Jean Hersholt (12 July 1886 – 2 June 1956) was a Danish actor who lived in the United States where he was a leading film and radio talent, best known for his 17 years starring on radio in Dr. Christian and for playing Shirley Temple's grandfather in Heidi. Asked how to pronounce his name, he told The Literary Digest, "In English, her'sholt; in Danish, hairs'hult." Of his total credits, 75 were silent films and 65 were sound films. He appeared in 140 films and directed four.
Born in Copenhagen, Denmark to a well-known Danish stage family, Hersholt toured Europe performing with his family when he was young. He then graduated from the Copenhagen Art School. His first two films were made in Germany in 1906. He emigrated to the US in 1913, and the remainder of his movies were made in America.
Hersholt's best remembered film roles included Marcus Schouler in Erich von Stroheim's Greed and Shirley Temple's beloved grandfather in the 1937 film version of the 1880 children's book, Heidi, written by Swiss author Johanna Spyri. During his long career in the movies, his roles ran the gamut from early silent villains to secondary parts in which his mild Danish accent and pleasant voice suited him to depict a succession of benevolent fathers, doctors, professors and European noblemen. Hersholt's last role was in the 1955 movie Run for Cover.
In The Country Doctor (1936), a movie starring the Dionne quintuplets, Hersholt portrayed Dr. John Luke, a character based on Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe, the Canadian obstetrician who delivered and cared for the Dionne Quintuplets. Two sequels followed. Hersholt wanted to do the role on radio but could not get the rights. He decided to create his own doctor character for radio, and since he was a Hans Christian Andersen enthusiast, he borrowed that name for his character of the philosophical Dr. Paul Christian who practiced in the Midwest town of River's End with the assistance of Nurse Judy Price. With the opening theme music of "Rainbow on the River," Dr. Christian was introduced on CBS on November 7, 1937 on The Vaseline Program, aka Dr. Christian's Office and later Dr. Christian, sponsored by Chesebrough Manufacturing's Vaseline.
In 1939 Hersholt helped form the Motion Picture Relief Fund to support industry employees with medical care when they were down on their luck. The fund was used to create the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California, and it led to the creation in 1956 of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, an honorary Academy Award given to an "individual in the motion picture industry whose humanitarian efforts have brought credit to the industry."
The small-town physician's good humor, innate common sense and scientific training helped drive off a series of villainous types who tried to interfere with the peaceful lifestyle of River's End. Produced by Dorothy McCann, the radio series became a popular long-run hit, continuing on CBS until 6 January 1954, with Hersholt so strongly identified with the role that he received mail asking for medical advice. There were various spin-offs as Hersholt co-wrote a Dr, Christian novel and made a series of six family films as Christian from 1939 to 1941. In 1956, his Dr. Christian character made the transition to television, scripted by Gene Roddenberry, with Macdonald Carey as his nephew Dr. Mark Christian.
Hersholt's large collection of Hans Christian Andersen books is now in the Library of Congress. He translated over 160 of Andersen's fairy tales into the English language. These were published in 1949 in six volumes as The Complete Andersen. His Andersen translations are regarded as the best English versions in existence. Hersholt was knighted by King Christian X of Denmark in 1948 partly due to this endeavor.
Hersholt was married to his wife, Via, in 1914. They had one child: Allan. He was the uncle of actor Leslie Nielsen and former Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Erik Nielsen.
Hersholt died in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California and is interred in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. His grave in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale is marked with a statue of Klods Hans, a Hans Christian Andersen character who left Denmark to find his way in the world — much as Hersholt himself had done.
Honors and awards
Hersholt was honored for his services to the industry twice with an honorary Academy Award, first in 1940 and the second time in 1950, and in his honor the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award was named by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6501 Hollywood Boulevard for his work in motion pictures and another one at 6701 Hollywood Boulevard for his work in radio.
1.^ Funk, Charles Earle (1936). What's the Name, Please? A Guide to the Correct Pronunciation of Current Prominent Names. New York: Funk & Wagnalls. OCLC 1463642.
2.^ "Jean Hersholt (1886-1956)". Golden Silents. 20 May 2005.
3.^ Lars Bo Jensen (2008). "The Complete Andersen - Edition info". The Hans Christian Andersen Center, University of Southern Denmark.
4.^ "Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award." Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. 2009.