Sidney Toler (April 28, 1874-February 12, 1947) was an actor and writer. Primarily Scottish ancestry, he was the second non-Asian actor to play the role of Charlie Chan. He was married to Viva Tattersall.
Following the death of Warner Oland, Twentieth Century-Fox began the search for a new Charlie Chan. Thirty-four actors were tested before the studio made their decision to choose Sidney Toler. Twentieth Century Fox announced their choice on October 18, 1938, and filming began less then a week later on Charlie Chan in Honolulu a film that had been originally scripted for Warner Oland and Keye Luke.
Sidney Toler was born in Warrensburg, Missouri on April 28, 1874. He showed a very early interest in the theater, acting in an amateur production of Tom Sawyer at the age of seven. Following his graduation from college, he became a professional actor in Kansas City, and then worked for a touring company during the late 1890s. For three decades, he acted on the stage in New York City, working with such future stars as Edward G. Robinson, John Barrymore, Katharine Hepburn, and Humphrey Bogart. In 1921, he co-wrote and directed Golden Days, a comedy starring Helen Hayes. Throughout the 1920s, Toler had an active role in co-writing or directing several other plays including The Exile (1923), Bye, Bye, Barbara (1924), and Ritzy (1930).
In 1929, Toler worked in his first Hollywood film, playing an Englishman in Madame X. For nearly ten years he worked in roles that supported well-known stars in films such as Blonde Venus (1932), starring Marlene Dietrich, The Phantom President (1932), with Claudette Colbert, and Trigger (1934), featuring Clark Gable.
Taking on the role of Charlie Chan following Warner Oland's death in 1938, Toler's portrayal of the Chinese detective in Honolulu was very well received. Besides Toler, there was another change in the series. Sen Yung, as Number Two Son Jimmy, replaced Number One Son Lee, who had been played by Keye Luke. Toler's Chan, rather than merely mimicking the character that Oland had portrayed, had a somewhat sharper edge that was well suited for the rapid changes of the times, both political and cultural. When needed, Charlie Chan now displayed overt sarcasm, usually toward his son Jimmy.
Through four years and eleven films, Toler played Charlie Chan for Twentieth Century-Fox. However, in 1942, following the completion of Castle in the Desert, Fox concluded the series. With war raging throughout the world, the overseas market that had made Charlie Chan films profitable for Fox was now unavailable.
Toler immediately worked to gain the screen rights to the Charlie Chan character from Eleanor Biggers Cole, the widow of Chan's creator, Earl Derr Biggers. He had hoped that Twentieth Century-Fox would distribute new Charlie Chan films if he could find someone willing to finance the new movies. This did not happen. Instead, Monogram Pictures, a lower-budget film studio, picked up the series.
With the release of Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944), the effects of a more limited budget were somewhat apparent. The quality of both writing and production were no match for those of Fox. However, even with their shortcomings, the Charlie Chan films were profitable and successful for Monogram Pictures. During this period, changes were again made. Jimmy was replaced by Benson Fong as Number Three Son Tommy, and Mantan Moreland played the ever-present and popular Birmingham Brown, who brought comedy relief - and Black audiences - to the series.
All told, Toler starred in eleven Charlie Chan films for Monogram Pictures. By the end of 1946, age and illness were affecting him. He was so ill during the filming of Dangerous Money (1946) and Dark Alibi (1946) that he could hardly walk, and it was through an heroic effort worthy of Charlie Chan himself that he was able to complete his last film, The Trap, in August of 1946.
Toler died on February 12, 1947, in Los Angeles, California from intestinal cancer.