Updated: Jan 30
Glenn Ford was once voted the number one American movie star, despite the fact he was Canadian. He served in two wars a generation apart. He was a skilled mountain climber, and a master chef who studied at Le Cordon Bleu. He rolled his own cigars, made his own wine, grew his own vegetables, and even raised chickens on his Beverly Hills estate. He explained the rise and fall of his Beverly Hills poultry ranch to author and filmmaker Genevieve Davis.
“I had the most marvelous chickens in the world and I had to get rid of them. Beverly Hills, darling. We don’t raise chickens in Beverly Hills. I got away with it for about four months. I had fresh eggs for a while and I’d give the extras to Jimmy Stewart or Dinah Shore.”
Gwyllyn Samuel Newton "Glenn" Ford was born in Sainte-Christine-d’ Auvergne, Quebec in 1916. Four years later, his family moved to Venice, California. He held dual citizenship in Canada and the United States. He was a great-nephew of Canada’s first Prime Minister and somehow related to U. S. President Martin Van Buren.
After honing his craft in local theatre, Ford was signed by Columbia Pictures in 1939. The studio groomed him for stardom with steady work in one film after another. His breakout role came in 1941 in the film So Ends Our Night. Ford wowed audiences with his portrayal of a 19-year old German, born of a Jewish mother and Aryan father. He is racked with confusion and torn loyalties and on the run in Nazi-occupied Europe. Ford's performance even left a lasting impression on the President of the United States. Franklin Roosevelt was so taken by the film, he invited Glenn Ford to his birthday party at the White House. Glenn Ford was so taken by his meeting with FDR that he reportedly registered as a Democrat the moment he returned to Los Angeles. He would switch to the Republican Party decades later to support his longtime friend Ronald Reagan.
"I was so impressed when I met Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, I was thrilled when I got back to Los Angeles and found a beautiful photograph personally autographed to me. It always held a place of high honor in my home."
Many of Glenn Ford’s films in the early days of his career were war movies and in 1942, Glenn Ford left acting for the real thing. Like many Americans at the time, Ford put his career on hold to enter World War II. He served in the Marines for three years. He would later call those three years the best years of his life.
In a 1985 French television interview, Glenn Ford reflected on his career and his life with that bit of shyness and restraint mixed with his down-to-earth personality that made him a star.
“After the war, Bill Holden, Tyrone Power and myself were told everyone had forgotten about us. Fortunately, the second film I made when I came back was Gilda and somehow that took off. Rita (Hayworth) became my very close friend and my neighbor for many years.”
The hot chemistry between Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth burned up the screen and made Gilda a super hit in 1946. It was the must-see movie for returning GIs and their dates. It not only put Ford’s film career back on track, it put him on the A-list of bankable stars.
“We didn’t know how the picture was going to end. They gave us the script the night before we shot the scene the next day and they shot the picture in sequence, so the first scene you see in Gilda, that was the first day’s work. I adored Rita and I adored Gilda, so what you see on screen is real.”
Gilda was just the first in a string of hit movies for Glenn Ford throughout the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. He won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in 1961 for playing a superstitious gangster in Pocketful of Miracles.
Audiences didn’t always know what kind of Glenn Ford character they would see. He could play everything from the heroic leading man to the despicable villain, but moviegoers always knew they would see a great performance.
In 1958, the Canadian-born actor was voted “The #1 Box Office Star in America” and that same year he entered the U.S. Naval Reserve as a public affairs officer. He reached the rank of Captain after a tour of duty in Vietnam in 1967.
“The people, the public made me popular. I think because I never play anyone but myself. I can’t do the kind of acting that certain people can do, you know who I’m talking about, and I can only play myself. I can’t put myself into a character like let’s say Peter Ustinov or Laurence Olivier. I can’t do that, so I play myself. That’s why I like to do Westerns more than anything else, because I raise horses and have ranches so I’m really getting paid for what I do every day.”
In the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, Glenn Ford widened his star appeal on television and into the genres of Science Fiction and Horror. One of those films, Happy Birthday to Me (1981) is now a cult classic among slasher film fans.
In a career that spanned seven decades and more than 200 roles, Glenn Ford was never awarded an Oscar, but he always won the hearts of his audiences. They saw Glenn Ford make it real and believable on the silver screen, because that’s exactly what he was…real and believable.
“I’ve never worked with anybody I didn’t like or didn’t respect. I don’t demand anything from anybody. If they do their job, that’s fine. I can’t think of anyone I haven’t been able to get along with. None.”