Above: Billy Bevan without makeup, in 1923.The Blue Book of the Screen, 1924, P19. Via Lantern Digital Media History
The 5 second version
Born in Orange in New South Wales in 1887, Billy Bevan (William Bevan Harris) is hardly a forgotten Australian actor. He has been credited with over 260 appearances in Hollywood movies made between about 1916 and 1952, and his success there has been very well documented.
He was 25 years old when he arrived in North America in 1912, with a good reputation as an amateur in Australia. His arrival in the US was courtesy a contract with Nellie Chester‘s Pollard’s Juvenile Opera Company. This, and his subsequent experience as a vaudevillian in the US refined his skills. He first appeared in films in 1915 or 1916, but really made a name for himself working for the Mack Sennett studio after 1919. With the advent of sound he took supporting and bit character roles – often playing a cockney.
He moved to Escondido in San Diego County in the early 1930s, and increasingly took an interest in farming and conservation. He died there in 1957.
(This article does not list all of his many films, but links to some that are online can be found in the references)
Accounts regarding the birth of William Bevan Harris are sometimes inconsistent, although we know he was born in Orange, New South Wales, a provincial city about 250 kilometres west of Sydney in 1887.For inconsistencies – compare his biography at Central NSW Museums with Orange City Council’s wiki However, further confusing matters – he did not settle on the stage name of Billy Bevan until late 1914. In the meantime, he had used the stage names Bevan Harris in Australia and later Willie Bevan while with Pollards.This writer has used the name Bevan throughout, as it was the one consistent part of his name and the surname he chose to use in Hollywood See also Note 1 below.
Not withstanding his later success in Hollywood, his early life was firmly rooted in regional New South Wales. His father was Robert Harris, at the time of his birth a manager at Lindsay’s Brewery Co in Orange. His mother was a local Orange girl – Marion Jane Torpy, the oldest daughter of local politician James Torpy.See James Torpy (1832-1903) at the Orange City Council wiki Robert and Marion Harris can be traced living in Orange as late as 1904.
Various sources suggest Bevan attended the University of Sydney, but if he did, he failed to complete any study, as his name (or any combination of it) does not appear in its database of graduates and similar claims of University study were made of his contemporary Leon Errol. Rather, it appears he had been bitten by the performance bug and was appearing on stage even before he moved to Sydney.See for example, Leader (Orange, NSW) 30 Jun 1900, P4
Bevan Harris on stage in Australia
From mid 1909, Bevan Harris appeared in musical comedies with the Petersham Choral Society, a Sydney amateur group. These included Ermine and San Toy. Dated and offensive though readers today might find San Toy, (a “Chinese musical” of English origins), Bevan was a hit as Li, one of the central characters, and his “grotesque antics” kept the audience “convulsed with laughter.”The Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Jul 1910, P14
By early 1911 Bevan was working in Melbourne, while appearing with the Melbourne Comic Opera Societyor was it Company? at the Princess Theatre, in the musical comedies Olivette, and then Miss Hook of Holland. Judging by the very short runs and wide variety of appearances, it would seem he was not yet a professional, although he was developing an enviable reputation as a comic. For example, in December 1911 he was singing humorous songs for the Geelong Scottish Thistle Club, while in March 1912 he was performing at an Irish National Concert in Kyabram, a country town He may well be the same William Bevan Harris who was listed in Melbourne electoral roles of the time – working as a clerk by day and living in a boarding house in Powlett Street, East Melbourne.
In July 1912, Bevan Harris signed a contract with Nellie Chester to perform with a reconstituted Pollard’s Opera Company tour of Canada and the United States.Table Talk (Melb) 11 July 1912, P21 Nellie Chester had previous experience running Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company tours of North America with her older brother Charles Pollard, until 1909. This tour, it would be the last, was designed to address new Australian labour laws restricting the age children could leave to perform overseas, which was in turn a direct result of Arthur Pollard’s disastrous 1909 Tour of India.
