A Glenn Ford Biography
by Jerry Lawton
Gwyllyn Samuel Newton Ford’s father didn’t try to discourage him when he said he wanted to become an actor, though he did advise him to learn a more practical skill so that he’d have something to fall back on in lean times. Gwyllyn not only acquired a more practical skill, he acquired several – carpenter, plumber, electrician, roofer, window-installer. The Guinness Book of World Records says he even learned to drive a bus. He continued to practise these skills even after he changed his name to Glenn Ford and became one of the most popular, most sought after film actors of the 20th Century.
Ford was born in Québec City and went to school in Ste-Christine, which is in Portneuf County, to the west of the provincial capital. He took his stage name from his father’s birthplace, Glenford, a community you’d be challenged now to find on any map of Québec. The Fords were a family with a historic ancestry. His father, Newton, was a nephew of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald and the family was distantly related to the eighth president of the United States, Martin Van Buren.
When Glenn was eight the Fords moved across the continent to Santa Monica, California, joining tens of thousands of other Québeckers who migrated to the Los Angeles area. That’s where one now finds the largest community of Québeckers outside of Québec itself.
In his time Glenn Ford was one of Hollywood’s busiest actors. He almost never took time off between films because, as he explained, he loved the work. In the early 1960s he found himself making four films almost all at once, with overlapping schedules. Somehow he managed to keep his commitments to each and they turned out to be pretty good movies – The Four Men of the Apocalypse, Cimarron, Cry for Happy and Pocketful of Miracles.
Critics praised him. Movie-goers loved him. In 1958 they voted him number one male box-office attraction. And he starred in some classic movies – The Big Heat, The Blackboard Jungle, The Teahouse of the August Moon (pictured above), The Fastest Gun Alive, Gilda, Fate is the Hunter – yet he was never nominated for an Academy Award.
One of his last films, in 1978, brought him back to Canada, to Alberta, to play the role of Jonathon Kent, Clark Kent’s foster father in Superman.
When the United States entered World War Two, Ford was already an officer in the Coast Guard Reserve. He took leave from the movies and joined the Marine Corps., serving as a film technician and later as a radio producer. However, there’s a mysterious side to his military service, one you won’t find mentioned in most of the biographies about him.
In an interview with this website’s founder and Publisher, Ralph Lucas, Ford’s son Peter revealed that his father had worked with the resistance in occupied France, setting up safe houses for allied pilots who had been shot down. Glenn Ford appears to have said little or nothing about this publicly but it seems to be true for the French later presented him with the Legion of Honour, the ultimate award for service and sacrifice on behalf of France. He later played active roles in the wars in Korea and Vietnam. In Vietnam he admitted to having undertaken five secret missions, but when questioned about them would only say: “They asked me to go, and I went.”
One night in 1952, while making a film in Europe, he got very drunk and in a wild act of bravado joined the French Foreign Legion. The next day, when sober, he had to enlist the aid of the film’s producer to get him excused from his commitment to the legendary force and the oath he had sworn.
There’s another thing that is not readily apparent about him, given his public image: he was very much a ladies man, something that probably brought him a good deal of grief as well as pleasure for he was married and divorced four times and was involved with an array of women that reads like a short who’s who of Hollywood lovelies. There was Eleanor Powell, who became his first wife, and Rita Hayworth, with whom he made five movies, and Hope Lang, Jinx Falkenburg, Carmen Miranda, Judy Canova, Joan Crawford and Laraine Day as well as half a dozen others whose names are no longer familiar to movie audiences. Not linked romantically, Glenn Ford is pictured with Janet Leigh in a publicity still for the 1949 film, The Doctor and the Girl. After his death, when his son auctioned off some of his father’s personal effects, one item that went for an especially good price was a sofa on which Ford was said to have once got it on with Marilyn Monroe.
Half the 100 or so movies he starred in were Westerns, which he loved more than any other. Almost without exception, he played the part of a good man trying to survive in a threatening world. Westerns were a perfect setting for such roles.
He could recall vividly one day in particular, when they were shooting a scene in The Painted Desert, in Arizona. The director had set the camera up on a high knoll, wanting to get a long shot of Ford riding alone through that spectacular landscape. Once the order was given to roll film and he started along, he says he was suddenly overcome with an irrepressible feeling of exhilaration. Here I am, he thought, riding a magnificent horse, beneath a brilliant sky, surrounded by some of the most beautiful land in creation – and they’re paying me handsomely to be here. “Glenn Ford,” he said out loud, “you’ve got to be the luckiest man alive.”
In 2006, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, friends and admirers planned an elaborate party for him at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. But old age had finally caught up with him and he was unable to attend. In his place he sent a video, thanking the hundreds who were there for their love and unfailing friendship. He died a few weeks later.
All of the images used in this biography were scanned from originals in the Northernstars Collection. This biography is Copyright © 2013 by Jerry Lawton and may not be reproduced without written permission. Click here for more information about copyright. Jerry Lawton, a journalist, TV producer, director and writer, received more 40 national and international awards for excellence in a career that lasted 50 years.