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How a spirited young lad from Bristol became a cinema legend
Elias and Elsie Leach raised their son well. Archibald Alexander Leach was born January 8, 1904, into a poor, working-class family living in a small stone house in Bristol. They took him to church, taught him to be polite to strangers, to have impeccable manners and be a stickler for the rules. He learned to speak only when spoken to and that money didn’t grow on trees.
These poor and moral beginnings stood Archie in good stead when, aged 16, he made the move to America and ultimately transformed into the screen icon Cary Grant. Debonair, funny and poised, Cary never forgot where he came from and it was those humble origins that gave him the determination to succeed.
In 1912 Elias was offered a job in Southampton making uniforms for the expanding British army, and left the family in pursuit of more money. Although eight-year-old Archie missed his father he relished having his mother all to himself. But when his father returned a few months later there was obvious friction between the couple.
The following year Elsie disappeared – one day she was there squabbling with his father and the next she was gone. When Archie asked he was told she’d gone to a nearby resort for a rest. It wasn’t until many years later that he discovered the truth – she had suffered a nervous breakdown and been committed to a sanatorium for the mentally ill.
Archie wouldn’t see his mother again for more than 20 years. About the meeting he said: “By that time I was a full-grown man living thousands of miles away in America. I was known to most people in the world by sight and by name, yet not to my mother.”
He speculated that her breakdown was triggered by guilt over the death of her first-born son. John, born two years before Archie, had developed gangrene after a tragic accident. Elsie had cared for him diligently, but through sheer exhaustion had fallen asleep and, during her nap, the boy had died. Grant believed she never forgave herself for that nap.
Path to success
With his father understandably distracted, young Archie was left largely to his own devices. He didn’t enjoy school but was a hard-working student and won a scholarship to the local secondary school. But Archie was filled with a wanderlust. Eager to escape, he joined the Bristol YMCA Boy Scout Troup at the outbreak of the First World War and volunteered for air-raid duty (climbing up gas street lamps to extinguish them), as well as working as a messenger at Southampton docks.
It was at school though that Archie met a man who would change his life. A part-time lab assistant took him to see the newly refurbished Bristol Hippodrome. When they arrived the matinee was in full swing and Archie was blown away. “When I arrived backstage I found myself in a dazzling land of smiling, jostling people wearing all sorts of costumes and doing all sorts of clever things. And that’s when I knew. What other life could there be than that of an actor?”
From there, his passion for all things theatrical grew. Aged 13 Archie helped with the lighting at the nearby Empire Theatre and started skipping school to spend more time there. Here he heard about Bob Pender’s troupe of comedy acrobats and cheekily wrote asking for work (forging his father’s signature). Bob sent the train fare and invited him to audition in Norwich. Archie intercepted the letter and set off, knowing it would be a while before his father spotted he was missing.
Bob agreed to take him on and Archie began learning acrobatics, tumbling and dance. But soon Elias turned up to reclaim his errant son, insisting he return to finish his education.
Back in Bristol Archie set about trying to get himself expelled from school so he could re-join Bob’s troupe. Soon he achieved his goal and, realising he was fighting a losing battle, Elias handed him over to Bob. Within three months he was back in Bristol – but this time on stage at his beloved Empire.
Later, Grant said he regretted not finishing school, but he was to have an education of a very different sort – an apprenticeship in the art of pantomime. He learned how to convey emotion and meaning without words and with impeccable comic timing – all of which would help make him the great actor he became.
For two years the troupe toured the provinces, but that excitement was soon eclipsed by a new adventure. Bob booked to play in New York city and Archie was one of the eight boys chosen to go.
Archie made the most of his time in New York and, when the tour ended, he decided to stay in America and get work on his own. To make ends meet between theatre jobs he sold ties out of a suitcase and was a stilt walker at Coney Island.
He spent the next few years touring the US with various vaudeville troupes until a part on Broadway opposite Fay Wray earned him his first screen test.
The talent scout was unimpressed, saying, “He is bow-legged and his neck is too thick”. But that didn’t diminish Archie’s ambition. In November 1931 he drove to California determined to make it in the movies.
Soon he was signed to a contract with Paramount pictures who insisted the name Archie Leach had to go, and so Cary Grant was born.
Grant’s first feature film was This Is The Night, and before the end of 1932 his name appeared in the credits of six more films. He rented a house with another up-and-coming star, Randolph Scott – a perfect pair of glamorous Hollywood bachelors.
Grant’s bachelor days were numbered though when he met Virginia Cherrill – the stunning blonde from Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. At 25 she’d already been married twice, but Grant wasn’t daunted and the couple set sail to wed in England – it was his first trip home in 13 years.
The marriage didn’t last, but Grant’s career went from strength to strength, making 72 films and cementing himself in our hearts forever as one of the most suave and sophisticated Hollywood stars of all time.