Willie Bevan with Pollard’s Juveniles in North America
The SS Makura arrived in Vancouver in late August 1912, with Bevan and about 25 Australian performers on board. Newspaper reviews show that this new company followed Pollard’s well-travelled performance route – east across Canada and sometimes into the northern states of the US, and then back to Vancouver again. The repertoire included familiar, popular musicals – The Mikado, The Belle of New York, Sergeant Brue, The Toy Maker and La Belle Butterfly. Not surprisingly, the cities the troupe visited welcomed a return of a Pollard’s company, even if they all seemed a little older. There were complicated explanations provided to newspapers regarding how the troupe had “grown up.”See for example, The Victoria Daily Times, 31 August 1912, P17 The truth was it was now illegal for girls under 18 or boys under 16 to leave Australia to perform in such troupes. Teddy McNamara was nineteen years old, while Bevan was the oldest of the troupe, aged twenty-five – although he claimed to be 22.Leading performer Queenie Williams was still 16. By comparison, Daphne Pollard had been only 9 when she departed with a Pollards tour of North America in 1900
The new troupe comprised a mix of experienced Pollard performers – Teddy McNamara and Eva Pollard – while newcomers included “Queenie” Williams and Bevan. But significantly, they were all no longer pre-teens, or “Lilliputians.” Although all Australians, and mostly from Melbourne, they were now all older, experienced but still juvenile performers. The choice of Willie Bevan as a stage name at this time might relate to a need to sound like a younger performer. Reviews of the Pollards performances were generally positive, and Bevan was noted as a clever comedian, but the focus of publicity was on Queenie and Teddy McNamara.
Bevan stayed with the company for fourteen months, making his departure after a tour of Alaska in late 1913. The Pollards tour of North America was, to that time, his most intensive experience on stage. He then joined a series of stock companies – reportedly the Isabelle Fletcher Company in Vancouver, then Lewis and Wolf in Arizona and the Trimble Players in California. And briefly in mid 1914, he joined forces with other Australian expats Daphne Pollard and Alf Goulding for A Knight for a Day at the Morosco Theatre in Los Angeles.
Billy Bevan making Movies
Sometime in late 1915, Billy Bevan drifted from vaudeville to working in films. It is quite likely Henry Lehrman, the head of L-KO Studios (standing for Lehrman Knock Out) had seen him and was the one who offered him work. His earliest filmswith typical L-KO titles heavy on alliteration include Dad’s Dollars and Dirty Doings, Lizzie’s Shattered Dreams, Lizzie’s Lingering Love, A Bold Bad Breeze, Phoney Friends and False Teeth and Gertie’s Gasoline Glide.Brent Walker suggests his earliest films were with the Norbig Studio in Edenvale in 1915 His appearances in these early films appear to be in bit and supporting roles – such as a brief appearance as the Minister in Gertie’s Gasoline Glide. Historians Kalton C Lahue and Sam Gill describe these L-KO films as “rapid-fire slapstick,” but they were also highly derivative – of established vaudeville stage acts – and of other films.For example see Dave Glass’s Keystone Kops…Not series on his Youtube Channel Lehrman himself was typical of the “colourful” showmen who inhabited the early world of comedy cinema.
After films at other studios, Bevan began working for Mack Sennett in mid 1919. Brent Walker’s 2010 survey of the Mack Sennett studios lists Bevan’s known films, and also explains that he took “short term contracts… by choice.”Walker (2010) P488 This allowed him to maintain control of his career – he could freelance when feature films took his fancy. It is beyond the scope of this article to review Bevan’s significant output of films for Sennett, however it would seem Steve Massa’s summary of his work is apt. Most often he was either a “comic everyman that everything happened to… [or] a roguish, practical joker who caused misfortunes to befall others.”Steve Massa (2022) P381 Some of the Bevan’s Sennett classics are now easily accessible online (many are listed below) and include Butter Fingers (1925), Super-Hooper-Dyne-Lizzies (1925) and Wandering Willies (1926). The walrus moustache and perpetually raised eyebrows were a trademark.
Bevan’s shift to character work in feature films appears to have been incremental, and coincided with the arrival of sound. In part, this must have been because he was financially secure and no longer needed as much work. Most importantly though, he was also pursuing other interests. (See below) However, studios still had a need for solid reliable character actors, and this became his speciality – as butlers, policemen, bus and train conductors, porters, taxi-drivers and doormen. And when interviewed by the Australian press in 1939, Bevan explained “This is the highest paying business in the world… Of course one fine morning, like every other actor, I’ll wake up and though I may not know it, I’ll have done my last day’s work in pictures.”The Mail (Adelaide) 22 Apr 1939, P4
As an Australian-born actor he was sometimes called upon to morph himself into a cockney role in Hollywood’s sentimental British films of the 1930s and 40s. The list of Hollywood films about Britain or the British Empire that featured Bevan includes Journey’s End (1930), Cavalcade (1933), The Lost Patrol (1934) Last Outpost (1939) and Another Dawn (1939), in addition to several of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes films – Pearl of Death (1944) and Terror by Night (1946). Interestingly, he also appeared in small roles in two of Hollywood’s awful Australian “Bushranger films” of the 1930s – Stingaree (1934) and Hal Roach’s Captain Fury (1939). His final screen appearances were in 1952.
