An indelible icon of the silent film era – a true comic pioneer – and, the chief of one of the most famed repertory companies in cinema history. For fans of the pre-sound period of film, Ford Sterling remains a clear and unforgettable image: the Chief of the Keystone Kops.
He was born George Ford Stich, on November 3, 1882, in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Not much is known about his parents, George Ford and Mary Kirby Stich, except that the family moved, first to Texas, and then to Chicago, where they lived for several years after the elder George Stich died.
The rumors that have Ford running away from home to join a circus are false: he worked in George Wittier’s Repertory Company after he left school, and stayed in school until he was eighteen. Ford’s career began in Vaudeville – playing in the “legitimate theatre” with such stars as Otis Skinner and William Gillette – he also worked in the circus and played baseball, and was a cartoonist for the Chicago American, creating a cartoon series called “The Sterling Kids.”
However, it was his love for comedy – first seen in his circus work and then in Vaudeville – that gravitated Ford towards film. He joined the famed American Mutoscope and Biograph Company in late 1911 – with a probable film debut in Abe Gets Even With Father (1911); however, shortly thereafter, he went west to join legendary producer Mack Sennett and The Keystone Film Company, and it was there that he hit his professional stride.
Keystone was a prominent comedy studio in the early teens, with lovely leading lady Mabel Normand keeping the men in line. Sterling joined the troupe known as the Keystone Kops, and soon made his mark as Police Chief Teehezal. The Keystone Kops were known for their physical antics, and for stunts that almost defied gravity. At a time when comedy players were chiefly distinguished by a visible trademark, Sterling adopted a chin piece, and used his expressive face to create wonderfully vivid comedy.
Sterling left Keystone in 1914 to start his own producing company, Sterling Studios, but this venture lasted only a few months. He returned to Keystone in 1915, only to leave again in 1917, when he thought the company would soon fold. In 1917, he worked for Fox Sunshine Comedies; in 1918, LK-O, and in 1919, returned to work with Mack Sennett and his Paramount-Sennett venture. In 1920, Ford signed with Special Picture Corporation to make Cosmograph Comedies. Between 1923 and 1928, Sterling changed his career direction, beginning a successful venture in feature dramas – two examples are Day of Faith (1923), and Wild Oranges (1924). This period of his career showed a combination of straight and polite comedy roles. This acting style was not new to him, and his comedy roles were an offshoot of his earliest comedy technique during the Chief Teehezal days.
Ford Sterling was an extremely talented actor, equally adept at comedy and drama. He worked, at one time or another, for most of the major film producing companies, including Goldwyn, MGM, Paramount, Famous Players, Ince, First National, and Columbia. His strong features, deep eye contact, and booming presence made him a natural in any role he attempted. He had little problem making the transition to sound films, in the late 1920s: his voice was fine and rich, and he had a gift for accents. He made several musical comedies during this period, however no examples of these films seem to have survived the years. He did dance in some of the silents, and appeared quite proficient on his feet. Sterling gained, and maintained, quite a reputation for stealing any scene in which he appeared, during a career that spanned from 1911 to 1937. As comic innovators go, few equal Ford Sterling.
Ford was married, sometime between October 1914 and January 1915, to actress Teddy Sampson, who had a relatively successful career in her own right.
His final film was the RKO short Many Unhappy Returns (1937). During the summer of 1938, Sterling took ill, developing a thrombosis in his left leg, further complicated by diabetes – he spent the next 14 months of his life in the hospital. By spring 1939, his left leg was amputated. On October 13, 1939, a clot from another thrombosis broke away, resulting in a fatal heart attack. Ford Sterling was 57 years old. Ironically, on the day that Sterling passed away, Hollywood Cavalcade was released: in the film, Jed Prouty took the role of Chief Teehezal over, due to Sterling’s ill health. Ford Sterling’s contributions to the motion picture industry were recognized with a star along Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, at 6612 Hollywood Boulevard.
Classic comedy is timeless – and the pioneers of mirth making will live on, as their films are watched and enjoyed. Ford Sterling, as the chief of the earliest laugh creators, will remain an integral part of film history … forever.
Special thanks to Wendy Warwick White for her valuable help in the research, and for providing footage and still images, for the Life Story of Ford Sterling.