Raymond Massey (1896-1983)

Raymond Massey
Raymond Massey

Raymond Massey was a Canadian-born stage and movie actor who was extremely successful on both sides of the Atlantic in a long and distinguished 50 year career. He began as a significant presence in the British cinema of the 1930's, particularly in his work for Alexander Korda, and then became well known in Hollywood during the 1940's for appearances in such films as 'Abe Lincoln in Illinois' in 1940 for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, and 'Arsenic and Old Lace'. In his later career he achieved his greatest fame on television, starring as Dr. Gillespie on 'Dr. Kildare'.

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He was born Raymond Hart Massey on August 30, 1896, in Toronto, Ontario, into the wealthy Massey family, owners of the Massey-Ferguson Tractor Company which had been started by Raymond's grandfather, Hart Massey. He and his elder brother, Vincent, were the last members of the family to have a direct interest in the company, but each chose a different career path. Raymond went into acting and Vincent became active in politics, becoming the first Canadian-born Governor-General of Canada.

After leaving school in Ontario, Raymond was educated at the University of Toronto and at Balliol College, Oxford, England. At the start of WWI he joined the Canadian Army and was a member of the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force (CSEF) sent to Russia to combat the Bolsheviks. It was whilst still a soldier that he made his first appearance on stage, entertaining troops in Siberia. During front line action in France he was seriously wounded and had to be invalided back to Canada where he eventually started work in the family farm implements business.

Against the wishes of his family he decided to pursue an acting career and he made his first professional appearance in London in 1922 in a production of Eugene O'Neill's 'In the Zone'. From then on he became a well known figure on the London stage and he also began to branch out into the new medium of movies with an appearance in the silent 'High Treason' in 1929. By the end of the decade Massey was regarded as one of the finest actors on the British stage and in the same year he came to America to play Hamlet on Broadway.

During the 1930's his presence grew in Brtish cinema. In 1931 he appeared as Sherlock Holmes in 'The Speckled Band' after which he was signed up for a 5 year contract by Alexander Korda and for the rest of his life Massey was a major acting force on both sides of the Atlantic on both stage and screen. In 1934 he starred with Leslie Howard in 'The Scarlet Pimpernel', in 1936 'Things to Come', and in 1938 'The Drum', all produced by Korda. He took a leading role in the Hollywood movie, 'The Prisoner of Zenda' in 1937 and then came back to England for 'Black Limelight' in 1939.

In the early 1940's Massey reverted to Hollywood and, as he was a Canadian, received criticism when he played prominent Americans. After a triumphant performance as Abraham Lincoln on stage in 1938 in Robert Sherwood's play he repeated the role on film in 1940 in 'Abe Lincoln in Illinois' (also known as 'Spirit of the People') and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, losing out to James Stewart in 'The Philadelphia Story'.

He again played a famous American in 1940's 'Santa Fe Trail' as John Brown and he would again portray the same John Brown, in 1955 in the movie 'Seven Angry Men'. In 1941, just one week before Pearl Harbor, Massey starred on stage opposite Katharine Cornell in George Bernard Shaw's 'The Doctor's Dilemma'. After Pearl Harbor he re-enlisted in the Canadian Army but was eventually released from service to return to acting work and he subsequently joined Cornell and other leading actors in a revival of Shaw's 'Candida' to raise funds for the Army and Navy Relief effort.

He portrayed an AWOL Canadian soldier in '49th Parallel' in 1941 and in 1943 he joined John Wayne and Paulette Goddard in a seafaring adventure movie 'Reap the Wild Wind' and played a Nazi officer in 'Desperate Journey' in the same year. He gave a very effective comic performance as a murderer in Frank Capra's 1944 film version of 'Arsenic And Old Lace'

During this highly creative time he did not ignore his first love, the stage, and he played on Broadway in 'Candida' in 1942 and in 'Lovers and Friends' in 1943. After a tour of the war zones with the USO he made a successful return to Broadway in 1946, playing Higgins to Gertrude Lawrence's Liza Doolittle in 'Pygmalion'. His subsequent theatrical successes included Strindberg's 'The Father' in 1949, a 1953 dramatic reading of Stephen Vincent Benét's 'John Brown's Body', with Tyrone Power and Judith Anderson, several appearances at the American Shakespeare Festival, and playing the God-figure Mr. Zuss in J. B. in 1958, again on Broadway.

His successful postwar film roles included co-starring with Joan Crawford and Van Heflin in 'Possessed' in 1947 and with Gary Cooper in 'The Fountainhead' in 1949. Massey played James Dean's father in 1955 in a production of John Steinbeck's 'East of Eden' and he was a general in the war movie 'The Naked and the Dead' in 1958.

In 1948 Massey began a long connection with television acting with his appearance in 'The Ford Theatre Hour' and for the rest of his career he continued to make regular appearance in television programs such as 'The 20th Century-Fox Hour', 'Robert Montgomery Presents' and I Spy'. He achieved his greatest national fame on television playing the fatherly Dr. Leonard Gillespie in the series 'Dr Kildare' which ran 191 episodes from 1961 to 1966.


Massey married three times, firstly from 1921 to 1929 to Margery Fremantle, producing one son. Then from 1929 for 10 years he was married to the well known stage actress, Adrianne Allen with whom he had two children who became actors: Anna Massey CBE, and Daniel Massey. In 1939 he married for a third time to another actress, Dorothy Whitney, and the marriage lasted until her death in 1982.

Raymond Massey died in Los Angeles, California on July 29, 1983, and is buried in New Haven, Connecticut. He was 86.

Raymond Massey Academy Awards

No Wins:
One Unsuccessful Nomination:
Best Actor ... Spirit of the People (1940)

Raymond Massey Filmography

High Treason
The Crooked Billet (uncredited)
The Speckled Band
The Old Dark House
The Face at the Window
The Scarlet Pimpernel
Things to Come
Fire Over England
Dreaming Lips
Under the Red Robe
The Prisoner of Zenda
The Hurricane
The Drum
Black Limelight
Spirit of the People (Abe Lincoln in Illinois)
Santa Fe Trail
49th Parallel
Dangerously They Live
Reap the Wild Wind
Desperate Journey
Action in the North Atlantic
A Canterbury Tale (voice)
Arsenic and Old Lace
The Woman in the Window
God Is My Co-Pilot
Hotel Berlin
A Matter of Life and Death
Mourning Becomes Electra
The Fountainhead
Roseanna McCoy