Billy Bevan on the land.
Bevan’s interest in farming and the land is quite well documented by Brent Walker and others. He had purchased land at Escondido in California in the mid 1920s, and established a citrus and avocado farm, eventually moving there permanently and only returning to Hollywood (about 160 kms to the North west) to work on films.Brent Walker P489 He was very active in the local community, taking a leading role in the Escondido soil conservation district,Southworth (1950) P110-112 and the local fish and game association. In these, his interests paralleled those of his father Robert Harris, back in Australia. For most of his later life, Robert Harris had worked for Goldsbrough, Mort & Co, a large Australian agricultural firm, which through various amalgamations exists today as Elders Limited. Even if estranged or just separated by distance, when Harris died in North Sydney in June 1927, his headstone at Macquarie Park cemetery noted it had been “erected by his son William Bevan Harris, Hollywood USA.”Headstone for Robert Harris, died 19 June 1927. Macquarie Park Cemetery, Sydney, Congregational section B, Row 3 Bevan’s mother Marion moved to the US in 1916 and appears to have stayed. She died at Bevan’s home in 1945.
Bevan married his first wife Leona Roberts (Kohn) in 1917. Two daughters were born of the union. Coincidentally, Leona’s actress sister, Edith Roberts, travelled to Fiji and Australia in 1928 to appear in Norman Dawn’s The Adorable Outcast, aka Black Cargos of the South Seas Pike & Cooper (1980) P189
Billy Bevan died quite suddenly at his Escondido home, Rancho La Lomita, in November 1957.Times-Advocate (Escondido) 27 Nov 1957, P1 He was survived by his second wife Betty and his two daughters by Leona, who had predeceased him in 1952.
Note 1 – Billy Bevan’s name
The birth certificate for William Bevan Harris states the child is listed as not named, presumably because his parents had yet to agree on a name.NSW BDM Certificate of Birth 33062/1887 However, the name William Bevan does appear – in a different script and fainter handwriting – on his birth record, while later documents also confirm this was his name. In addition to the varying stage names already noted, and causing more confusion to historians today, on his 1918 US naturalisation declaration declaration of intention document he seems to indicate he was using the name William Bevan – without Harris.
29 June 2023
- Kalton C Lahue & Sam Gill (1970) Clown Princes and Court Jesters. Some Comic Greats of the Silent Screen. A.S. Barnes & Co.
- Steve Massa (2022) Lame Brains and Lunatics 2: More Good, Bad and Forgotten of Silent Comedy. Bear Manor Media.
- Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper (1980) Australian Films 1900-1977. Oxford University Press/AFI
- William L Southworth (1950) “Quail population booms because there is water to drink,” in Soil Conservation Vol 16-18, P110-112, 1950. US Department of Agriculture, Soil Conservation Service, Department of Information.
- Brent Walker (2010) Mack Sennett’s fun factory : a history and filmography of his studio and his Keystone and Mack Sennett comedies, with biographies of players and personnel. McFarland and Co.
- Anthony Balducci’s Journal – Billy Bevan Genial Character actor (includes a huge selection of screen grabs from his post-Sennett work)
- Dave Glass – Kickstarter project on Billy Bevan films.
- Dave Glass – Reel Comedies Channel on Youtube
- University of Washington, Special Collections. Sayre (J. Willis) Collection of Theatrical Photographs.
- The Australian Variety Theatre Archive: Popular Culture Archive, 1850-1930. Clay Djubal and others
- Another Nice Mess – a website run by David Lord Heath. His Australian performers page is here.
