Otis Harlan was born to lumber dealer William Harlan and Elizabeth Harlan on December 29, 1865, in Zanesville, Ohio. Harlan was one of four children in the household, in addition to the family’s domestic servant from Ireland.
He developed an interest in acting while attending Ohio Wesleyan University and later became a member of Charles Hoyt’s comedy troupe and gained experience as a producing manager. He married Nellie Harvey and the couple had a daughter named Marion. The family lived at 318 Second Avenue in Monmouth, New Jersey, in 1905. They remained in the area and, for a time, were neighbors with actor Charles Grapewin and his second wife, Anna.
Harlan was actively working in vaudeville shows and musicals, including Victor Herbert’s The Magic Knight. Reportedly, he was the performer who introduced Irving Berlin’s classic breakthrough song “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” on the Vaudeville stage in 1911.
Harlan would go on to play Cap’n Andy in the first part-talkie iteration of Show Boat in 1929. In addition to this, Harlan acted as the master of ceremonies in the sound prologue that preceded screenings of the film.
Nonetheless, Harlan was not the only Harlan working in Hollywood. His nephew, Kenneth Harlan, was also making strides as a leading man in silent cinema.
By 1931, he and his family had relocated to Los Angeles, California, and were living at 1631 S. Grand Avenue. Harlan enjoyed steady employment in motion pictures, largely appearing in minor roles. They moved to another property in Los Angeles at 1515 Courtney Ave. as his film career continued on.
Among some of his more notable roles was his appearance as Starveling in Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935). Two years later, he would provide the voice for Happy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). He was considered to be the oldest American voice actor in recorded history. In the same year, he would also appear in the Our Gang short film, Roamin’ Holiday.
Throughout the film, Happy is generally portrayed laughing at the situations around him. He is confident and cheerful for the vast majority of the film.
Harlan eventually retired from the profession and he and his wife moved to Martinsville, Indiana, where his daughter was living. He passed away from a stroke on January 21, 1940, at age 74. The Harlan family is at rest in New South Park Cemetery in Martinsville.
Like some of the other actors who voiced the seven dwarfs, there are few tributes to Harlan. In his case, only one former residence remains at 1515 Courtney Ave. in Los Angeles, California. Here is what it looks like today:
Harlan is best remembered for his extensive filmography in silent film and early sound films, as well as taking part in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.