This is an expanded, edited version of an entry in my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire site, written around 2005–07.
Robert Emmett Harron (12 April 1893-5 September 1920) was born in NYC, the second of nine kids in a poor Irish family. Three of his younger siblings became actors too, and a fourth was an extra player.
Bobby attended Greenwich Village’s St. John Parochial School, and began working at American Biograph Studios as an errand boy at age fourteen. He also appeared in a few Biograph films as an extra.
In 1908, Bobby’s luck turned around when D.W. Griffith came to Biograph. Very shortly, he was being given roles in many one-reelers, and became Griffith’s favourite for juvenile roles in his features.
Griffith typecast him as a sensitive, naïve boy next door, someone who could appeal to filmgoers in these early years of the medium. Though Griffith often had him playing characters younger and more naïve than he actually was, Bobby was described as sensitive and soft-spoken in real life.
Young women in particular loved Bobby. His popularity made him into one of the original moviestars. During his too-short life, Bobby starred in 222 films.
Bobby entered acting to provide for his poverty-stricken family, and succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. By 1920, he was so popular, he was thinking about leaving Griffith and starting his own company.
Sadly, Bobby lost two of his actor siblings during his years of fame. Charles was killed in a December 1915 car accident, and Tessie died during the flu pandemic in 1918. In 1939, the third of his four acting siblings, Johnnie, died of spinal meningitis.
Bobby, Tessie, and Johnnie appeared together in Hearts of the World (1918).
Griffith sometimes paired Bobby with Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh, to underscore his image as a sweet, sensitive boy next door. Offscreen, Bobby was involved with Dorothy Gish, Lillian’s little sister.
Bobby wanted to leave Griffith in part because he’d gotten too old to play innocent, fresh-faced young men in love. He frequently lost leading male roles to the up-and-coming Richard Barthelmess.
In 1920, Griffith agreed to loan Bobby to Metro Pictures for a four-picture contract.
In August 1920, Bobby went to New York for the première of Way Down East and a preview of his first Metro film, the comedy Coincidence. On 1 September, he called the Hotel Seymour desk for help after accidentally shooting himself in the chest.
Bobby didn’t realise how serious his injury was, and joked to the manager he was in “a devil of a fix.” He wouldn’t let the manager call an ambulance, preferring a doctor examine him in the room. When no doctor could be found, Bobby agreed to the ambulance.
Bobby also initially refused a stretcher, and had to be convinced by medics of its necessity. At Bellevue Hospital Center, he was arrested and put in the hospital’s prison ward, for possessing a firearm without permit under the Sullivan Act.
Bobby maintained it was an accident, and that he’d taken the gun out of fear for his “hard to handle” brother Johnnie getting ahold of it. He said the gun fired when it fell out of a pair of trousers in his suitcase.
To this day, rumours persist that Bobby killed himself, devastated either because Dorothy had broken up with him, or because he’d been passed up for the lead role in Way Down East.
Lillian Gish and Miriam Cooper, his frequent co-stars, insisted he never would’ve killed himself, because he was his family’s main income source and was about to start shooting a new film.
Bobby appeared to be recovering when his friends visited him, but he succumbed to his punctured lung five days later. He was only 27.