William Farnum & Ben-Hur

The play Ben-Hur opened on Broadway in 1899. The first male lead was an actor named Edward Morgan and Messala was first portrayed by William S. Hart. Lew Wallace attended the opening night performance at the Broadway Theater and, like the rest of the audience, was pleased with the dramatic presentation of his work. An opening night critic penned: “Mr. Morgan looks well, and has a few stirring moments. Mr. Hart, as Messala, is as crudely violent and incoherent as ever.” This critic, while apparently underwhelmed with the lead performances, had complimentary things to say about other performers and the music.

William S. Hart went on the play Messala for hundreds of performances over many years. In his autobiography he wrote how honored he was when Lew Wallace asked for a meeting where he praised Hart’s interpretation of Messala. In fact, Hart was still performing the role of Messala on stage when he also played Messala in the first filmed version of the story in 1907. Mr. Morgan as Ben-Hur, on the other hand, was soon replaced. Morgan had been an actor of note in the 1890s. He was a handsome man who had some ability on stage, but for reasons unknown he left the production. Although he continued with a limited stage career for more than a decade, the role of Ben-Hur did not do for him what it did for others and Morgan slipped into obscurity.

Morgan was replaced by William Farnum, who, thanks to Ben-Hur, became one of the leading actors of his day and is still widely remembered. He was born on the 4th of July in 1876 in Boston, Massachusetts and came from a family of performers. He was the son of actor G.D. Farnum and singer Adela Le Gros. As stage performers they trained William and his two brothers, Dustin and Marshall, in the family business.

William Farnum as Judah Ben-Hur
Farnum made his stage debut at the age of ten in the play Julius Caesar with famed actor Edwin Booth as the title character. Farnum had a number of small roles in the 1890s, but his casting as Judah Ben-Hur in 1900 made him a star. His highly regarded portrayal of the Jewish prince led to a string of successful performances in other plays including the Broadway adaptation of Lew Wallace’s Prince of India, which had a limited run in 1906.

After his successes on Broadway, Farnum took his good looks and acting flair to the silent screen in 1914. He became one of the most successful of the silent screen stars with more than 50 films and even made the transition to talking pictures in the late 1920s. During the silent film era he became one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood earning $10,000 per week. He was injured in 1924 while filming the movie, The Man Who Fights Alone and this forced him to take smaller and less stressful roles. During the 1920s, he returned to the Broadway stage at different times with well received performances.

When his roles as a leading man became fewer and farther between, he deftly switched to playing a character actor, often in westerns, and continued his career for many years. In 1951, Farnum and Francis X. Bushman (who played Messala in the 1925 Ben-Hur movie epic) had cameo roles together in a movie called Hollywood Story, which had a storyline based on the murder of silent screen director William Desmond Taylor, who had been a friend to both men. Farnum died in Hollywood on June 5, 1953 and his pall bearers included Hollywood luminaries Cecil B. DeMille, Jesse Lasky, Frank Lloyd, Clarence Brown, Leo Carillo and Charles Coburn with a eulogy by Pat O’Brien. Gary Cooper, William Boyd (Hop-A-Long Cassidy), Noah Beery, Randolph Scott, and John Wayne were all directly influenced (and in some cases coached) by Farnum. While most of us remember Charlton Heston’s impressive performance, actors such as Francis X. Bushman, Ramon Navarro, William S. Hart, and William Farnum also became Hollywood legends because Lew Wallace gave life to Ben-Hur.

P.S. William Farnum was not the only child of G.D. Farnum and Adela Le Gros to make good in Hollywood. His brother, Marshall, became a highly regarded actor and director until his death in 1917. The third brother, Dustin, developed a Vaudeville act and became a leading man on Broadway. Like William, he followed his Broadway successes by becoming one of the leading actors of the silent film era. Perhaps, his most famous role was in the 1914 movie, The Squaw Man by Cecil B. DeMille. For his role in the movie, he was paid with cash and stock in the company formed to film The Squaw Man. He thought so little of this company that he gave the stock to his valet who became an overnight millionaire when the movie was released and became a huge hit. Farnum retired from acting about 1926 and died in 1929 from kidney failure. Beyond his acting career he is also remembered by movie trivia experts because in 1937 Lillian Hoffman of Los Angeles, named her son after her favorite movie actor, Dustin Farnum.

Internet Movie Data Base
Internet Broadway Data Base

The General Lew Wallace Study & Museum celebrates and renews belief in the power of the individual spirit to affect American history and culture.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.