Eddie made his debut at the age of seven and by 1917, he was heading up a troupe under the name "Buster Quillan and Pals," with his brothers Thomas (aka Buster), John and Joe and sister Marie (later joined by four more sisters Helen, Margaret "Peggy", Isabell(a) and Roseanne "Rosebud" for a total of nine Quillan children)
During World War I, in 1917, Joseph wrote a vaudeville skit called The Rising Generation with the Quillans as part of this act, singing, dancing, telling jokes, and playing musical instruments. Their father travelled with the boys, usually during the summer months, and managed the act.
Eddie also described a typical vaudeville day: "I would get up around 11:00 a.m., and we would do the show at 2:00 p.m. The we had another evening show, usually two, so that made three performances a day. We would finish about 11:00 p.m., and then, after we got our makeup off, would go to a restaurant to eat. So it was 1:00 a.m. or so before we went to bed."
Occasionally the family was on the road while school was in session. During this times the Quillan children received their education through the New York Professional Children's School, which was by correspondence.
By the time he was in his teens, Quillan was a consummate performer, adept at singing, dancing, and acting. In addition he played saxophone and appeared as a stand-up comic.
Growing up Eddie was a fan of motion pictures but nothing more. His mother is actually credited with planting the idea in his head. When performing in Chicago the children had their individual portraits taken. When his mother, Sarah, looked at the publicity photos, she expressed the idea that he ought to be in pictures, which made him consider the possibility.
While watching the film tests, Eddie and his brothers were horrified and thinking the result terrible walked out. However, when Sennett watched the screen test, he was so impressed with Eddie that he went so far as hiring a private detective to find him. At the time the family was touring throughout California as part of the Orpheum Circuit. Sennett signed him to a contract in 1922 and his first film, Up and At 'Em.
At first, Sennett tried to turn Quillan into a new Harry Langdon, so in Love Sundae Quillan played a rail-thin, pasty-faced comedian who looked every bit his age, played Buddy Jones, a soda jerk infatuated with Alice. Quillan's father, who handled his son's business affairs played hardball with Sennett and got Eddie raised from a $65 tot a $ 175/week contract. Quillan would use the character name Buddy Jones several more times.
Eventually the slight, pop-eyed, ever-grinning Quillan established himself in breezy "collegiate" roles.
The next conflict led to Eddie breaking his contract with
Sennett. The situation involved the script for one of Eddie's two-reel comedies,
Pass the Dumplings (1926). When Eddie received the outline of the story, there
was something he thought was a bit risqué and out of character for his comedic
role. Eddie told Sennett he refused to play the scene the way it was written.
Sennett wouldn't budge and ordered Eddie to do the scene. Eddie did but it would
be the last picture with Sennett.
Quillan made his first major feature-film appearance when he co-starred in Cecil
B. DeMille's The Godless Girl (1929).
The film is notable because it featured most of he Quillan clan as unwilling
participants in a hillbilly feud. His sister Marie appeared opposite her brother
in the film. This was the last time Eddie would work professionally with his
mother and father.
The film led to a contract at Pathé studios, where Quillan starred in such ebullient vehicles as The Sophomore (1929, his all-talkie debut), Noisy Neighbors (1929) , Night Work (1930), Big Money (1930), and The Tip-Off (1931).
The role for which Eddie is probably best known is Tommy Elison, the most
endearing and tragic character of the ill-fated crew, in the movie,
Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). The film starred
Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, and Franchot Tone.
He remained a favorite in large and small roles throughout the 1930s and 1940s; he faltered only when he was miscast as master sleuth Ellery Queen in The Mandarin Mystery (1937). Eddie was panned by critics who felt casting him was a fatal mistake. Although the film contained the original structure of the book, The Chinese Orange Mystery, the general consensus of film reviewers was that the script played for laughs, and childish acting by Quillan and ineffective direction by Ralph Staub bought the first series of Ellery Queen films to a halt. A heavily edited version for television was subsequently developed but experienced no more success than the film.
Among Quillan's other more memorable credits as a supporting actor were Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and Abbott and Costello's It Ain't Hay (1943).
Discouraged with playing simple roles such as bellhops, soda jerks, et al., he continued on in "B" pictures until Sensation Hunters (1945) and A Guy Could Change (1946) when his film career finally fell away.
From 1948 through 1956, Quillan was paired with screen veteran Wally Vernon by Columbia as yet another attempt to create an original comedy team. Wally Vernon was a veteran of the Columbia shorts department and together they appeared in a series of 16 two-reel comedies, which showed to excellent advantage the physical dexterity of both men.
He owned and operated a bowling alley for a time but eventually returned to the film industry, with middling results and infrequent appearances, among them Brigadoon (1954).
Light-hearted fluff also came his way in the next decade with The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), Angel in My Pocket (1969) and How to Frame a Figg (1971), but his contributions were relatively minor.
His career experienced a minor resurgence during the 1960s and 1970s on TV when he guested on such series as Mannix (1967), Lucas Tanner (1974), Police Story (1973), and Baretta (1975). From 1968 through 1971, he was a regular on the Diahann Carroll sitcom Julia.
During this decade he was seen rarely in the movies. His last movie was The Strongest Man in the World (1975).
A close friendship with actor Michael Landon led to work for Eddie in several of Landon's TV vehicles, including Little House on the Prairie (1974) (7 episodes), Father Murphy (1981) and Highway to Heaven (1984).
In his retirement years, Eddie continued to lead an active life enjoying golf, bowling and swimming. A lifelong bachelor, he lived in North Hollywood with his two sisters, Peggy and Roseanne.
Eddie Quillan became a favorite interview subject for film historians thanks to his ingratiating personality and uncanny total recall.
Eddie died in Burbank, California of cancer in 1990 at age 83, and was interred at the San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Mission Hills.
(3) The Columbia Shorts Departement
(4) Mack Sennett's Fun Factory: A History and Filmography of His Studio and His
Keystone and Mack Sennett Comedies, with Biographies of Players and
Personnel by Brent E. Walker (2013)
(5) Playbills to Photoplays: Stage Performers Who Pioneered the Talkies
by Brenda Loew (2010)
Additional video & audio sources
(1) 'Various clips on YouTube
(2) Nobody's Home (short, 1955) with Eddie Quillan and Wally Vernon
|This actor profile is a part of the Ellery Queen a website on deduction. The actor above played Ellery Queen in an Ellery Queen movie.|
Page first published on
May 27. 2017
Last updated October 9. 2017
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