Chester Morris was born John Chester Brooks Morris in New York City on February 16, 1901 to the actor William Morris (1861-1936) and the actress Etta Hawkins Morris (1865-1945) who was a comedienne in the Charles Frohman era.
While attending grammar school and high school in Mount Vernon, New York, he got his start in acting by appearing in a film made in New Rochelle by the Thanhouser Company (it has been reported that he was appearing in films at the tender age of 9 years old!). Upon finding out, William Morris promised to turn his son into a fine actor. At the age of 17, Chester made his Broadway debut, with Lionel Barrymore, in the stage production of The Copperhead at the Shubert Theatre, playing a 35 year old man named Sam Carter! In 1917 he graduated from the New York School of Fine Arts, billing himself as the "the youngest leading man in the country!” During this time Chester had several successes (and, of course, flops), appearing in such notable plays as Turn to the Right, in which he took over the lead role for Jason Robards, who had been called to New York to appear in the play Lightnin'. Some other stage productions that he appeared in throughout the late teens and twenties were: So This is London, with the well known character actor, Charles Coburn, Thunder (opening 9/22/1919 at the Criterion Theatre), and The Exciters (opening 9/22/1922 at the Times Square Theatre), in which Tallulah Bankhead had the lead role.
After all this hard work, he decided to spend two years on the Vaudeville circuit, doing a comedy sketch, called All the Horrors of Home. Included in this act were his parents and his three siblings: Adrian (1907-1941), Gordon (1898-1940) and his sister Wilhelmina. Adrian later became a screen actor, playing in many films, usually uncredited or in supporting parts.
After Vaudeville's demise, Chester returned to the theatre under the personal management of Mr. George M. Cohan, for four years. Under Mr. Cohan's guidance he appeared in Yellow (opening 9/21/1926 at the National Theatre). Playing a small role, alongside Chester in this play, was a young lad by the name of Spencer Tracy. During his time with Cohan, he also appeared in The Home Towners (opening 8/23/1926 at the Hudson Theatre). Next, under the guidance of A.H. Woods, came his biggest hit, Crime, which premiered at The Eltinge 42nd St. Theatre on 2/22/1927. This theatre was built by A.H. Woods in 1912. Sadly, he lost it during the Depression and it became a burlesque house. Crime was so popular that it soon went on to play at The Times Square Theatre, running for over a year! Chester went on to appear in the play in Boston and Chicago. Among the cast of this play were names that would soon be known to moviegoers of the 30's: Kay Johnson, Jack La Rue, Douglass Montgomery, Sylvia Sidney, and James Rennie.
Hollywood began to take notice and Chester was receiving offers for film work but he turned them all down. That was soon to change. Roland West was casting for the film Alibi in 1929, but was struggling to find the right actor for the part in Hollywood. West was advised by D.W. Griffith to consider Chester for the role; and having been given the opportunity, Chester relocated to Hollywood. His prior film work had relegated him to supporting roles. West signed him for the lead role. After Alibi, Chester sky-rocketed to fame almost overnight. He received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a ruthless gangster. His subsequent films allowed him to branch into action, romance, comedy and drama.
Chester starred in many films throughout the 30's. But in 1941, Columbia signed him to play the lead role in the Boston Blackie series, for which he is best remembered. The series became a very popular one, lasting 8 years. Thirteen Boston Blackie films were made between the years 1941-1949.
Unfortunately, by the 1950's Chester was unable to get work in films. He only appeared in She-Creature (for American-International) and Unchained (for Warner Bros). His success in the Blackie films, and the resulting typecast, became a detriment to future roles. However, his stage career flourished. He starred for two seasons as the ill-fated detective McLeod in Sidney Kingsley's play Detective Story. He then spent a year on Broadway in the smash hit The Fifth Season. He followed with a tour as Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. Broadway soon saw him again as Major Bartley, the father, in Joshua Logan's production of Blue Denim (opening 2/27/1958 -7/19/58 at the Playhouse Theatre). A stint as Eddie Carbone in Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, in San Francisco, also proved successful. Chester’s television work was extensive. He appeared on Dr. Kildare, Gentle Ben, Robert Montgomery Presents, Rawhide, Naked City, Ben Casey, Defenders, Route 66, East Side/West Side, Bob Hope Chrysler Theatre, Mr. Broadway, Coronet Blue, and many others.
He made a big-screen comeback in 1970, with a role in the boxing film The Great White Hope, starring James Earl Jones. Chester played Pop Weaver, a fight promoter. Unfortunately, by the time the film was released, Chester had already died from an overdose of barbiturates. He was making another appearance in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial at the Bucks County Playhouse and was due to go on stage that night. He was found on the floor of his room by producer Lee R. Yopp, who was to have had lunch with the actor that day. Chester had been suffering from ill health for several years prior, but his positive attitude lead few to believe that his condition was as serious. It was never determined whether the overdose was accidental or intentional.
On the personal front, Chester Morris was married twice. He wed actress Suzanne Kilborn in 1926, having two children with her, John Brooks born in 1928 and Cynthia born in 1930. They were divorced in November of 1939. The following year, on December 1, 1940, he married Lillian Kenton Barker. She was a former Powers model and the original Chesterfield girl. The marriage took place at the home of actor Frank Morgan and many Hollywood celebrities were in attendance. They had one son, Kenton, born by caesarean section in 1947.
Chester was known as a fine amateur magician. His face appeared on the cover of Magic magazines, and he was even selected by the American Society of Magicians to do a motion picture short illustrating feats of legerdemain. Unfortunately this was never released theatrically; it was used strictly for instructional purposes. Chester also put his magic to good use, entertaining soldiers with his magic tricks. He made over 380 USO appearances during WWII.
In his spare time he liked to play golf and tennis. He also enjoyed swimming and boxing to stay in shape. Music, sketching and painting were his artistic outlets, and he loved to read murder mysteries.
Throughout his long career, he was known for his professionalism. He was well liked and respected. In real life he was serious and reserved, quite different than the characters he portrayed.