It is ironic that the iconic King of Hollywood, who starred next to the most beautiful actresses of their time, once remarked: "If any child of mine becomes an actor, I will turn in my grave!"
William Clark Gable was born on February 1, 1901, in Cadiz, Ohio. When he was 17, the young man was inspired after watching the play The Bird of Paradise. It was then that he decided he wanted to be an actor. In high school, Gable worked in his father’s oil fields and as a horse manager. After financial difficulties, the family moved to Akron and his father bought a farm. Gable worked a bit on the farm before becoming restless. He then took a job at the B.F. Goodrich tire factory in town.
When he turned 21, Gable responded to his calling and left home. He began touring in second-rate stock companies as he headed west to Portland, Oregon, where he worked as a necktie salesman in a department store to support himself.
In 1924, he worked as an extra in silent films and he changed his stage name from W.C. Gable to Clark Gable. Between 1924 and 1930, he worked as an extra in 13 films. His big break came in 1930. After an impressive appearance in a Los Angeles stage production of The Last Mile, Gable was given a contract with MGM and the rest is history.
The first role he landed in a sound picture was as the villain in a low-budget Western; he received tons of fan mail due to his powerful voice and looks, and the studio took notice. Life magazine dubbed Gable, "All man…and then some."
Clark Gable starred opposite many of the most popular and gorgeous actresses of their time, including Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow, Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly, Doris Day, Carole Lombard, Barbara Stanwyck, Greta Garbo, Olivia de Havilland, and Marilyn Monroe. Doris Day described his unique persona: "He was as masculine as any man I’ve ever known, and as much a little boy as a grown man could be—it was this combination that had such a devastating effect on women." No wonder Clark Gable was married 5 times!
Gable is best known for his role as Rhett Butler in the 1939 epic Gone with the Wind, for which he earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. "Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn" is one of the most famous lines in cinema, and his legend grew from that much-quoted line. However, it was 5 years earlier, in 1934, that he won an Academy Award for his performance in Frank Capra’s classic It Happened One Night. His other well-known films include Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and The Misfits (1961), Gable’s final film.
In 1939, Clark married his third wife, Carole Lombard, but tragedy struck in 1942 when the actress died in a plane crash while returning from a war bond drive. A grief-stricken Gable then volunteered for service. He put his movie career on hold, joined the US Army Air Force, and was off the screen for 3 years. He trained as an aerial gunner and flew 5 combat missions over Europe. While serving as a captain, he also made training films, including Combat America, produced by the United States Army Air Forces. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal. It was rumored that Adolf Hitler offered a huge reward to anyone who was able to capture and return Gable to him alive! After the war, he continued with his film career.
The curtain falls…
The last film Gable appeared in was The Misfits, which was released in 1961, and also starred Marilyn Monroe. Coincidentally, this movie was also Monroe’s last screen appearance. The plot: a sexy divorcée falls for an over-the-hill cowboy who is struggling to maintain his romantically independent lifestyle in early 60s Nevada. Gable died suddenly due to a massive heart attack 2 months after filming was completed, and before The Misfits was released in theatres. Ten days after suffering a severe heart attack at age 59, Clark Gable died at Cedars Sinai Hospital in West Hollywood on November 16, 1960, due to a coronary thrombosis.
Speculation about the cause of his death ran rampant. There were rumors that the aging Gable, playing a tough-and-rumble cowboy, performed some of his own stunts in his physically demanding role in The Misfits, taking its toll on his already guarded health. His wife, Kay, reported: "It wasn’t the physical exertion that killed him. It was the horrible tension, the eternal waiting, waiting, waiting. He waited around forever, for everybody. He’d get so angry that he’d just go ahead and do anything to keep occupied." Eerily, Gable was quoted to have said: "Working with Marilyn Monroe on The Misfits nearly gave me a heart attack. I have never been happier when a film ended." Many lay the blame on the crash diet he put himself through before filming began. The 6’1" Gable weighed about 190 pounds at the time of Gone with the Wind, but by the late 50s, he had ballooned up to 230 pounds. To prepare for The Misfits, he had to drop to 195 pounds. And some people blamed all his years of crash dieting, drinking, and smoking cigars and cigarettes (up to 3 packs a day), believing his lifestyle had finally caught up with him. Gable was laid to rest beside his third wife, Carole Lombard, as he requested.