Best known for his Actor in a Supporting Role Academy Awards nominated for Laura (1944) and The Razor’s Edge (1946)
National Red Cross Pageant
Polly With A Past
Let Not Man Put Asunder
The Heart of a Siren
The Still Alarm
The Dark Corner
Mr. Belvedere Goes to College
For Heaven’s Sake
Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell
Belles on Their Toes
Stars and Stripes Forever
The Man Who Never Was
Boy on a Dolphin
The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker
Holiday for Lovers
Satan Never Sleeps
Clifton Webb was born Webb Parmelee Hollenbeck in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was the only child of Jacob Grant Hollenbeck (1867 – May 2, 1939), the ticket-clerk son of a grocer from an Indiana farming family, and his wife, the former Mabel A. Parmelee (Parmalee or Parmallee; March 24, 1869 – October 17, 1960).
In 1892, Webb’s mother, now called “Mabelle”, moved to New York City with her beloved “little Webb”, as she called him for the remainder of her life. She dismissed questions about her husband, Jacob, who like her father, worked for the Indianapolis-St. Louis Railroad, by saying, “We never speak of him. He didn’t care for the theatre.” The couple apparently divorced, since by 1900, Mabelle was married to Green B. Raum, Jr.
By the age of 19, using the name Clifton Webb, he had become a professional ballroom dancer, often partnering “exceedingly decorative” star dancer Bonnie Glass (she eventually replaced him with Rudolph Valentino), and performed in about two dozen operettas before debuting on Broadway as Bosco in The Purple Road, which opened at the Liberty Theatre on April 7, 1913.
Webb’s mainstay was the Broadway theatre. Between 1913 and 1947, the tall and slender performer who sang in a clear, gentle tenor, appeared in 23 Broadway shows, starting with major supporting roles and quickly progressing to leads.
Webb appeared with other Broadway stars in National Red Cross Pageant (1917), a 50-minute film of a stage production held to benefit the American Red Cross.
In 1925, Webb appeared on stage in a dance act with vaudeville star and silent film actress Mary Hay. Later that year, when her husband, Tol’able David star Richard Barthelmess and she decided to produce and star in New Toys, they chose Webb to be second lead. The film proved to be financially successful, but 19 more years passed before Webb appeared in another feature film.
Webb was in his mid-fifties when actor/director Otto Preminger chose him over the objections of 20th Century Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck to play the elegant but evil radio columnist Waldo Lydecker, who is obsessed with Gene Tierney‘s character in the 1944 film noir Laura. Zanuck reportedly found Webb too effeminate as a person and an actor; he wanted Laird Cregar to play the role but Cregar by then was well established as an on-screen villain and Preminger wanted someone who would surprise the audience.
Webb’s performance won him wide acclaim, and he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Despite Zanuck’s original objection, Webb was signed to a long-term contract with Fox. He worked for them solely for the rest of his career.
His first film under it was The Dark Corner (1946), a film noir directed by Henry Hathaway where he gave a version of his Laura performance. He was then reunited with Tierney in another highly praised role as the elitist Elliott Templeton in The Razor’s Edge (1946). He received another Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
Webb was promoted to star in Sitting Pretty, playing Mr. Belvedere, a snide, know-it-all babysitter. It was a huge hit and Webb received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
Fox promptly put Webb in a sequel, Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949) where Belvedere has to complete his college degree and acts as matchmaker. It was another box office success.
In the 1950 film Cheaper by the Dozen, Webb and Myrna Loy played Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, real-life efficiency experts of the 1910s and 1920s, and the parents of 12 children. It resulted in Webb’s third hit in a row and led to exhibitors voting him the seventh biggest star in the US.
Less popular was For Heaven’s Sake (1950) where Webb played an angel trying to help a couple on earth. He made Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell (1951), with Belvedere causing trouble in an old person’s home, but the film was not as popular as the first two, resulting in the end of the series.
Webb played a father trying to stop daughter Anne Francis’ marriage in Elopement (1952), a minor hit. He made a brief appearance in Belles on Their Toes (1952), a sequel to Cheaper by the Dozen, which covered the family’s life after the death of the father.
Webb then starred as college professor Thornton Sayre, who in his younger days was known as silent-film idol Bruce “Dreamboat” Blair. Now a distinguished academic who wants no part of his past fame, he sets out to stop the showing of his old films on television in 1952’s Dreamboat, which concludes with Webb’s alter ego Sayre watching himself star in Sitting Pretty.
Also in 1952, he starred in the Technicolor film biography of bandmaster John Philip Sousa, Stars and Stripes Forever. He was a Belvedere-like scoutmaster in Mister Scoutmaster (1953).
In 1953, Webb had his most dramatic role as the doomed but brave husband of unfaithful Barbara Stanwyck in Titanic. Writer Walter Reisch says this movie was created in part as a vehicle for Webb by Fox, who wanted to push Webb into more serious roles.
The following year he played the (fictional) novelist John Frederick Shadwell in Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), romancing Dorothy McGuire. It was a huge hit. He was top billed as a company owner in Woman’s World (1954), a corporate drama.
The 1956 British film The Man Who Never Was had Webb playing the part of Royal Navy Lt. Cmdr. Ewen Montagu in the true story of Operation Mincemeat, the elaborate plan to deceive the Axis powers about the Allied invasion of Sicily during World War II. In 1957’s Boy on a Dolphin, second-billed to Alan Ladd, with third-billed Sophia Loren, he portrayed a wealthy sophisticate who enjoyed collecting illegally obtained Greek antiquities. In a nod to his own identity, the character’s name was Victor Parmalee.
He starred in The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker (1959), a Cheaper By the Dozen comedy as a man with two families, and Holiday for Lovers (1959), a family comedy set in South America. Neither was particularly successful. Fox were developing Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) as a vehicle for Webb but then he fell ill and was unable to do it; James Mason took the part.
Webb’s final film role was an initially sarcastic, but ultimately self-sacrificing Catholic priest in Leo McCarey’s Satan Never Sleeps. The film, which was set in China, showed the victory of Mao Tse-tung’s armies in the Chinese Civil War, which ended with his ascension to power in 1949, but was actually filmed in Britain during the summer of 1961, using sets from the 1958 film The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, which had the same setting.
Webb never married and had no children. He lived with his mother until her death at age 91 in 1960.
Because of health problems, Webb spent the last five years of his life as a recluse at his home in Beverly Hills, California, eventually dying of a heart attack at the age of 76. He is interred at Abbey of the Psalms in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, alongside his mother.