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John Qualen
1899 – 1987  Class of 2012  Actor
For anyone who watched movies in the 1930s, John Qualen had a face you always recognized, a voice you sometimes recognized, but a name you never recognized.  Such was the bane of a character actor.

John Qualen was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, on December 8, 1899, to Norwegian immigrants.  His father was a minister and took a position in Aurora, Illinois, in 1917.  Education had been lacking in previous locations, which caused John to be three years older than his classmates when he entered East Aurora High School.  A year later, he transferred to Elgin High School when his father became the minister of what today is Zion Lutheran Church.

John’s popularity was evident as he participated in entertainment events during his two years at Elgin High.  He was elected
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Senior Class President and played a character in the senior class play alongside future Elgin Courier News executive Kendall White.

Little did John know he was on his way to Hollywood, California.  An event occurred in March of 1920 that would forever change his life.  As a student, he traveled to Northwestern University to compete in the school’s Interscholastic Declamation Contest. He won and was presented with a one-year scholarship to Northwestern, which he said went unused because he had to go to work.

John’s winning speech was a rendition of A Message to Garcia written by Elbert Hubbard in 1899.  It was about a Spanish American War soldier who carried a message to Cuban General Garcia.  The soldier performed his job unfailingly and without reservation, an “average Joe” who proved the hero when no one else would attempt the task. In a sense, this became John Qualen’s mantra…just do the work.

By now, the acting bug had bitten John.  He entered the Lyceum Arts Conservatory in Chicago fresh out of high school.  That led to work with the Chautauqua circuit. “Chautauquas” were traveling tent shows.  Before long, John formed his own traveling production, the Qualen Concert Company, and added to his growing list of characters and dialects.

During this time, his family left the Fox River Valley for Iowa where his father had a post with a new church.  While visiting, John met Pearl Larson, his future wife.  Together, the pair produced three daughters.
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In 1929 John Qualen appeared in the first of his two Broadway plays, playing a Swedish janitor.  His excellent Swedish dialect earned him the roles.  When both plays became Hollywood films, John reprised both roles.  After the second film in 1934, the Qualens moved to California.

In 1935, the birth of the Dionne Quintuplets in Canada became international medical news.  Three films were produced in Hollywood about the babies, with John Qualen portraying Papa Dionne in all three productions.  Moviegoers enjoyed his portrayals, but the real Papa Dionne detested them.  The quintuplets were a huge tourist attraction, allowing Papa the opportunity to sell as many as 500 autographed photographs per hour in the family gift shop.  However, after the movies were released, that figure dropped to twenty.  Fans thought John Qualen was the real father and stopped buying the photos. Papa Dionne was so upset that he sued John for lost wages.
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John could make someone believe he was Swedish, French, or Italian through his mastery of dialects.  That ability, plus his growing reputation of being totally prepared when filming started, made John a director’s favorite.  Legendary director John Ford added the actor to his stock company.  He was widely sought after for prominent character roles, and both Henry Fonda and John Wayne requested John for their films.

From 1931 to 1974, John appeared in nearly 130 major motion pictures.  Among his popular screen successes are Three Musketeers, The Road to Glory, Tortilla Flat, Jungle Book, The Fugitive, Student Prince, Anatomy of a Murder, The Sons of Katie Elder, Elmer Gantry, North to Alaska, The High and the Mighty, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and dozens of other films.
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John enjoyed steady work and appeared in such classics as His Girl Friday, The Grapes of Wrath, and Casablanca.  He is, in fact, the only actor to appear in both The Grapes of Wrath and Casablanca.  His ability to portray Berger, the Norwegian resistance member, in Casablanca, and Muley, the dirt farmer losing his home in Grapes, demonstrated his unique abilities as a character actor.  

Because childhood rheumatic fever made John ineligible for induction, he was unable to serve in the military during World War II.  He became a mainstay instead at the Hollywood USO.  While starlets danced with the servicemen, John worked the kitchen detail.  His diary showed that he missed only six nights during the three years he volunteered.

After the war John continued making films but not at the pace of the 1930s.  The bulk of his work was on the small screen. One night during those live television days he appeared in three shows, with CBS arranging for a car to take him to each studio.  He memorized his lines while in transit. One week he appeared in twelve comedies and dramas on TV.  His diary listed over 1,000 television appearances, including some Alfred Hitchcock shows, from 1950 to 1978.

John was well liked in Hollywood.  In addition to the many roles he was asked to play, he served as Historian for The Masquers and was Treasurer of The Author’s Club.  

John Qualen never forgot Elgin.  He returned to many class reunions and always listed Elgin as his hometown.  About a year before his death on September 14, 1987, John signed an autograph card for a fan, writing on the card, “Thank you for remembering this old actor.”  In accepting the Fox Valley Arts Hall of Fame medallion on behalf of John Qualen, Linda Rock, repeated that phrase to the 2012 audience and said, “Thank you for remembering this old actor.”

Note:  The source of this profile information is Jeffery L. White, Nominator of John Qualen
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 Cast in nearly 130 motion pictures between 1931 and 1974
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