A New Sybil's "WHO'Z DAT?"... HUGH HERBERT (August 10, 1884 – March 12, 1952)…

Collage Hugh Herbert.jpg

Darlings! Mummy has made a decision! After reading dozens of posts and having hundreds of conversations with well-meaning folks who just don't know about the great CHARACTER actors who gave films the depth and genius that surrounded and supported the so-called "stars", I am going to post a regular special entry called SYBIL'S "WHO'Z DAT??"....there'll be photos and a mini-bio, and the next time you see one of those familiar, fabulous faces that you just "can't quite place".......well, maybe these posts will help. Some of these actors worked more, had longer and broader careers, and ended up happier, more loved, and even wealthier than the "stars" that the public "worships"......I think there may be a metaphor in that! What do you think???.... well, our next guest has a face that’s instantly familiar, but his voice and his laugh (“whoo-Whoo!”) are even more so! And those hands!!

It’s Hugh Herbert (August 10, 1884 – March 12, 1952) . He was a motion picture comedian who began his career in vaudeville, and additionally wrote more than 150 plays and sketches. Born in Binghamton, NY, Hugh was the middle child of John Herbert and the former Mary Gallagher who had both come over to the States from Scotland sometime before their three children were born. The family soon moved to Brooklyn where they are listed on the 1905 census. Eldest son James was two years Hugh’s senior and the youngest brother, Thomas, came three years after Hugh. (Tom later became an actor himself and actually appeared alongside Hugh in a few films.) On being the middle child, Hugh told Katherine Hartley of Photoplay, “They considered drowning me, but Pop said, ‘Ah, we might as well keep it. It might be good for laughing purposes.’” In the same 1936 interview, he added: “So you see, I just sort of slipped in between. Nobody ever paid any attention to me. That’s why I guess, as I grew older, I thought I’d like to be an actor”. One of Herbert’s first jobs was as an usher in Proctor’s Theatre in Manhattan, and Hugh was soon getting his feet wet in some very small amateur productions (Hugh claimed his first stage credit came in a bit role in Roaring Dick and Company starring Maurice Barrymore, father of Ethel, Lionel and John. Then came his often repeated story of becoming a “talker” for the silent screen. Hugh was paid $15 a week to stand behind a silent movie screen for 18-20 shows per day and give voice to the silent characters for the audience. It was while working as a "talker" that Hugh was discovered by Gordon & North who starred him in the playlet The Son of Solomon, the first of many Jewish roles Herbert played on vaudeville. “I have found it almost impossible to prove to people that I am not Hebrew,” Hugh said in 1917 and, touching upon the subject again years later in 1936, “It’s a good religion and were I born a Jew I certainly wouldn’t deny being one.” Herbert, described by the New York Clipper in 1919 as, “easily the best Jew character man in vaudeville,” always described himself as Scotch-Irish and was eventually married by a Priest--to a Jewish girl, Rose Epstein, in 1917 whom he met backstage as a visitor to one of his plays. Within a short time, she joined him onstage in his acting troupe and changed her name to Anita Pam starring along side him in the 1920s in pieces such as Mind Your Business, in which she played a stenographer, Home Comforts, described as a domestic farce, and as leading player in The Cat, a piece Hugh that wrote especially for her. 

The advent of talking pictures brought stage-trained actors from Broadway, the regional theatres, and Vaudeville circuits to Hollywood, and Hugh Herbert soon became a popular movie comedian. Hugh already knew the popular comedy pair Wheeler and Woolsey from vaudeville, and his earliest movies, like Wheeler & Woolsey’s 1930 feature HOOK, LINE, AND SINKER cast him in generic comedy roles that could have been taken by any comedian, but he developed his own unique screen personality, complete with a silly giggle. His screen character was usually absent-minded and flustered. When he appeared in 1930’s Hook, Line and Sinker and he credits 1933’s wild DIPLOMANIACS as being where his famed cry of excitement originated. He would flutter his fingers together and talk to himself, repeating the same phrases: "hoo-hoo-hoo, wonderful, wonderful, hoo hoo hoo!". The new character caught on quickly. As Hugh Herbert became a screen personality during the 1930s it’s also interesting to note the versatility shown in other roles.

