This is edited and expanded from an entry in my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire site, written around 2005–07.
Thomas Meighan (9 April 1879-8 July 1936), one of the top sheiks of the silent screen, was a fellow Pittsburgher. His father, John, was president of Pittsburgh Facing Mills, which made foundry facings. His mother, Mary, was a homemaker. The Meighans were fairly well-off.
When 15-year-old Tommy refused to go to college, his dad put him to work shovelling coal in the mill. After a single week, he realised he didn’t want to do such hard, thankless work for the rest of his life, and resolved to pursue higher education after all.
Tommy set to work studying pharmacology at med school, but came to feel he was made for different things, and lost interest in medicine. Tommy began working for $35 a week in a stock company.
Tommy eventually made it to Broadway, where he scored leading roles and big successes. It was here he met fellow actor Frances Ring (4 July 1882–15 January 1951), sister of popular singer Blanche Ring. They quickly became inseparable, and married not long after they met.
Their marriage was one of Hollywood’s longest, happiest, and most successful, though they sadly never had any children.
In spite of what an established name he made for himself, Tommy decided to switch to film acting in 1914. His first film, Dandy Donovan, the Gentleman Cracksman, was made in London, and earned him a contract with Famous Players-Lasky (now Paramount).
Though Tommy was 36 when he began making U.S. films, he quickly became popular. Both he and Lon Chaney, Sr., hit true stardom with The Miracle Man (1919), of which only three minutes now survives.
Tommy’s star continued rising through the Twenties, and he co-starred with leading ladies including Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, Leatrice Joy, Norma Talmadge, Lois Wilson, Bebe Daniels, Louise Brooks, Lila Lee, and Renée Adorée.
Through most of his film career, Tommy earned $5,000 a week. At his peak of popularity, he earned $10,000 weekly.
When Rudy Valentino was arrested for bigamy in 1922 (having married Natacha Rambova less than a full year after his divorce from Jean Acker), Tommy was one of the people who came to the rescue with raising bail money. Though he barely knew Rudy, he nevertheless sold his gold coin collection.
Tommy’s talking debut, The Argyle Case (1929), was a huge success, but at fifty years old, he worried about future popularity. He preoccupied himself with Florida real estate until returning to the screen in 1931. Tommy played fatherly figures in his final films.
During the Great Depression, his successful, eponymous Meighan Theatre in New Port Richey, Florida, was forced to close. This theatre has since reopened, and now bears the name Richey Suncoast Theatre.
Around the time of Tommy’s final film in 1934, he was diagnosed with cancer. The next year, he had surgery at the now-razed Doctors Hospital of Manhattan, which had a reputation as a “fashionable treatment center for the well-to-do.” It was also the main Manhattan maternity hospital for uptown mothers.
At 7 PM on 8 July 1936, at his home in Great Neck, NY, Tommy lapsed into a coma. At 9:10, he passed away with his dear Frances, his brother James, his sister May, and family friend Stella Errol by his side. He was 57.
Tommy was always very generous with his money, regularly donating nice chunks of change to the Federation for the Support of Jewish Philanthropic Societies and Catholic charities alike.