Marc “MacDermott” on the cover of Motion Picture News.
Cultured and dignified whether playing lecherous aristocrats or burdened family men, Marc McDermott and his subtle acting drew accolades from critics and the public throughout his almost twenty year film career. Inhabiting a character from within, he brought realism and thoughtfulness to his performances. His natural vulnerability added a touching empathy to the many disabled and hurting characters he portrayed onscreen. While physically embodying these parts, however, he remained guarded in his personal life.
Born July 21, 1881 in Gouldbourne, New South Wales, Australia to Irish-born parents, Marcus Patrick McDermott dreamed of acting from a young age. He was educated at Jesuit College before hitting the boards at as a teenager in order to support his family. In a May 1912 interview with “Motion Picture Story Magazine,” McDermott recounted his early experience in the theatre. Actor George Rignold spotted the young man in a performance, adding him to his stock company for a production of “Henry V.” For the next seven years, McDermott toured the Australian continent with Rignold before joining Mrs. Patrick Campbell’s company, spending five seasons touring the United States and the United Kingdom with her in many productions, particularly “The Joy of Living.” He spent a season in London at Windham’s Theatre in “Peggy Machree,” before returning to the US to act with Richard Mansfield, Charles Frohman, and Klaw and Erlanger.
Marc McDermott in Motion Picture News.
Conflicting stories about his background exist, however. He told several interviewers over the years he was born in London, and moved with his family to Australia at the age of four. An Edison biography provided to “Moving Picture World” in September 1912 provides a slightly different story. It claims McDermott spent six years with Rignold before spending two seasons performing in a London production of “Sherlock Holmes” in Charles Frohman’s company. The young actor then toured the United States with Mrs. Patrick Campbell in “Magda,” then followed her to England to appear in “The Joy of Living,” “The Second Mrs. Tanqueray,” and “Undine,” touring England, Scotland, and Ireland. McDermott performed in “Sherlock Holmes” and “Peggy Machree” before returning to the US to perform with Mansfield and Klaw and Erlanger. Immigration records do show him arriving in New York August 6, 1906 after leaving Glasgow, and residing at the Lamb’s Club while performing onstage. A New York Daily Mirror squib notes that “Marc McDermott and Hugh Reticker, formerly members of the Birdsall Stock Company, have been engaged for the summer season at the Richmond Theatre, Stapleton, Staten Island.”
An actor friend took McDermott with him to visit the Edison Studio, which quickly hired him to a film contract to replace their star, Maurice Costello. Some sources list his signing as 1909, but no ads for the company show his name prior to 1911, per searches in Lantern, “Variety,” and other newspaper archives. Once at Edison, however, McDermott starred opposite Mary Fuller and Miriam Nesbitt, whom he would eventually marry. Befitting his dignified appearance and serious mien, he played more mature and older roles in adaptations of books and plays, essayed historical figures, or portrayed villainous characters. McDermott also began playing characters he seemed to have a natural affinity for, such as those with disabilities or dual roles.
Critics quickly recognized his talent, noting his high standard of performances. In its June 12, 1912 review of “The Angel and the Stranded Troupe,” “Moving Picture World” noted, “Marc McDermott plays the heavy and upholds the best understood traditions of what real actors do and how they act when no one can be induced to pay real money to see them act.” “Motion Picture Story Magazine” considered him one of the best actors for what they called “emotional” roles, with McDermott himself telling them he preferred acting in quiet, tense scenes. They described his good looking appearance, “He presents a very commanding figure, tall and well-built with clear-cut features, expansive brow, and deep-set, thoughtful eyes.” They also claimed he had “a face like a benediction.” “Motion Picture News” called him “one of the most talented actors appearing in motion pictures today… .”
McDermott first portrayed a paralytic in the acclaimed Charles Brabin directed film, “While John Bolt Slept,” called a masterpiece by “Moving Picture World” in its May 1913 review. They found his performance marvelous “…and one depending on suppression rather than emotional expression of what is passing in his mind. This is one of those instances in which only an accomplished actor could carry the message over into the hearts of the audience…To vitalize the paralytic and reveal by an infinitude of small signs the true nature of John Bolt required delicacy of perception on the part of the performer.” McDermott’s expressive eyes revealed the pain of the man as his conscience shows him the wrongs he has committed.
While at Edison, McDermott began working with director Charles Brabin, with whom he seemed to possess a natural affinity. More educated and worldly than some of their counterparts, the men hit it off and became friends, especially after traveling together with Nesbitt to England to shoot films in the summer of 1913 and later in 1914. McDermott even learned to fly for the film, “The Stolen Plans,” directed by Brabin.
McDermott suffered a serious accident while filming in England, one that might have contributed to later health issues. “Motography” reported that when the actor sat atop a mean-tempered horse for a scene, the animal “bolted, then began whirling, kicking and finally reared,” falling backward on McDermott, throwing him into an automobile’s footboard. He was left bleeding and unconscious under the car, while the horse madly galloped down the street. After treatment at a local clinic, filming resumed.
