Joe Sawyer’s familiar mug appeared everywhere during the 1930s and 1940s, particularly as a stock player for Warner Bros. in its more standard college musicals, comedies and crime yarns. He could play both sides of the fence, street cops and mob gunmen, with equal ease. He was born Joseph Sauers in Guelph, Canada, on August 29, 1906, and eventually moved to California to pursue a film career. Trained at the Pasadena Playhouse, he had a perfect “tough guy” look: sturdy build, jutting chin and beady eyes, made more distinctive by his shock of light hair and a slightly high-pitched voice. Sawyer made his film debut in 1931 under his real name, which, contrary to popular opinion, was German and not Irish, though he made a career out of playing Irishmen, and appeared mostly in strongarm bit parts in his early career until hitting his stride playing a variety of coaches, cops and sidekicks with imposing names like “Spud,” “Slug” and “Whitey.” He appeared in hundreds of films, in just about every genre, over a four-decade-long career, among them College Humor (1933), College Rhythm (1934), The Westerner (1934), The Informer (1935), in which his portrayal of an IRA gunman got him noticed by the public and critics alike, Pride of the Marines (1936), Black Legion (1937), The Petrified Forest (1936) (another “tough-guy” role that got him good reviews), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), They Died with Their Boots On (1941), Sergeant York (1941), Tarzan’s Desert Mystery (1943), Gilda (1946), It Came from Outer Space (1953), North to Alaska (1960) and How the West Was Won (1962). He also guest-starred on many TV series and was a regular on The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin (1954) as Sgt. Aloysius “Biff” O’Hara. His first wife was actress Jeane Wood, the daughter of Gone with the Wind (1939) uncredited director Sam Wood. His second wife, June, died in 1960. Sawyer died in Ashland, Oregon, on April 21, 1982 of liver cancer at the age of 75.
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