We have a minor mystery on our hands! How old was DeMille leading man Elliott Dexter, really? Okay, so it’s pretty minor in the overall scheme of things but it illustrates how one small error can have a ripple effect.
First, a mini biography so you know the basics:
Elliott Dexter (1879-1941)
Country of Birth: USA
Birth Name: Adelbert Elliott Dexter
The basics: Elliott Dexter was the epitome of the long tall Texan. He was born in Galveston in 1879 to a German mother and an American father. From an early age, he dreamed of being an actor and made his debut in a supporting role in The Great Diamond Robbery. (The play opened in 1895 but Dexter likely took part in a later production.)
Dexter made his motion picture debut in 1915 and soon found success as director Cecil B. DeMille’s favored leading man. Dexter was one of the early advocates of underplaying a scene and he showed enormous range and versatility in his DeMille roles. At the height of his popularity, he was making $1000 a week, a tidy sum especially when you consider that he was working for Paramount, a notoriously thrifty outfit.
Dexter had been chosen for the lead of Male and Female, the film that put Gloria Swanson on the map, but he suffered from a nervous breakdown and a stroke in mid 1919. Dexter was off the screen for nearly a year and a half, even when he did return, he did not recover full mobility (DeMille even arranged to have Dexter’s limp be written in as a character trait) and took a European sabbatical. Well-liked and well-respected, his health allowed him to take larger roles in films like Adam’s Rib and the Universal remake of Stella Maris. (Dexter credited faith healing for his recovery.)
Dexter returned to Texas to perform in the play Through the Years (1926). While there, he stated his plans to create his own production company but that never came to pass. It is possible that his health was starting to deteriorate once more.
Dexter talked of a comeback but in 1930 he entered the Percy Williams Home, which cared for ill, disabled or indigent actors. He stayed there until his death in 1943.
You probably saw him in: Don’t Change Your Husband, A Romance of the Redwoods, Adam’s Rib
Silent style: Dexter’s performances are refreshingly modern and he thoroughly deserves rediscovery. What he was most noted for was his impressive versatility. He could be fierce, he could be staid, he could be funny, he could be serious. Unfortunately, his illnesses came at a time when Hollywood was turning away from the staid leading men of the ‘teens and looking for sexier romancers and energetic male flappers. While Dexter was popular and talented, he never regained his footing.
Sound transition: Dexter never made a talking picture. He had a fine, stage-trained voice but his health seems to have taken another turn for the worse in the mid-twenties and his last credited film appearance was in 1925.
What others said:
“One does not know him upon a single meeting; one does not even suspect him. He is careful to avoid arousing curiosity. I discovered, before I had been talking with him ten minutes, that I was talking about myself.”
Willis Goldbeck, Motion Picture Classic columnist
If you can only see him in one thing: A Romance of the Redwoods. I wasn’t crazy about the film but it really showcases Dexter in powerhouse mode. You can then compare his performance in Don’t Change Your Husband. Oops, that’s two things. (You can read my review of Redwoods and Husband.)
Dexter’s birthdate has long been erroneously listed as 1870. His headstone lists his birthdate as 1869. However, census records from 1880, his draft registration, his passport application and a sworn affidavit from his aunt all list his birth date as December 21, 1879. I think the 1870 date likely stems from a mistyped or misread document (0 and 9 are beside one another on the keyboard and a sloppily written 9 can often look like a 0) and Dexter was not famous enough to make a correction worth anyone’s while.
I first became interested in solving this mystery after noting Dexter’s youthful appearance in A Romance of the Redwoods and Castle for Two. If he really was pushing fifty, he could have made a fortune bottling whatever made him look so young. The 1879 birth date solves a good number of mysteries.
(Dexter’s passport application also lists his height as an even six feet and his eyes as brown, in case you were wondering.)
Dexter’s illness has not been fully explained. Most fan magazines of the day (notoriously unreliable) list him as having a nervous breakdown coupled with a stroke. A stroke is certainly likely as Dexter had a limp for several years after his illness. However, he seems to have recovered (or have been very carefully shot) by the time Adam’s Rib entered production.
This is pure speculation but it is possible that Dexter had a second nervous breakdown when his half-brother, Walter Carroll, passed away in 1930. In any case, I find it likely that Dexter was almost totally incapacitated for the final decade of his life. Cecil B. DeMille had a soft spot for actors he had worked with in the old days and always contrived to get them (or their spouses) work in his pictures if he could manage it (with the stipulation that they be sober). DeMille found supporting roles for such early film notables as Hobart Bosworth and I am certain he would have done the same for Dexter if the latter had been in any shape to work. He always spoke glowingly of Dexter’s talents.
Much of the confusion about Dexter’s biography appears to stem from the fact that he was an introverted gentleman who was not inclined to share details of his personal life. His mother had been married three times (widowed once, divorced once) and was a German to boot (there was enormous anti-German sentiment in the ‘teens and twenties). His father was reported to be a violent alcoholic. It is likely that the social climate of the time conditioned Dexter to hold his tongue regarding his background.
Further, the incorrect census data that has caused much of the trouble was taken during Dexter’s final hospitalization. If he had suffered from another nervous breakdown, it is possible that his age and personal facts were merely guessed at by hospital staff (the “about” box was checked regarding his date of birth). The fact that he was a Texan was one of the few correct details about his life that followed him everywhere. According to contemporary interviews, he never lost the accent.
Do you have more information on Mr. Dexter? Please let me know. I am quite fascinated with him.
Like what you’re reading? Please consider sponsoring me on Patreon. All patrons will get early previews of upcoming features, exclusive polls and other goodies.
Disclosure: Some links included in this post may be affiliate links to products sold by Amazon and as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.