In 1914, McDermott starred in “The Man Who Disappeared,” a self-contained serial, in which he assumed the guilt of someone else for a crime, becoming a fugitive from the law long before Dr. Richard Kimball. He also played his first dual roles in “The Best Man,” portraying a jilted bridegroom and his cuckold. Author Robert Grau also highly praised his work in “The Theatre of Science: A Volume of Progress and Achievement in the Motion Picture Industry,” stating, “…I cannot be certain that he has been fully credited with the part he has played in delving into the classics of literature and perpetuating on the screen the all-compelling genius of the world’s greatest poets.”
McDermott once again played dual roles, this time as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde like twins, in the 1915 Brabin-directed film, “The Deadly Hate,” essaying the roles of an honorable man and his brother, “a disreputable epileptic,” per “Moving Picture World’s” review. ‘With a face, striking even when in repose, Mr. McDermott’s finished art enables him to express the subtlest character shadings to the deepest and strongest emotions with unerring skill. While he is especially partial to parts that are quietly tense with emotional power, he is as well known for his parts in dramas of melodramatic force and action and for his delightful comedy characterizations.” His polish and focus attracted fans in both critics and viewers.
When Vitagraph began moving into features in 1916, they lured McDermott away from Edison, breaking the gentlemen’s agreement between General Film Company members from poaching each other’s stars, though they suffered no harm. McDermott reunited with his friend Brabin in making dramatic films, playing such roles as older husband, father, and other mature characters. McDermott also married his long-time co-star, Miriam Nesbitt, on April 20, 1916.
Fox Film Corporation signed him in August 1918, calling him “Marc Steadfast” and like a fine wine, mellow and more ripened. He resumed working with Brabin on films like “Buchanan’s Wife,” once again playing dual roles, and starred opposite Theda Bara in “Kathleen Mavourneen,” though he also began suffering physical maladies. The trades noted he underwent a “minor” operation in the summer of 1918, and then on August 21, 1920, “Exhibitor’s Herald” reported that he had been away from films for more than a year due to a serious operation.
Marc Mcdermott, born in Australia.
“While New York Sleeps,” a triptych story directed by Brabin, brought both men accolades. Telling three different stories regarding characters in and around New York City, the film featured three main actors playing roles in each short, with McDermott playing shady con man, detective, and paralytic. The film and McDermott received outstanding reviews, many pointing out his portrayal of the paralyzed man, who can communicate only by blinking his eyes. “Picture Play Magazine” stated his “expressive eyes reveal horror, sadness and fright.”
By 1921, McDermott was performing in vaudeville and freelancing in films, as studios replaced older stars with younger, less expensive stars, and as they worried about his health. In 1922, Nesbitt first sued for divorce, claiming cruelty and abandonment and asking $5,000 counsel fees and $10,000 alimony. She later withdrew it, but then refiled in November 1923, with “Variety” reporting that she claimed infidelity by McDermott between May 21 and 23, 1923 at an East 27th Street hotel. The couple soon reached a settlement.
Over the next several years, McDermott appeared in smaller but still meaty character parts, appearing with such people as Lon Chaney, Milton Sills, Mary Pickford, Norma Talmadge, Ronald Colman, John Gilbert, and Greta Garbo. He often played greedy or lecherous older men, manipulating those around him.
His talent for portraying disabled characters landed him another strong part in the 1925 film, “Siege.” “Picture Play Magazine’s” review states “Marc McDermott gives one of the best performances I have ever seen on the screen as the mute, sensitive old bachelor whose life has run as evenly as a normal temperature. But then he is a great favorite of mine, and I always think he is good.”
Marc “MacDermott” “King of Expressionists.”
McDermott co-starred in the 1928 Warner Bros. film, “Glorious Betsy,” which featured sound sequences on Vitaphone disks. “Film Spectator” thought that his smooth voice would be a strong asset to him in sound pictures, and describes him as acting “with his usual, confidence, grace, and skill.”
Unfortunately McDermott’s health problems, probably caused by alcoholism, caught up with him. He suffered from a variety of stomach and liver issues, with his gall bladder removed in 1928. Some stories noted he had been stricken with an illness which forced him to remain at home, before being ordered to the hospital in early December 1928. A New York paper noted that his life was in danger in early 1929, “following treatment for a liver ailment.” McDermott died peacefully January 5, 1929 at Glendale’s Windsor Hospital.
Though he lived at the Hillview Apartments at 6533 Hollywood Blvd., funeral services were held at his mother’s house, at 139 N. Hayworth, followed by cremation and burial at Hollywood Cemetery. Active and honorary pallbearers at his funeral included Clarence Brown, Tully Marshall, Reginald Denny, Fred Niblo, Donald Crisp, Norman Kerry, Conrad Nagel, J. Stuart Blackton, and others. The Rev. Neal Dodd of the Little Church Around the Corner officiated at the service. McDermott left a $10,000 estate for his mother and sister.
Not as flamboyant as Tully Marshall or Gustav von Seyffertitz, or as charismatic as Lon Chaney, McDermott gave strong, compelling performances that highlighted the emotional vulnerability and sensitiveness of his characters. His subtle, polished performances draw in audience sympathy because they so perfectly evoke hurting characters looking to make connection to others. Mostly forgotten today, McDermott played out his life on the stage and silver screen.