Ned Sparks belongs to that legion of actors without whom most films could not be made. He was tremendously popular, a solid performer, reliable, liked by studio heads, directors and his fellow actors, yet always just shy of true star status. He fell into that large catch-all category generally called character actor. A category that exists not just to fill a stage, or sound stage, but also to ensure the stars can really shine because of the high quality of the talent around them. And it’s no secret that Ned Sparks knew his position in Hollywood.
Interviewed in 1935, at the height of his popularity, he said “I speedily realized that I was not destined to cause the ladies to swoon with romantic ecstasy as they watched me make love to one of their sex.” He went on, “I have also divined that comedy and not romantic acting was my especial forte.” Special indeed. He was renowned for his ability to crack a joke without cracking a smile. While thousands of comedians, on stage, in vaudeville, and in the movies were cracking jokes and laughing heartily at their own wit, he decided to try a deadpan approach. His on-screen persona became so famous he was able to get Lloyd’s of London to issue an insurance policy for $10,000, a substantial sum in the middle of The Dirty Thirties, against damage to his professional reputation should anyone ever get a photograph of him smiling. The policy was issued on April 18, 1935. He had come a long, long way from St. Thomas, Ontario, where he had spent part of his youth, or Guelph, where he was born and then lived after his family moved there from St. Thomas.
Ned Sparks began life as Edward A. Sparkman. His parents were well off enough to afford to send him to the University of Toronto and upon graduation he returned to Guelph to find work. But he wanted more. According to one account he devoted "an obsessive amount of time" reading about the lives of stage stars and studying dramatics. Another story claims that at 17 he ran away from a theological college because he had decided not to become a minister but wanted a career in showbiz. Whatever the story, the truth is Ned Sparks started out being a singer in Dawson Creek, Alaska. He once claimed he had even met the legendary "Lady Known as Lou." From Dawson Creek, where he sang in virtually all of the neighbourhood honky-tonks, he moved on to sing in such exotic places as Skagway and Juneu. Slowly he made his way south, Ketichikan, Wrangle, Butte and other frontier towns. All of this happened around 1898 during the hectic period known as the Klondike Gold Rush. As one newspaper put it, “he sang the cardiac ballads of the period, while husky, bearded miners wept into their beer and made the youngster the target of their gratitude by throwing money at him.” As Ned Sparks himself once said, “Why dig for gold, when I could sing for it?”
Slowly Ned Sparks worked his way south to Seattle where he performed for the People’s Theatre, but in 1907 he left for New York. He appeared as a comedian with Broadway names of the era like Alice Brady, Madge Kennedy, Rose Stahl, Effie Shannon, George Nash, and William Collier, Sr. The audience loved him, and so did the critics. People found his delivery genuinely funny from the time he first pulled his unusual deadpan portrayal of a character on the opening night of the play Over Night in 1911. Critics and columnists alike lauded his performances and some even lamented, "Why don’t we see Sparks in bigger roles, and more of them?"
They didn’t have long to wait. He made his first movie in 1915 and found a whole new level of popularity. He also found a growing interest in the plight of his fellow actors. He became one of the founding members of the Actors Equity Association which ultimately led its members into a strike. The year was 1919 and while to strike produced the results he had hoped for, the first guarantee of bargaining rights, it also meant that Ned Sparks, one of the premier performers on the Great White Way, was blackballed. He shared this experience with another Northernstar, Marie Dressler. Like Dressler, he found that if there was no work in New York, there were plenty of people wanting to work with him in Hollywood. After 1920, his movie career really began in earnest. And, within a decade when many silent stars were struggling to keep their careers alive with the advent of sound, Ned Sparks’ marvelous voice virtually guaranteed him role after role. But it was more than his voice.
By time the "talkies" rolled around, Ned Sparks was well on his way to, if not stardom, a special place at the top of his craft as one of the best character actors in the business. How do we know, from this vantage point almost 70 years later? A quick review of just some of his work helps explain his impact on Hollywood. First of all he made close to 100 films, including 1927’s A Small Bachelor, which starred Canadian Barbara Kent. He was hired by some of the best directors including Mervyn LeRoy in Gold Diggers of 1933 and to Raoul Walsh in Going Hollywood, which costarred Bing Crosby, Fifi D’Orsay and Marion Davies, one of three films he would make with Crosby in addition to the many times they worked together in radio. He worked with Preston Sturges who directed him in 1934’s Imitation of Life. His deadpan comedic style was so well-known that when Disney was making the 1935 short animated film, Broken Toys, the Jack-in-the-Box character is a caricature of Ned Sparks. A few years later when Disney made Mother Goose Goes Hollywood in 1938, Mother Goose takes a trip through her famous rhymes with Hollywood stars taking the place of the storybook characters. Katharine Hepburn, for example, was drawn as Little Bo Peep. Ned Sparks, and his ever-present cigar, was drawn as The Jester. You can also measure his career by the people he shared the sound stage with. For example, Claudette Colbert in Imitation of Life, Joel McCrea in Kept Husbands. Then there was fellow Canadian Ruby Keeler in her film debut 42nd Street. Spencer Tracy in Marie Galante and Jimmy Stewart, who personally persuaded Ned Sparks to take a role in what would become his last film, 1947’s Magic Town. The child star Bobby Breen was another Canadian-born actor Ned Sparks worked with. They appeared together in a well made bit of fluff called Hawaii Calls in 1938.
Some 17 years after Ned Sparks died of an intestinal blockage, Bing Crosby was in hospital himself recovering from lung surgery. He was working on an autobiography and wrote this about his former costar: "You know, he always played an acerbic character on the screen – dyspeptic, somewhat disagreeable people – but in real life he had a heart as big as the Hollywood Bowl, and a great sense of humour." The other two films they appeared in together were Too Much Harmony and 1939’s The Star Maker.
It is interesting to note how well Ned Sparks did at a time when the movies were run by Hollywood and Hollywood had a real star system. Ned Sparks never signed with a major studio, preferring to shift from project to project and almost plum-pick some of the best character roles around. The downside of course is that without a major studio to push his career he never achieved the full star status he may have attained and he never had the guaranteed income some of the largest stars enjoyed.
Whatever status he attained, he never forgot this early life and visited the town where he grew up, St. Thomas, at least once a year throughout his life. Which is a lot more than can be said for other Canadian-born stars who once they "made it" in Hollywood, turned their back on Canada.
Also see: Ned Sparks’ Filmography
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All of the photos used in this biography were scanned from originals in the Northernstars Collection.