HENRY Travers is one of those actors you’ll almost certainly recognise – but you might not be quite sure why.
Although most famous for his role as bumbling guardian angel Clarence Oddbody in Frank Capra’s heartwarming festive favourite It’s a Wonderful Life, Travers had an astonishing Hollywood career – the highlight being back in 1942 when he was Oscar-nominated as best supporting actor for his role in Mrs Miniver.
It is a little-known piece of movie trivia that our region – specifically Berwick-Upon-Tweed – can lay claim to the late star.
Allan Foster, author of The Movie Traveller which is a film fan’s guide for the UK and Ireland, found out more about Travers, born Travers Hegarty, when researching his book.
“I found it quite difficult to get information,” confesses Allan.
“I think what I did in the end is put an advert in a Berwick newspaper.
“I found out that his niece or great niece still lived there then – she wrote to me. It was a hand-written letter but she didn’t want it made public that she was his niece and still lived in Berwick. She’d jotted down a few details but that was about it.
“I got the impression that the niece was fairly elderly, just by the style of the letter – but I don’t have it any more. That was the only correspondence I had with anyone about him.”
According to Allan, Travers was born in Ireland in 1874. However, other sources say he was born in Berwick and some that he was born in Prudhoe.
Allan says Travers came to Berwick in the late 1880s when his father Dr Daniel Hegarty settled in Tweedmouth.
Educated at Berwick Grammar School, it’s believed he initially trained as an architect before joining the Tweedside Minstrels who performed at local amateur shows.
In 1905, he joined the James Wallace Quintet and became a regular on the British theatre scene.
But the bright lights of Broadway soon beckoned.
Travers changed his name to Henry Travers and became arguably one of Britain’s greatest character actors, often cast as a dignified and amiable senior citizen. As wingless Clarence – ‘angel second class’ – he was sent to earth to save Jimmy Stewart from suicide.
“I found that most people didn’t really know who he was – of course as we are coming up to Christmas, a few people might due to his connection with It’s a Wonderful Life,” says Allan, 60, who lives just outside Kelso.
“I used to do a spot on Radio Borders about movies where I would ask questions on air. I asked a question about Henry Travers one day, asking if anyone knew who the actor was from a clip I played of It’s a Wonderful Life. Nobody got it!
“When you are sat in the studio there are five or six phone lines – all of which have a little light. When people started to phone in five or six lights would flash. With Henry Travers not one flashed.
“He is a known face but not a very well- known name.
“I know he went to Berwick Grammar School, that he was born in Ireland and that his dad came across to Berwick when Travers was young.
“He got involved in amateur dramatics and I think he got involved in a touring drama group. In those days they got booked to go to America – such as the likes of Charlie Chaplin. He saw how good it was over there and never came back.”
Allan managed to find his house in Berwick, which still stands. He said: “I can remember the house he lived in – there’s a picture in the book of it.
“Berwick has got a railway bridge and a main traffic bridge but it also has an old bridge – one of the single track ones with buttresses.
“As you are coming over that bridge with the town behind you – towards the south – you come off the bridge and his house is on the corner. I think it became a care home in later years. It wasn’t a substantial house – just an average looking house.”
Film expert Allan – the former chairman of the Scottish Film Society and author of several movie books – rates him highly as an actor.
He said: “It’s a Wonderful Life was a bit of a flop when it came out. It got popular when its copyright ran out and TV companies started to grab it and stick it on at Christmas. That’s what really got it to become a classic.
“I thought his performance was great. But he only ever seemed to be in things when he was old!”
Travers died on October 18, 1965 at 91 in Hollywood, California. Not much is known about his personal life.
However despite the little- known Berwick connection, a new generation will learn of Travers and his impressive Hollywood C.V.
Miles Gregory, chief executive and artistic director at The Maltings Theatre and Cinema in Berwick, explains why: “We did some research about actors with links to the area and we identified a number of well-known ones including Alexander Knox.
“But Henry Travers spent his formative years here in Berwick and that’s why we renamed the studio after him – to recognise his links with the theatrical community here in Berwick,” says Miles.
The Travers Studio sits 120 people and there are plans to turn it into a fully equipped black box studio suitable for experimental theatre, live music and as a learning resource. So the Travers legacy lives on.
Miles added: “He made a significant contribution.
“He’s the kind of chap people would have actually seen many times without possibly realising that it was indeed Henry Travers. He has been in an awful lot of films.
“It’s easy to overlook actors who have had a very successful career and who have been in employment throughout their career – the sum of their contribution is far greater than the individual parts they play.
“He always retained a great affection for Berwick and so it seemed fitting we renamed the theatre after him. He is remembered with affection here in Berwick.”
It’s a Wonderful Life is playing at Tyneside Cinema in Pilgrim Street, Newcastle, over the Christmas period. For more information, visit www.tynesidecinema.co.uk.
A SELECTION OF TRAVER’S FILMOGRAPHY:
The Invisible Man (1933)
Death Takes a Holiday (1934)
Born to Be Bad (1934)
Four Hours to Kill! (1935)
After Office Hours (1935)
The Sisters (1938)
Dodge City (1939)
Dark Victory (1939)
Stanley and Livingstone (1939)
The Rains Came (1939)
Primrose Path (1940)
Edison, the Man (1940)
High Sierra (1941)
Ball of Fire (1941)
Mrs. Miniver (1942)
Random Harvest (1942)
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Madame Curie (1943)
Dragon Seed (1944)
The Very Thought of You (1944)
None Shall Escape (1944)
Thrill of a Romance (1945)
The Naughty Nineties (1945)
The Bells of St. Mary's (1945)
The Yearling (1946)
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Gallant Journey (1946)
The Girl from Jones Beach (1949)