Tall Irish-American character actor, started out in vaudeville and performed on stage in New York from 1912. It was upon advice of Max Winslow he formed a vaudeville act called Burke & Harris (1913). After performing there for 8 months they became known as the boys from Coney Island's The College Inn, James and Ralph were described as two cabaret singers, who sang pop songs (ragtime!) with a couple of character numbers added. They looked well en also did well, there act was called 'Stories in Song'. For a while they even performed as a trio Harris, Burke and Harris (1916).
Shortly after inlisting (Jun 1, 1917) Jimmie married Billy Bowen (an actress in the Garden cabaret, New York) on Jun 23, 1917.
In World War I, Burke held the rank of top Sergeant (American Expeditionary Forces) with the 12th New York Regiment aka 'The Dirty Dozen' (company I, 52nd infantry). Jim served 18 months (1917-18) in France, fought at Saint-Mihiel and in the Argonne forest he was badly gassed and wounded by shrapnel. Fearing that he mightn't live "Jimmy" was picked up and carried away to hospital. He spent 10 months in a French Hospital and later Staten Island. By the end of 1919 he emerged limping and wabbling a bit, but ready to throw off his old khaki and get back behind the footlights. In the early months of 1920 Burke was back touring the Central West and South whilst performing in vaudeville.
Eleanor Marguerite Durkin, originally from Kansas,
worked in vaudeville and was part of the Durkin Sisters a musical comedy
act. She met James and together they performed in a vaudeville routine of songs and chatter
called "A Tete-a-Tete
in Songs" (1919-1929). In 1920 James was
granted a divorce claiming Billie had deserted him and one year later he
married Eleanor Durkin in Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, Quebec. They continued
performing. Burke who handled most of the singing, had a unique
delivery that made his numbers count for double value, while "Miss"
Durkin, who also played the piano, was by no means in the background
when it came to voice and personality. Their 20 minutes program evolved
over time but sufficient descriptions remain. Burke gave an edition de
luxe et de comedie of the "Home Again Blues". He then
demonstrated how a possible proposal of marriage would take place in
1940. In that case the woman proposed to the man. One of the best bits
was Burke's impression of Bert Williams singing "You Cannot Make
Your Shimmy Shake of Tea". The act closed with a comedy song, "When
Frances Dances with Me". Burke was praised for "his ability to
handle his feet'. His forte was coon songs but he could also handle
tough kid songs.
He made his film debut in 1932 after much stage experience. He was immediately typecast as tough cops with Irish brogues and names like Muldoon, Mulligan, Kelly, Maloney or Burke (!). When not playing the obtuse flatfoot or bemused, sympathetic plod, he would show up in costume films in small roles as soldiers or guards. For years he was one of Hollywood's go-to guys for roles as urban street cops, which he delivered with a bemused lip and colorful brogue.
In Frank Capra's It Happened One Night
(1934) he (again uncredited) played a detective
opposite Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. One of his best roles was as Charles Ruggles' rowdy
rancher pal in Ruggles of Red Gap (1935).
Burke was W.C. Fields' nemesis in several comedies, and in Columbia's "Ellery Queen" series of the early 1940s he played Sgt. Velie, who wished that detective Queen (Ralph Bellamy) would mind his own business.
James was in The Maltese Falcon (1941) with Humphrey Bogart and played a studio cop in Anchors Aweigh (1945) with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. In the early 1950s (1951-53), Burke appeared as Sgt. Tim Malloney with Tom Conway in the ABC detective drama series then called Inspector Mark Saber -- Homicide Detective, later renamed, reformatted, and switched to NBC under the title Saber of London.
Sep. 23, 1957 his wife Eleanor died. From 1960-1961, Burke appeared in the role of Zeke Bonner in seven episodes of the ABC western television series Stagecoach West, starring Wayne Rogers, Robert Bray, and Richard Eyer.
His last performance was playing Col. Hunter, a minor role, in Old Shatterhand (1964)
Burke worked in television, until his retirement at 80.
Burke suffered from a heart condition, which took his life at the age of
eighty-two. He died on May 23, 1968 in the Sepulveda Veterans Hospital, Los
Latest update Augustus 22, 2016
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