Price, Vincent Leonard, Jr.

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Price, Vincent Leonard, Jr.

(b. 27 May 1911 in St. Louis, Missouri; d. 25 October 1993 in Los Angeles, California), art connoisseur and actor in 100 motion pictures, best known for his roles in horror films.

Price was the youngest of four children of Vincent Leonard Price, president of the National Candy Company of St. Louis, and Marguerite Cobb Willcox, a homemaker. An early interest in art led Price, at the age of twelve, to purchase a Rembrandt etching for $37.50. Throughout grammar and high school at the exclusive St. Louis Country Day School, Price acted in school plays and musicals.

Price entered Yale University in 1929. Along with studying, he frequented theaters and art galleries and joined the Yale Glee Club. He graduated in 1933 with a B.A. in English (with an art history minor). After a year of teaching English at the Riverdale Country School in New York City, Price left the United States in 1934 to study art history at London University’s Courtauld Institute. He never finished his thesis on Albrecht Dürer. In 1935, on a dare, Price auditioned for, and was cast in, Chicago at London’s Gate Theater. That same year he was cast as Prince Albert in Victoria Regina. His performance was praised, and he rapidly became a celebrity. The play moved to Broadway in December, where Price continued his role opposite Helen Hayes. Later, Price would credit Hayes with teaching him the craft of acting. When the play began a national tour in the summer of 1937, Price stayed in New York to broaden his acting range through summer-stock productions. He met the actress Edith Barrett when the two starred in Par-nell, and they were married less than a year later, on 23 April 1938. Their son, Vincent Barrett Price, was born on 30 August 1940.

Late in 1938 Price joined Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre, which was devoted to producing classics on Broadway. After appearing in Shoemaker’s Holiday and Heartbreak House, Price grew disenchanted with Welles’s undisciplined style of production and left that summer for Hollywood. He soon signed a generous contract with Universal Pictures, and before the year was over he had made Service De Luxe (1938), a romantic comedy with Constance Bennett. This film, as well as The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and The House of the Seven Gables (1940), established Price as a matinee idol. In 1941-1942, Price appeared on Broadway in Angel Street to rave reviews. The Prices decided to divide their time between Hollywood and New York City. Though for the rest of his life Price would travel back and forth, he considered Hollywood his home.

In 1943 Price and his fellow actor George Macready opened The Little Gallery, an art shop in Beverly Hills. Despite the fact that it closed in a year, Price’s reputation as an art connoisseur was cemented, and he would later sit on the board of trustees of the Los Angeles County Art Museum and spread his enthusiasm for the arts throughout the nation.

In the 1940s, under contract to Twentieth Century Fox, Price appeared in a number of memorable films, such as The Song of Bernadette (1943), Laura (1944), and Dragon-wyck (1946). Price was also in demand on radio, performing on such programs as Suspense and The Saint. In 1948 Vincent and Edith were divorced. Price married the costume designer Mary Grant on 28 August 1949; their only daughter, Mary Victoria Price, was born on 27 April 1962.

In 1951 Price donated ninety pieces from his personal art collection to East Los Angeles College, with which he had been affiliated since he had given an art lecture there in 1948. This donation became the foundation of the Vincent Price Gallery, the first hands-on, “teaching art collection” in a U.S. community college. Price remained integrally involved with the gallery until his death.

Price moved easily from drama to comedic character roles in films such as Champagne for Caesar (1950) and His Kind of Woman (1951). His performances were usually praised by critics, but it wasn’t until he appeared in his first true horror film, House of Wax (1953), that he achieved stardom. Along with appearing in such classics as The Ten Commandments (1956) and The Fly (1958), Price appeared onstage in West Coast theaters and toured the nation in Don Juan in Hell. He also appeared in numerous television shows, including Playhouse 90 and the quiz show $64,000 Challenge in 1956, where he won the top prize in the category of art. That appearance is credited with linking him to art in the mind of the public. At the request of the U.S. government, from 1957 to 1972 he served on the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, which promoted Native American products. Price’s autobiographical journey through art, I Like What I Know (1959), was a critical and popular success.

In 1960 American International Pictures (AIP) and the director Roger Corman made House of Usher, starring Price. The film’s success resulted in Price working on twenty-two more films for AIP over the next fourteen years, six of which were based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, most notably The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Raven (1963), and The Masque of the Red Death (1964). These low-budget films mixed humor with menace, garnered generally good reviews, and made money. Some, like the “shockumentary” Taboos of the World (1965), Price merely narrated. Others, like Witchfinder General (1968) and The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), though still within the horror genre, allowed Price to exhibit his fine dramatic range.

From 1962 to 1966, Price worked for the department-store chain Sears, Roebuck selecting original works of art for the Vincent Price Collection, which aimed to bring “fine art at reasonable prices” into the homes of middleclass people. Also for Sears, Price and his wife edited A Treasury of Great Recipes (1965). This cookbook, featuring recipes from restaurants in nine nations, was a best seller and added culinary expertise to Price’s reputation as a Renaissance man.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Price continued to appear on television programs, including The Lucy Show, The Brady Bunch, and Batman, usually as a “wacky” villain, a self-parody of his earlier roles. Price also appeared on game shows, most notably more than 900 times on Hollywood Squares. Price’s wit made him a hit on talk shows, especially the Tonight Show, where he once demonstrated how to cook a fish in a dishwasher. In 1966 Price began to write an art column for the Chicago Tribune, which was soon nationally syndicated.

While filming Theater of Blood (1973), Price met and fell in love with the actress Coral Browne. Mary and Vincent divorced in April 1974, and Price married Browne on 24 October. Starting in 1977 Price toured the country for a year and a half in Diversions and Delights, a one-man play about Oscar Wilde. Most critics and fans agree that it was the performance of his career. Although it closed after a short time on Broadway, Price would go on to perform it throughout the 1980s in more than 250 cities worldwide.

Price’s voice was so recognizable that he was often hired for voice-over work. He appeared on Alice Cooper’s album Welcome to My Nightmare (1975) and Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1983). In 1986 Disney hired him as the voice of Professor Ratigan, the villain in The Great Mouse Detective (1986). After narrating the director Tim Burton’s animated short Vincent (1982), about a boy who idolizes Vincent Price, the two men became friends, and in 1990 Price had a cameo in Burton’s feature film Edward Scissorhands, as Edward’s inventor. From 1981 to 1989 Price hosted Mystery!for PBS, introducing British mysteries to the American television audience. It was perhaps the ultimate incarnation of his lifetime of personas: menacing, yet urbane. Price died of lung cancer and Parkinson’s disease. He was cremated and his ashes scattered off Point Dume, near Santa Monica, California.

Price’s papers are held at the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Washington, D.C. Price’sI Like What I Know (1959) covers his early years. Victoria Price, Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography (1999) is an exhaustively detailed biography. Lucy Chase Williams, Complete Films of Vincent Price (1995) examines his films and contains a lengthy biography. See also Lawrence French, Steve Biodrowski, and David Del Valle, “Vincent Price: Horror’s Crown Prince,” in Cinefantastique 19, no. 1/2 (1989): 40-84. Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times (26 Oct. 1993) and the New York Times (27 Oct. 1993).

Kevin Lauderdale