Sidney Toler had fifty films under his belt before he first played Charlie Chan for Fox. He also had much success on Broadway, where he not only appeared on the stage, he wrote for it. He was an accomplished baritone opera singer as well.
He was born April 28, 1874, in Warrensburg, Missouri, the son of a horse breeder, and graduated from Kansas University. His first professional stage experience was in Kansas City. A year’s work with a stock company in Brooklyn preceeded his first appearance on Broadway in 1903. For the following decade, his own touring companies kept him busy, and he was also busy writing plays. Two of them, “Golden Days,” and “The Exile,” appeared on Broadway. By the 1920’s, Toler was a star of the New York stage, and in 1930 he went to Hollywood.
Toler’s pre-Chan Hollywood output included “Blonde Venus” (1932), with Cary Grant and Marlene Dietrich, “Spitfire” (1934), with Kate Hepburn, and he appeared in Laurel and Hardy’s “Our Relations” (1936). (Click here for a filmography.)
When Warner Oland died in 1938, Fox paired Toler with “#2 son” Victor Sen Yung, and the series carried on, the first offering being “Charlie Chan in Honolulu.” Both Noah Beery and Leo Carrillo had screen-tested to replace Oland, but Toler won the role.
Toler was so ill during the making of his last Chan films that he could barely walk. On Wednesday, February 12, 1947, he died at home in Hollywood, of intestinal cancer. He is buried in Wichita, KS.