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Monday, November 15, 2010

Daily TWiP - Actor Lionel Barrymore, who played Mr. Potter in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” dies today in 1954

Week in Preview

Welcome to Daily TWiP, your daily dose of all the holidays and history we couldn’t cram into The Week in Preview.

Every industry has its famous families, and Hollywood is no exception. From the silent film era through the Golden Age of cinema, no film seemed complete without a Barrymore. Lionel Barrymore, who is perhaps best known for his portrayal of villainous banker Mr. Potter in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” died today (Nov. 15) in 1954.

Barrymore was born April 28, 1878, to stage actors Georgiana Drew and Maurice Barrymore and began acting almost immediately, making his theatrical debut as an infant in his parents’ stage routine. As he grew, he acted with other family members, including his grandmother, Louisa Lane Drew, and his uncle, John Drew Jr., appearing with the latter on Broadway.

Barrymore made the transition to Hollywood in about 1911, the same year as another uncle, Sydney Drew. Along with younger siblings Ethel and John, Barrymore enjoyed considerable popularity on the silver screen, earning an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as alcoholic defense lawyer Stephen Ashe in 1931’s “A Free Soul.”

He also proved his abilities in other areas of the arts. Barrymore directed films (earning an Oscar nomination for his 1929 version of “Madame X”), composed music, and published works of both fiction and non-fiction, including a memoir. He was also a talented painter.

In spite of his diverse skills and the numerous films and stage productions in which he appeared, the role for which Barrymore has become best known is perhaps that of Mr. Potter in 1946’s “It’s A Wonderful Life.” His successful portrayal of Ebeneezer Scrooge in annual radio broadcasts of “A Christmas Carol” made him a shoo-in for the part. Although the film was not quite as successful at the box office as had been hoped, it has gone on to achieve iconic status thanks to rebroadcasts of the film during the Christmas season.

Barrymore played the poisonous baker from a wheelchair, not because the role called for it, but because he himself was wheelchair-bound due to a hip injury and severe arthritis. The wheelchair apparently posed no hindrance to his acting ability, as Mr. Potter occupies the number six slot on the American Film Institute’s list of the 50 Greatest Villains in the history of American cinema.

In terms of a more physical legacy, the twice-married Barrymore had two daughters, but sadly, neither lived through infancy. His most notable living relative is his grandniece Drew Barrymore, who has carried on the acting traditions begun by her granduncle and other relatives.

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- Teresa Santoski