Federal Register of Legislation (Australia)
Films available online
- GERTIE’S GASOLINE GLIDE 1915 or 1916 Eye Film Museum @ Youtube
- SOMEBODY’S WIDOW 1918 Eye Film Museum @Youtube
- CUPID IN QUARANTINE 1918 Robert Fels Channel @ Youtube
- ASTRAY FROM THE STEERAGE 1921 @ Andy Galaxy Channel @ Youtube
- A SMALL TOWN IDOL 1921 @ The Internet Archive
- GYMNASIUM JIM 1922 @ The Internet Archive
- THE EXTRA GIRL 1923 @ The Internet Archive
- WALL STREET BLUES 1924 @ The Internet Archive
- BUTTERFINGERS 1925 @ The Internet Archive
- GIDDAP 1925 @ The Internet Archive
- SUPER-HOOPER-DYNE-LIZZIES 1925 @ The Internet Archive
- THE IRON NAG 1925 @ The Internet Archive
- HONEYMOON HARDSHIPS 1925 @ The Internet Archive
- A SEA DOG’S TALE 1926 @ The Internet Archive
- WANDERING WILLIES 1926 @ The Internet Archive
- FIGHT NIGHT 1926 @ The Internet Archive
- HOBOKEN TO HOLLYWOOD 1926 @ The Internet Archive
- WHISPERING WHISKERS 1926 @ The Internet Archive
- FLIRTY FOUR-FLUSHERS 1926 @ The Internet Archive
- A SMALL TOWN PRINCESS 1927 @ The Internet Archive
- THE GOLF NUT 1927 @ The Internet Archive
- GALLOPING BUNGALOWS 1927 @ The Internet Archive
- THE BEST MAN 1928 @ The Internet Archive
- THE BEACH CLUB 1928 @ The Internet Archive
- HIS UNLUCKY NIGHT 1928 @ The Internet Archive
- PEACOCK ALLEY (1930) @ The Internet Archive
- A STUDY IN SCARLET (1933) @ The Internet Archive
- TERROR BY NIGHT (1946) @ The Internet Archive
|↑1||The Blue Book of the Screen, 1924, P19. Via Lantern Digital Media History|
|↑2||For inconsistencies – compare his biography at Central NSW Museums with Orange City Council’s wiki|
|↑3||This writer has used the name Bevan throughout, as it was the one consistent part of his name and the surname he chose to use in Hollywood|
|↑4||See James Torpy (1832-1903) at the Orange City Council wiki|
|↑5||See for example, Leader (Orange, NSW) 30 Jun 1900, P4|
|↑6||The Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Jul 1910, P14|
|↑7||The Theatre (Syd), 1 Oct 1910, P9. Via State Library of Victoria|
|↑8||or was it Company?|
|↑9||For example, in December 1911 he was singing humorous songs for the Geelong Scottish Thistle Club, while in March 1912 he was performing at an Irish National Concert in Kyabram, a country town|
|↑10|| Table Talk (Melb) 27 July 1911, P23 |
National Library of Australia
|↑11||Table Talk (Melb) 11 July 1912, P21|
|↑12||See for example, The Victoria Daily Times, 31 August 1912, P17|
|↑13||Leading performer Queenie Williams was still 16. By comparison, Daphne Pollard had been only 9 when she departed with a Pollards tour of North America in 1900|
|↑14||Eva Pollard married a Canadian, and the couple returned to Australia soon after. Pattie and Ted married each other in Canada, but divorced a few years later. Ted died in Hollywood in 1928, Pattie continued her career in Australia. Queenie retired from the US stage in the early 1930s|
|↑15||Hal K Wells. “Fine Art of Falling” Motion Picture Classic magazine. Oct 1926. P40-41. Via Lantern Digital Media Project|
|↑16||The Santa Barbara Daily News and the Independent|
21 Apr 1915, P2
|↑17||with typical L-KO titles heavy on alliteration|
|↑18||Brent Walker suggests his earliest films were with the Norbig Studio in Edenvale in 1915|
|↑19||For example see Dave Glass’s Keystone Kops…Not series on his Youtube Channel|
|↑20||via the Eye Museum on Youtube|
|↑21||Walker (2010) P488|
|↑22||Steve Massa (2022) P381|
|↑23||Exhibitor’s Herald April 1922, The Moving Picture World Jan 1926, Exhibitor’s Herald Oct 1927 via Lantern Digital Media History|
|↑24||The Mail (Adelaide) 22 Apr 1939, P4|
|↑25||Source – Pizzaflix channel on Youtube and Author’s collection|
|↑26||The Sydney Mail, 25 Feb 1931, P11|
|↑27||Soil Conservation Vol 16-18, P111, 1950. US Department of Agriculture, Soil Conservation Service, Department of Information|
|↑28||Brent Walker P489|
|↑29||Southworth (1950) P110-112|
|↑30||Headstone for Robert Harris, died 19 June 1927. Macquarie Park Cemetery, Sydney, Congregational section B, Row 3|
|↑31||Pike & Cooper (1980) P189|
|↑32||Exhibitors Herald, May 13, 1922. P39 via Lantern|
|↑33||Times-Advocate (Escondido) 27 Nov 1957, P1|
|↑34||NSW BDM Certificate of Birth 33062/1887|
|↑35||declaration of intention document|