Clifton Webb was a gifted actor of Hollywood’s Golden Age, which succeeded in various film genres. He was born Webb Parmelee Hollenbeck on November 19, 1889, in Indianapolis, Indiana, to Jacob and Mabel Hollenbeck. His parents separated soon after Webb’s birth.
A few years later, Webb’s mother took on the name Mabelle and moved with her son to New York City. There, she married copper-foundry worker Green B. Raum.
In his teen years, Webb adopted the stage name Clifton Webb and worked as a professional ballroom dancer. His Broadway debut occurred in The Purple Road in 1913, with his mother being a fellow cast member. After a string of successes on Broadway shows, namely comedies and musical revues, he also worked in vaudeville shows as well as silent films. One of his early silent film roles was in New Toys (1925), though he would concentrate on a stage career for many years.
Webb grew to acclaim in Broadway theatre, particularly excelling in musicals. He had the distinction of introducing “Easter Parade,” “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan,” and more on stage.
Webb’s breakthrough performance came in Laura (1944). Against objections from 20th Century Fox head Darryl Zanuck, director Otto Preminger cast Webb in the role of Waldo Lydecker. At this point, Webb was in his mid-fifties, and Preminger wanted an actor in the role who would really surprise the audience. His appearance was a memorable one and earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Due to this positive reception, Webb signed a contract with Fox and worked for them for the duration of his film career. Webb appeared in other dramas such as The Dark Corner (1946) and The Razor’s Edge (1946), earning another Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in the latter.
Webb also turned to film comedies, starring as Mr. Belvedere in Sitting Pretty (1948). This role earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. The film was followed by sequels Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949) and Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell (1951). He would also appear as the family patriarch in Cheaper by the Dozen (1950), which fared well at the box office, and also appeared briefly in the film’s sequel, Belles on Their Toes (1952). His final box office success was playing an angel in For Heaven’s Sake (1950).
Webb went on to star as John Philip Sousa in Stars and Stripes Forever (1952). He also appeared in Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), The Man Who Never Was (1956), The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker (1959), and more. Fox worked on creating Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) with Webb in mind, but Webb had to back out of the project due to illness. His final role was in Satan Never Sleeps (1962).
Webb passed away on October 13, 1966, from a heart attack and was interred next to his mother at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. He was 76 years old.
Today, some points of interest pertaining to Webb’s life remain. He was born near Brookville Rd., in Indianapolis, Indiana. In 1900, he lived in New York with his mother and stepfather at 101 17th St., New York, New York. By 1910, he resided at 214 W. 83rd St., New York, New York, while working as a singer. These homes no longer stand.
In 1925, Webb lived at 205 W. 57th St., New York, New York. He is listed as head of the household at this point. The building remains today.
In 1955, Webb maintained a home at 1005 N. Rexford Dr., Beverly Hills, California. The home no longer stands.
Webb was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his work in motion pictures. His star is located at 6850 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, California.
Since 1969, the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television has offered the Clifton Webb Scholarship in honor of Webb.
Webb was also a close friend of Noel Coward’s (though not a boyfriend) and among his Broadway successes were the American stagings of Coward’s hit plays. He was starring in Blithe Spirit when he was asked to play Waldo Lydecker in Laur.a. Some charming letters between the two survive.