This is edited and expanded from an entry in my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire site, written in 2005.
William Wallace Halleck Reid (15 April 1891–18 January 1923) was born into a show business family in St. Louis, Missouri. His parents, Bertha Westbrook and James Halleck “Hal” Reid, were both actors travelling the country.
Though Wally appeared onstage as a small child, his acting career went onto the back burner after he enrolled at Freehold Military School in New Jersey. He graduated from Perkiomen Seminary in Pennsburg, Pennsylvania in 1909.
As a teen, Wally also spent time in Wyoming, where he acquired many outdoorsman skills. Other passions were sports and music. Wally was a pianist, drummer, violinist, and banjoist.
Following his father’s lead in moving from stage to film, Wally made his film début in 1910, for Chicago’s Selig Polyscope Studios. He then approached Vitagraph Studios with a script his dad wrote, hoping to become a director.
Though executives let him direct, he was also cast as an actor. They couldn’t let his dashing good looks go to waste behind a camera!
Wally gracefully accepted his new role as an actor, though was just as happy to direct, shoot, and write. He and his dad co-starred in several films, and before long rose to the attention of venerable director, producer, and screenwriter Allan Dwan.
While acting and directing for Dwan at Universal in 1913, Wally met and fell in love with Dorothy Davenport, who came from a long line of actors. They married that October, and made over 100 films together during 1914.
Wally began rising to greater attention after he appeared in a small role as a fighting blacksmith in The Birth of a Nation. He quickly became typecast as a handsome, clean-cut, all-American man, and frequently starred as a racecar driver. His leading ladies included Gloria Swanson, Lillian Gish, Florence Turner, Geraldine Farrar, and Elsie Ferguson.
His real-life, full-time leading lady Dorothy gave birth to their first child, Wallace, Jr., on 18 June 1917. Dorothy took a hiatus from acting to become a full-time mother. In 1922, she and Wally adopted a 3-year-old daughter, Betty Anna.
Wally was such a huge financial asset to Famous Players-Lasky Studios (now Paramount), he was forbidden to enlist for service in WWI. He compensated by selling Liberty Bonds and frequently opening his home to vets.
Wally’s life changed forever in summer 1919. While en route to Oregon for his latest film, The Valley of the Giants, Wally was seriously hurt in a train wreck. He got six stitches for a three-inch scalp wound, and morphine to ease back pain.
Just like what the scummy slavedrivers of Columbia Studios did to poor Curly Howard a generation later, Wally was not only forced to keep working through obvious ill health, but seriously overworked.
Doctors gave Wally more and more morphine so he could continue meeting the demands of his contract. Wally became addicted to it, and began deteriorating. To try to hide his drug addiction, he began drinking as well.
By the time of his last film, Thirty Days, he could hardly stand up, yet they kept overworking him. Wally went in and out of hospitals and sanitariums, in an era before substance abuse rehabilitation programs.
Wally collapsed during the making of Thirty Days, and was rushed to a sanitarium, where he contracted flu and slipped into a coma. He died in Dorothy’s arms, aged only 31.
Dorothy, widowed at only 27, became a crusader against drug addiction. She co-produced and starred in Human Wreckage (1923) to bring national awareness to this scourge. She followed it up with two more films warning about the dangers of social ills, Broken Laws (1924) and The Red Kimono (1925).