Robert Emmett Harron, nicknamed “Bobby,” was born on April 12th, 1893, the second oldest of nine children. His parents were John and Anne Harron. An Irish Catholic native of New York City, he attended the Christian Brothers school in Greenwich Village. As his family was working-class and poor, at age 13 or 14 he left home to find work and help support them. With the help of the family priest, Father William Humphrey, he found work as a messenger boy for American Biograph Studios. He would also be given bit parts in their films. When D. W. Griffith joined the studio as a director he soon noticed Harron’s potential as an actor and put him under contract.
Harron was given roles in dozens of short dramas (such as the 1912 A Burglar’s Dilemma), and soon became a favorite of both Griffith and audiences (especially among young female fans). He had a wide acting range; his characters were often naïve yet noble youths who quickly captured the sympathy of filmgoers, but he was equally capable of portraying mature men of the world (with the addition of a mustache to help age his boyish features). He was given choice parts in Griffith’s most famous features, such as Judith of Bethulia (1913), The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), and Hearts of the World (1918). His most frequent costars were Mae Marsh, Blanche Sweet and Lillian Gish. He had an especially strong chemistry with Marsh, and the two acted together in around 60 films. At times he also played in films for other studios, such as Metro and First National.
By 1920 Griffith had begun to concentrate his attention on other actors, such as Richard Barthelmess. Harron was to star in films for Metro, which would be under Griffith’s supervision. His first film under the new arrangement was Coincidence (not released until 1921).
On September 1, 1920, he traveled to New York City to attend both the premiere of Way Down East and a preview of Coincidence. He checked into the Hotel Seymour where he was going to share a room with his director Victor Heerman. Reportedly, while alone in the hotel room unpacking his trunk, a loaded handgun that had been bundled in some clothes fell to the floor and went off, hitting him in the left lung. He called the hotel desk for help but initially didn’t want the manager to call an ambulance, insisting that it was only a freak accident that could be treated by a local physician. He seemed unaware of the seriousness of his wound and joked: “I’m in the devil of a fix.“ After losing copious amounts of blood he was brought to the Bellevue Hospital Center on a stretcher. While going through treatment he was placed under formal arrest for possessing a firearm without a permit. After being in critical condition for several days and receiving the Last Rites from Father Humphrey, Harron died of his wound on September 5. He was 27.
Harron had never married, although he had a relationship with Dorothy Gish. There has been speculation that his death was really suicide, brought on by Griffith’s rejection of him for Way Down East. Family and close friends strongly insisted that he was not capable of such a thing, since he was a devout Catholic and the main breadwinner for his family. In 1993 Joseph P. Fanning obtained copies of Harron’s death certificate and medical records which seem to indicate that the wound was self-inflicted. Whatever the case, Harron’s death had been officially listed as being accidental.
Harron is interred in the Calvary Cemetary in Woodside, Queens, New York City.
Gish, Lillian. The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me.
The New York Times, September 2 1920: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F50811FE3C5E10728DDDAB0894D1405B808EF1D3