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Addie McPhail, 97; Actress, Last Wife of 'Fatty' Arbuckle

May 05, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Addie McPhail, a former Hollywood actress who became the third and last wife of scandal-plagued silent-film comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, has died. She was 97.

McPhail, whose most recent married name was Sheldon, died of undisclosed causes April 14 in Canoga Park.

She was 26 and had nearly seven years as an actress in low-budget comedy short subjects and feature films behind her when she married the 45-year-old Arbuckle in 1932.

The rotund, baby-faced actor had been one of Hollywood's top funny men. But in 1921, he was charged with the murder of a young actress, Virginia Rappe, who died of peritonitis resulting from a ruptured bladder four days after collapsing in Arbuckle's bedroom during a party in his San Francisco hotel suite.

In 1923, after three trials -- the first two resulted in hung juries -- Arbuckle was acquitted of the reduced charge of manslaughter because of lack of evidence. In a statement, the jury said, "We feel a great injustice has been done him."

But the lurid case halted Arbuckle's career as one of Hollywood's highest paid actors.

He began directing low-budget comedies under the pseudonym William Goodrich and met McPhail in 1930, when he directed her in the comedy short "Up a Tree."

He would tell McPhail that he had fallen in love with her after seeing her in two of her previous films, "Midnight Daddies" and "Three Sisters," McPhail said in an interview with the London Guardian in 2000.

But love came more slowly to McPhail, who had a daughter, Marilyn, from her first marriage to songwriter and pianist Lindsay McPhail.

"I had feelings for Roscoe," she recalled, but "we worked together for several months at the studio before we even had lunch together."

By 1931, McPhail and Arbuckle were engaged and she was working with him on a vaudeville tour, which he hoped would be the first step in his comeback as a performer.

"Roscoe was warmly received, even in Montreal and Quebec, and met with only a little opposition," McPhail told the Guardian. "He wanted to prove to himself that he had been missed.

"What really surprised people was the fact that Roscoe never held any malice. All he wanted to do was to make people laugh."

While they were on the road in 1932, Jack Warner offered Arbuckle a chance to act under his real name in a comedy short.

"Roscoe felt he had been given his life back," McPhail said. "It was the call he had been waiting 11 years for."

They were married on the road by a justice of the peace in Erie, Pa., in June 1932.

A year later, Arbuckle had completed a successful series of comedy shorts and Warner Bros. had signed him to make a feature film when he and McPhail attended a party at a New York City restaurant in honor of their first wedding anniversary.

While getting into bed after returning to their hotel late that night, Arbuckle was laughing about something that had been said earlier in the evening.

McPhail continued talking from the bathroom; when she emerged she called out to her husband. He didn't answer.

"He was very peaceful," she said. "He looked as if he had fallen asleep. Then I realized he was dead."

Arbuckle's death from a heart attack at age 46, McPhail said, left her "feeling devastated for a long while."

But she believed that "Roscoe died happy. He was with a girl who loved him and Hollywood had forgiven him and welcomed him back."

She was born Addie Dukes on July 15, 1905, in White Plaines, Ky. Her father was in the insurance business and the family relocated frequently. In 1911, they settled for a long period in Chicago. In 1925, the family moved to Hollywood.

"I had already decided that I wanted to be an actress, so I thought this move was fate," McPhail told the Guardian.

Within two weeks, she signed a contract with the Stern Brothers, producers of short comedies distributed by Universal.

"I was a stranger in Hollywood so it was only my appearance that opened doors, although they never opened very wide," McPhail said. "Maybe I was never the actress I wanted to be."

Over the next few years, she appeared in numerous films, including two Universal comedy series, "The Newlyweds" and "Keeping Up With the Joneses," whose titles included "Keeping in Trim," "Showing Off," "Indoor Golf" and "Her Only Husband."

McPhail said the "rough and tumble of comedy was hard. It eventually cooled my ardor for acting."

After Arbuckle died, she appeared in only seven films in as many years, five of them uncredited bit parts, including her last one, in "Northwest Passage," in 1940.

"I don't believe I ever did anything spectacularly enough in pictures or on stage to be remembered for it," she said in 2000. "I was like a small ship passing through a rough sea."

McPhail later spent many years as a volunteer nurse at the Motion Picture and Television Fund retirement home in Woodland Hills, where many residents remembered her from her Hollywood days.

"When I reminded Norma Shearer, Caryl Lincoln, Viola Dana, Stepin Fetchit and others who I was," she told the Guardian, "they would always smile and say something good about Roscoe."

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