John Barrymore was born with a classic profile and a rich heritage of histrionic ability but few inhibitions. His threescore years of life were indeed a continuous performance of frolicking across both the thespian boards and the news pages.
Barrymore was the son of the great Maurice Barrymore (born Herbert Blythe) and Georgia Drew, daughter of the immortal John Drew, an Irish actor in pre-Civil War Days. John was the youngest of their three children.
As a child he preferred the theater to school. He decided to become an artist instead of an actor, and was sent to London to study. But his stay there was brief. He returned to New York and enrolled in the Art Students League, but lasted only one day.
Before he was 20 Barrymore had worked on two metropolitan newspapers. He lasted only 20 minutes with the New York Morning Telegraph—just long enough to draw and submit one sketch. He did better on the Evening Journal, where he drew cartoons and illustrated news stories he covered as a reporter.
He made his stage debut Oct. 31, 1903, in a small part in "Magda" at Cleveland's Theater in Chicago.
Two months later he was on Broadway and after two seasons appeared in London with William Collier in "The Dictator."
Not until 1916 did he gain his place in serious drama, in which he was to win world renown. His first hit was as Falder in John Galsworthy's "Justice." It was followed by "Peter Ibbetsen" and Sem Benelli's "The Jest," in which John starred with his older brother Lionel Barrymore.
Then he appeared in Shakespeare's "Richard III" and in "Hamlet," probably his biggest success. He made his London debut at the famous Haymarket Theatre Feb. 20, 1925. On his return to America, President and Mrs. Coolidge attended the "Hamlet" first night in Washington and later entertained Barrymore at the White House.
With that peak of triumph Barrymore virtually abandoned the legitimate stage for motion pictures.
Hollywood capitalized on his tremendous box-office appeal and paired him with Lionel in such smashes as "Arsene Lupin" in 1931; "Rasputin" in which their sister Ethel Barrymore was paired with them; "Grand Hotel"; and "Dinner as Eight." He made the transition from the stage to the screen with ease.
Barrymore's last picture was "Playmates" with Kay Kyser.
Toward the end of his life, Barrymore declared bankruptcy. He turned to radio to make a financial comeback, appearing on Rudy Vallee's radio show. In poor health, his brother Lionel often filled in for him when he was too ill to perform.
On May 14, 1942, Barrymore and Vallee bantered in what would prove his final on-air performance.
"Yes," Barrymore read from his script, "this is my farewell appearance — I'm retiring."
"You mean," asked Vallee, "you are leaving acting flat?"
"Why not?" he said. "That's how it left me."
When it was suggested that the bit might not be in good taste given Barrymore's health, he called it "bunk" and "bosh."
"It's only a gag," he said. "Leave it in."