William “Billy” Gilbert Barron was the son of entertainers. His parents were singers with the Metropolitan Opera. While his parents were on the road, Gilbert was born in the dressing room of the Hopkins Opera House in Louisville, Kentucky, on September 12, 1894. In his youth, he quit school after the fourth grade to join a successful children’s singing troupe. By the time he turned 12, he was already working in vaudeville.
During one performance in 1929, he was spotted by Stan Laurel. Laurel went backstage to meet him and later introduced him to comedy producer Hal Roach. Soon after, Gilbert was hired as a gag writer, actor and director. At age 35, he would appear in his first film for the Fox Film Corporation that same year.
Over time, Gilbert worked with an array of comedy stars including Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Charlie Chase, Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, and Thelma Todd. While he could play tough characters, he was also a fine comedic actor in shorts, such as The Music Box (1932), and full-length films.
In 1938, he married his second wife, Ella McKenzie. Charlie Chase was best man at their wedding.
One of his usual routines called for his characters to become so excited or nervous that they would express their energy through facial spams and, later, a massive sneeze. When he found out that one of the dwarfs’ names was Sneezy, he called up Walt Disney and gave him his famous sneezing gag. Gilbert got the part.
Sneezy’s name is earned by his extraordinarily powerful sneezes, caused by hay fever. The sneezes are so powerful that they are seen blowing even the heaviest of objects across a room.
Beyond Snow White, Gilbert appeared in many films and transitioned to television. It is said that his boisterous on-screen characters inspired Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden in The Honeymooners. Gilbert and Disney would work together again for Mickey and the Beanstalk (1947), with Gilbert voicing the part of the giant in a similar manner to Sneezy.
Gilbert was married twice and and had an adopted son who tragically committed suicide at age 13. Gilbert passed away from a stroke on September 23, 1971. He was cremated and his ashes scattered in the rose garden of the Odd Fellows Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.
Today, very few locations of relevance to Gilbert’s life remain. In the 1940s, he resided at 12828 Riverside Dr. in Los Angeles. The home no longer stands. However, he is remembered with a Hollywood Walk of Fame star, located on the north side of the 6200 block of Hollywood Boulevard.