Beery was born in Kansas City, Missouri to Noah W. and Marguerite (Fitzgerald) Beery. He was a younger brother of actor/film executive William Beery and actor Noah Beery, who also had long careers in the motion picture industry. He was an uncle of actor Noah Beery, Jr.. According to U.S. Census records, all three Beery brothers were born to the same parents, making them full brothers and not half-brothers as many biographies have claimed.
Wallace Beery joined the Ringling Brothers Circus at age sixteen as an assistant elephant trainer. He left two years later, after being clawed by a leopard. Beery found work in New York City in musical variety and began to appear on Broadway. In 1913, he moved to Chicago to work for Essanay Studios, cast as "Sweedie, The Swedish Maid," a masculine character in drag. Later, he worked for the Essanay Studios location in Niles, California.
In 1915, Beery starred with his wife Gloria Swanson in Sweedie Goes to College. This marriage did not survive his drinking and abuse. Beery began playing villains, and in 1917 portrayed Pancho Villa in Patria at a time when Villa was still active in Mexico. Beery reprised the role seventeen years later in one of MGM's biggest hits.
Wallace Beery's notable silent films include Arthur Conan Doyle's dinosaur epic The Lost World (1925; as Professor Challenger), Robin Hood with Douglas Fairbanks (Beery played King Richard the Lionheart in this film and a sequel the following year called Richard the Lion-Hearted), Last of the Mohicans (1920), The Round-Up (1920; with Roscoe Arbuckle), Old Ironsides (1926), Now We're in the Air (1927), The Usual Way (1913), and Beggars of Life (1928; with Louise Brooks).
Beery's powerful basso voice and gruff, deliberate drawl soon became assets when Irving Thalberg hired him under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as a character actor.
Beery appeared in the highly-successful 1930 prison film The Big House, for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor. The same year, he made Min and Bill (opposite Marie Dressler), the movie that vaulted him into the box office first rank. He followed with The Champ in 1931, this time winning the Best Actor Oscar, and the role of Long John Silver in Treasure Island (1934). He received a gold medal from the Venice Film Festival for his second performance as Pancho Villa in Viva Villa! (1934) with Fay Wray. (Lee Tracy was originally to appear in the film until he drunkenly urinated off the balcony into a crowd of Mexicans standing below; Tracy's career never recovered from the incident.) Other Beery films include Billy the Kid (1930) with Johnny Mack Brown, The Secret Six (1931) with Jean Harlow and Clark Gable, Hell Divers (1931) with Gable, Grand Hotel (1932) with Joan Crawford, Tugboat Annie (1933) with Dressler, Dinner at Eight (1933) opposite Harlow, The Bowery with George Raft and Pert Kelton that same year, China Seas (1935) with Gable and Harlow, and Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! (1935) in the role of a drunken uncle later played on Broadway by Jackie Gleason in a musical comedy version. During the 1930s Beery was one of Hollywood's Top 10 box office stars, and at one point his contract with MGM stipulated that he be paid $1 more than any other contract player at the studio, making him the highest paid actor in the world.
Beery's first wife was actress Gloria Swanson; the two performed onscreen together. Beery's second wife was Rita Gilman. They adopted Carol Ann, daughter of Rita Beery's cousin. Like his first, this marriage also ended in divorce.
According to E.J. Fleming's book The Fixers (about MGM's legendary "fixers" Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling), Beery, gangster Pat DiCicco, and Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli (who was also DiCicco's cousin and eventual producer of the James Bond films) allegedly beat comedian Ted Healy to death in a brawl. The book claimed that Beery was sent to Europe by the studio for a few months, while a story was concocted that three college students had killed Healy. Immigration records confirm a four-month-long trip to Europe on Beery's part immediately after Healy's death, ending April 17, 1938. A pencil drawing of Beery survives that was done on a film set by Healy, an amateur artist as well as the organizer and original leader of the Three Stooges.
In December, 1939, the unmarried Beery adopted a seventh month old infant girl Phyllis Anne. No further information on the child appears to exist, and she is not mentioned in Beery's obituary.
One of his proudest achievements was catching the largest black sea bass in the world off Santa Catalina Island in 1916. It was a record that stood for 35 years.
A noteworthy episode in Beery's life is chronicled in the 5th episode of Ken Burns' documentary The National Parks: America's Best Idea: In 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order creating Jackson Hole National Monument to protect the land adjoining the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. Local ranchers, outraged at loss of lands they wanted to graze and comparing this action of FDR's to Hitler's taking of Austria, were led by the aging Wallace Beery as they protested by herding 500 cattle across the monument lands without a permit.
Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, in Glendale, California.