|Was||Film director Actor Film actor|
|From||United States of America|
|Type||Film, TV, Stage & Radio|
|Birth||22 September 1892, Russia|
|Death||21 July 1975, Hollywood, Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, USA (aged 82 years)|
Billy West (September 22, 1892 – July 21, 1975) was an American film actor, producer, and director active during the silent film era. He is best remembered as a successful imitator of Charlie Chaplin's "Tramp" character.
Early life and education
Billy West was born as Roy William Weissberg (or Weisberg) on September 22, 1892, in Russia to a Jewish family. When he was young, he and the family moved to London, United Kingdom, to escape anti-Semitic hostility. In 1896, when he was 4, they emigrated to the United States, settling in Chicago, Illinois.
According to the Motion Picture Studio Directory (1919 and 1921), West was educated in public schools in Chicago. After performing in vaudeville shows, he moved to Los Angeles, California in his early 20s to pursue an acting career.
West made his vaudeville debut as "William B. West" in an act called "The Boy Judge" at the age of seventeen. He later worked onstage as a chalk cartoonist, a popular attraction of the time.
When the Charlie Chaplin phenomenon hit, West pasted on a small mustache and put on a battered derby and called his new act, "Is He Charlie Chaplin?" His imitation act was successful with the audiences.
During the "Chaplin Craze" of the 1910s, there were replicates of Chaplin's "Tramp" character in England, Japan, and Russia. In the United States, it was not uncommon for theater owners to hold Charlie Chaplin look-alike contests, attracting contestants of all ages (and both sexes).
With his Chaplin act, West caught the attention of the executives of Chicago's Unicorn Film Sales Corporation. In December 1916, they released three shorts starring West: His Married Life, Bombs and Boarders, and His Waiting Career. Ethelyn Gibson was his co-star in the first two films.
When Unicorn folded, the Belmont Company picked up the assets and re-released the films before they too were forced out of business. The next group to take a chance on West was the Caws Comedy Corporation (later dubbed King-Bee), formed by Samuel Cummins, Charles “Feature” Abrams, Arthur Werner, and Nat H. Spritzer. West was then signed to a five-year contract for $25,000 a year.
In 1917, movie theaters could not get enough Chaplin comedies, and an enterprising producer hired West, who had been doing comic pantomimes on the vaudeville stage, to make imitation-Chaplin subjects to meet the demand. Many of the films were direct remakes of Chaplin's 1914 Keystones. For example, The Property Man (1914) became Back Stage (1917); Dough and Dynamite (1914) became Dough Nuts (1917); and Caught in a Cabaret (1914) was repackaged as The Hero (1917).
West excelled at imitating Chaplin. He reportedly slept in curlers to give his black hair that tousled, unkempt look—a trademark of Chaplin. Reportedly, Chaplin himself saw the Billy West company filming on a Hollywood street once, and told West, "You're a damned good imitator." Some West comedies were later re-released on the home-movie market as "Charlie Chaplin" pictures.
West was also lucky to be surrounded by a talented company of comedy actors, including Oliver Hardy, who reproduced the villainy of Eric Campbell. Others in the cast included Bud Ross, Ethel Marie Burton, Leatrice Joy (in the Edna Purvianceingenue role), and Leo White. Leo White was actually an authentic graduate of Chaplin's Essanay company.
In the spring of 1917, the Billy West series began production at the old Vim studios in Jacksonville, Florida; a few months later they moved to the former Nestor studios in Bayonne, New Jersey. The unit finally settled in Hollywood. King-Bee went out of business in June of 1918, and West's contract was bought up by the new Bull's-Eye Film Corporation.
In 1922, West became his own producer and dropped the Chaplin imitation in favor of a dapper, straw-hatted, pencil-mustached character. Moving behind the cameras in 1925, West produced a brief series of slapstick comedies co-starring the fat-and-skinny team of Oliver "Babe" Hardy and Bobby Ray, and a series of "Winnie Winkle" comedies with Ethelyn Gibson.
West took small roles in sound films, first for small independent companies and later for Columbia Pictures. He became the manager of the Columbia Grill restaurant.
Over the years, West produced somewhere around 50 shorts, most notable being: Cagey Love (1925), A Day's Vacation (1925), Oh! Winnie Behave (1926), Winnie's Vacation (1927), Winnie Wakes Up (1927), The Villain (1927), Winning Winnie(1927), and Winnie's Winning Ways (1928).
West was married to actress and her frequent co-star Ethelyn Gibson from 1919 until the divorce in 1928.
West died on July 21, 1975, of a heart attack while leaving the Hollywood Park racetrack in Hollywood, California. He was 82.
He is buried at Forrest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles.
- Apartment No. 13 (1912)
- Back Stage (1917)
- The Hero (1917)
- Dough Nuts (1917)
- Cupid's Rival (1917)
- The Villain (1917)
- The Millionaire (1917)
- The Goat (1917)
- The Fly Cop (1917)
- The Chief Cook (1917)
- The Candy Kid (1917)
- The Hobo (1917)
- The Pest (1917)
- The Band Master (1917)
- The Slave (1917)
- The Stranger (1918)
- Bright and Early (1918)
- The Rogue (1918)
- His Day Out (1918)
- The Orderly (1918)
- The Scholar (1918)
- The Messenger (1918)
- The Handy Man (1918)
- The Straight and Narrow (1918)
- Playmates (1918)
- Beauties in Distress (1918)
- Stick Around (1925 - produced)
- Hey, Taxi! (1925 - produced)
- Rivals (1925)
- Hop to It! (1925 - produced)
- They All Fall (1925 - produced)
- The Joke's on You (1925)
- Hard Boiled Yeggs (1926)
- Thrilling Youth (1926)
- Ex-Lady (1933)
- Jimmy the Gent (1934)
- The Whole Town's Talking (1935)