In the early days of Hollywood, there were few actors who were blessed with the comedic talents of Chester Cooper Conklin. Born in Oskaloosa, Iowa, in 1886, Conklin would follow a life’s journey which took him from the rural farmland on to the silver screen as one of Mack Sennett’s hilarious Keystone Cops.
Working in both the silent era and into the age of “talkies”, Conklin would be cast alongside such stars as Charlie Chaplin and the beautiful and hilarious Mabel Normand.
Despite growing up in a turbulent family environment where his mother died under suspicious circumstances and his father stood trial for her murder, Conklin was born with a gift to make others smile. Conklin was just a child of eight when his mother’s lifeless body was found burned to death in the garden behind the family residence. Imagine the trauma of losing one parent and having the other charged with murder. Although his father was acquitted on the murder charge, young Chester Conklin couldn’t wait to leave home and once he set out on his own, he never looked back and kept a vow to himself that he’d never return to the house where he had lost his mother.
As a young man, Conklin worked in a hotel in Des Moines as a bellhop. However, carting bags was not part of his life’s plan and he started taking acting lessons. He later got a gob as a circus clown where part of the act was to box with a kangaroo! Seeking new ways to make a living in show business, Conklin created a comedic character sporting a thick, walrus mustache and began working steadily on the vaudeville circuit traveling around the midwest.
At age 27, Conklin’s big break came when he decided to apply for an acting job at the Keystone Studios in California. The fledging movie studio run by producer Mack Sennett had been making silent film comedies and the production of the “Sennett Bathing Beauties” since 1912. The “Bathing Beauties” was a troupe of young aspiring actresses who appeared in short films and would do promotions along the Venice, California, Boardwalk to promote the films being shot by Sennett at the Keystone Studios. Among the actresses were a young Mabel Normand and Gloria Swanson.
About the same time that Conklin was hired to play a Keystone Cop, another young actor, Charlie Chaplin, became a featured player at the Keystone Studios. Chaplin and Conklin struck up a friendship that both men would treasure. They would work in several movie productions together including Chaplin’s famous films the 1936 “Modern Times” and in the 1940 film mocking Adolph Hitler, “The Great Dictator”.
Unlike his friend Charlie Chaplin, Chester Conklin did not rise to super stardom. Due to a contract dispute with Mack Sennett, Conklin became a free agent in 1920 and worked in a variety of films for different studios.
Over the course of his career, Conklin appeared in more than 300 films and aside from being one of the original Keystone Cops, he appeared in movies alongside W.C. Fields, Ben Turpin, Fatty Arbuckle, Pola Negri, and Clara Bow. Although, he continued to find work in films throughout the 1930s and into the late 1950’s, Conklin’s age along with his broad comedic characterizations were less and less in vogue, making it more difficult to be cast in films.
By the late 1950’s, Conklin continued to entertain but no longer as a film actor. He did find work seasonally by portraying Santa Claus in a Los Angeles department store and brought smiles to children of all ages.
Conklin was a member of University Masonic Lodge No. 394 in Torrance, California, and was well-liked by his brother Masons. As he aged into his late 70’s with failing health, Conklin moved into the Motion Picture County Home, a retirement and nursing facility in Van Nuys, CA, for aging actors and actresses. While a resident of the Motion Picture Home, he met and married former actress June Gunther.
Chester Cooper Conklin passed away at the age of 85 on October 11, 1971, but his life work was honored with a coveted star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.