being a kind and generous man who wanted so desperately to be a star that it destroyed him. The book serves as not only an examination Cregar and his talent but an indictment of a studio system that set very rigid rules for who could and who couldn’t be a star. The book also features details about Cregar’s extensive and successful stage career. If you’re a history nerd like me, you’ll appreciate all of the detail that Mank goes into while discussing who co-starred with Cregar and their subsequent careers. Mank explores Cregar’s childhood and his career. The resulting biography pays tribute to a star who deserved better.