Henry Brazeale Walthall was born on a plantation somewhere near Shelby County, Alabama on March 16, 1878. His father was Junius Leigh Walthall, a politician who had served in the Confederate army during the Civil War. Walthall had seven siblings and was educated by a private tutor. As a youth he developed a strong interest in the theater, once producing his own traveling play of The Merchant of Venice. When he was twenty he enlisted in the Spanish-American War, but contracted malaria while in training in Jacksonville, Florida. His regiment was disbanded by the time he recovered.
After trying his hand at law school at Harvard (mainly to appease his parents), Walthall decided that his true passion lay in acting. He got his first acting jobs in 1901 on the New York stage, playing supporting roles in various melodramas. He joined Henry Miller and Margaret Anglin’s theatrical company, appearing in “The Great Divide” in a supporting role from 1906-08. Also part of the company was actor and friend James Kirkwood. In 1907 Walthall married actress Isabel Fenton, and they would stay together for ten years.
In 1909 Walthall learned that Kirkwood was working as a film actor at American Biograph Studios. While initially not enthusiastic about the motion picture business (as few theater actors were in the 1900s), Walthall visited the studio and met with D. W. Griffith. Griffith cast him in the film A Convict’s Sacrifice (1909), playing opposite Kirkwood. This is thought to be Walthall’s first film role, although some believe he may have had a bit part in the 1908 Rescued From An Eagle’s Nest, an Edison film which starred Griffith. At any rate Walthall was not initially convinced that he wanted to be a film actor and returned to Miller and Anglin to be in another run of “The Great Divide” in England. When the run was unsuccessful he returned to New York and accepted Griffith’s still-open offer to be a part of the Biograph company.
Starring in dozens of one- and two-reeler dramas, Walthall (nicknamed by the company “Wally”) became one of Griffith’s most popular actors–despite the early movie-going public not even knowing his name. Films such as The Sealed Room (1910) and Death’s Marathon (1913) showcased his screen presence and ability to give intelligent dramatic performances. In 1913 Griffith moved his company from Biograph to the Reliant-Majestic studios in California. Walthall had the role of Holofernes in Judith of Bethulia (1914), Griffith’s first feature, and the lead in The Avenging Conscience (1914). He then joined the Pathe studios for a short time and tried his hand at starting The Union Feature Film Company, the first studio to concentrate exclusively on feature films. However, when the venture was unsuccessful he returned once again to Griffith.
Walthall was cast as the “Little Colonel” in The Birth of a Nation (1915), a role that would secure his place in film history. He almost didn’t get the role due to his occasional struggles with alcoholism; Griffith was concerned enough that he appointed Walthall a personal bodyguard to look after him. For the rest of his life Walthall would be most identified with the “Little Colonel.” Despite the astonishing success of the film he chose not to stay with Griffith, possibly because the subsequent Intolerance (1916) didn’t have any strong roles for him. Joining the Essanay company, he starred in several films that dealt with troubled subjects, such as The Raven (1916) in which he played Edgar Allen Poe.
In 1917 Walthall divorced Isabel. He also made the decision to leave Essanay and move away from the “morbid” roles that were no longer popular due to the advent of WWI. In 1918 he started his own company, Henry B. Walthall Pictures Inc., making films such as His Robe of Honor and Humdrum Brown. The films were not successful and he reunited with Griffith briefly, starring in The Great Love opposite Lillian Gish. In 1918 he married Mary Charleson. The two of them had one child, Patricia (born in 1918) and were happily married until his death.
Throughout the twenties Walthall had a difficult time finding good screen roles. Although he had a few starring roles, much of the time he was consigned to bit parts, albeit in respected films such as Wings (1927). When the talkie era began he still played bit roles, but in 1934 starring roles in Viva Villa! and Judge Priest started an official comeback. He signed a contract with Fox and for the next two years had leading roles in several prestigious films, such as A Tale of Two Cities.
In 1936, while working on the film China Clipper he became ill with what was diagnosed as intestinal influenza. Three weeks later Walthall died in the Pottenger Sanitarium on June 17, 1936. He had starred in over 300 films. He is interred in the Hollywood Forever cemetery in Los Angeles.
A fan-made site devoted to Walthall: http://www.henrybwalthall.com/SweetHomeAlabama.html