He’s a toned-down version of his later self alongside Edna May Oliver in LAUGH AND GET RICH (1931) and delivers a combination of the madcap along with more reflective moments in TRAVELING HUSBANDS (1931), where Hugh's Hymie Schwartz probably also offers a hint of his earlier vaudeville work. In SHE HAD TO SAY YES (1933), a pre-Code stunner starring Loretta Young that features a somewhat atypical (sleazy) Hugh, he made another well-positioned fan in Warner Brothers head of production Darryl F. Zanuck. Warner Brothers signed Hugh to a five-year contract and it was his next role, in that same year’s GOODBYE AGAIN (1933) that established him in the public’s mind as a great supporting player. He became a regularly featured character in Warner Brothers films of the 1930s, including FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933), BUREAU OF MISSING PERSONS (1933), FOG OVER FRISCO (1934), FASHIONS OF 1934, and GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935, WE’RE IN THE MONEY (1935), COLLEEN (1936), as well as the film adaptation of Shakespeare’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (1935). Herbert continued in supporting roles at Warner Brothers until February 1938 when the company elevated him to star status. To give an idea of the distinction of this promotion, it was reported at this time that Warner Brothers had 27 star players, including Hugh, and 77 featured players under contract. Unfortunately, the first starring role for Hugh Herbert was in SH! THE OCTOPUS (1937), an enjoyable comedy-mystery featuring an exceptional unmasking of the culprit. The film was a success but couldn’t be considered a Hollywood blockbuster. Off-screen Hugh kept busy with a trio of roles around Studio City, where he lived. He was Mayor, President of the Chamber of Commerce, and Chief Columnist of the Studio City News, from which his articles were bylined, “The Mayor, Hugh Herbert, Says.”

Hugh remained very active on-screen throughout the next decade as well, first signing a five year starring contract with Universal in 1940 where, as at Warners, he played supporting roles in major films, and leading roles in minor ones. One of his best-received performances from this period is in the Olsen and Johnson comedy HELLZAPOPPIN’ (1941) in which he plays a nutty detective. He later moved to Columbia in 1944. He continued to star in short-subject comedies for the remainder of his life. He was often caricatured in Warner’s Looney Tunes shorts of the 1930s/40s, such as The Hardship of Miles Standish and Speaking of the Weather. One of the minor characters in the Terrytoons short The Talking Magpies (1946) is also a recognizably Hugh Herbertesque bird. Herbert’s onscreen persona became so vivid that he had many imitators over the years in other film comedies and at other studios. And so many imitators (including Curly Howard of The Three Stooges, Etta Candy in the Wonder Woman comic book series, and the cartoon icon Daffy Duck) copied the catchphrase as "woo woo" that Herbert himself began to use "woo woo" rather than "hoo hoo" in the 1940s. In addition to his acting, Herbert also wrote for six films, co-writing the screenplays for the films LIGHTS OF NEW YORK (1928) and SECOND WIFE (1930) and contributing to THE GREAT GABBO (1929), among others. He acted in a few films co-written by the much more prolific (but unrelated) screenwriter F. Hugh Herbert: FASHIONS OF 1934, WE’RE IN THE MONEY (1935), and COLLEEN (1936).

(Much confusion has surrounded the careers of Austrian-born writer F. Hugh Herbert and Binghamton-born actor-writer Hugh F. Herbert especially since their professional paths crossed in show business.) Herbert continued working right up until the time of his death, appearing in movies and even managing a few early television appearances, including making a surprise appearance (in drag) on a live Spike Jones show in 1951. Unfortunately most of the Hugh Herbert news during the latter part of his life centered around his mostly amicable divorce from Rose in 1949 after 31 years of marriage. Rose said that after years in Hollywood, Hugh had changed. She was quoted as saying that the light-hearted, carefree and amusing man she had married was often preoccupied and melancholy. He often drove for hours alone at night, after leaving dinner parties without even a good-night to his friends. Rose returned to her family home in Texas. Rose’s lawyer told her she could get more out of Hugh if she returned to California to file for her divorce, but she remained in Texas and was quite satisfied with being awarded $10,000 cash to buy a house and $300 a week thereafter for support. Hugh continued working. One night, after complaining that he felt ill, he called his doctor and personal friend, Dr. Victor Kovner, to his house. Kovner arrived but could not save Hugh Herbert from the heart attack that claimed his life that night, March 12, 1952. The writer, performer, and movie star was 67 years old. He willed most of his $200,000 estate to the motion picture relief fund. Rose Epstein Herbert aka Anita Pam died in 1973. They had no children. Hugh Herbert was once quoted as saying, “The best business in the world is to make people laugh. Plenty of laughter means good health. Then people are usually happy when they are laughing, and what is better than to make people happy?”. Hugh Herbert has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

[Want to read other fun and funny stories here on SybilSez.com? Just enter any topic that pops into your head in the "search" window on the upper right! Who knows what might come up?...and feel free to share them with your friends!]