Price, Vincent (1911-1993)

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Price, Vincent (1911-1993)

A veteran of theatre, film, radio, and television, Vincent Price's fifty-five-year acting career ran the gamut from classic film noir to especially bad "B" movies, but his lasting legacy is the Gothic horror movies he made with ghoulish glee and good humor. In the era that preceded the cinematic bloodbath of late-twentieth century slasher films, the mellifluous and debonair Price reigned as Hollywood's Master of the Macabre. With his distinctive voice, handsome demeanor, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek approach to Gothic films, as he liked to call them, Price brought style and fun to the horror genre. Generations of film fans reveled in Price's ability to send his audiences on a hilarious horror romp and then scare them to death.

Although his style was decidedly English, Vincent Leonard Price Jr. hailed from Middle America. The youngest child of a successful candy manufacturer, Price was raised in financial comfort among the social elite of St. Louis, Missouri. The son and brother of Yale graduates, Price received an excellent education aimed at prepping him for Yale, which he attended for four years, receiving a degree in English. But Price's passion was art history, which he studied at the prestigious Courtauld Institute in London.

A longtime theatre and movie buff, Price auditioned for a bit part at London's Gate Theatre on a dare and was cast in the role of a Chicago policeman. Bitten by the acting bug, Price next won the coveted role of Prince Albert in Victoria Regina. When Broadway producer Gilbert Miller bought the play as a vehicle for Helen Hayes, Price returned to New York, where he made his Broadway debut in 1936. For two years, he appeared nightly in the hottest play on Broadway. Regarded as a matinee idol, the handsome six-foot-four-inch actor eventually struck out on his own and ended up in Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre.

In 1938, Price signed with Universal Pictures, where he was groomed to be a leading man, but after a disappointing screen debut in a light comedy, Price was cast in second and third leads for four years before returning to Broadway in 1941 to star in Angel Street. Playing the sadistic villain in a play that would become Broadway's longest-running melodrama (and later a hit movie, Gaslight), Price discovered a penchant for playing evil men. A year later, he returned to Hollywood, where he joined the strong stable of actors at Twentieth Century-Fox.

During the 1940s, Price appeared in such screen classics as Laura and The Song of Bernadette before winning the starring role in Dragonwyck. Cast as a despotic, drug-addicted, murdering landowner, Price won rave reviews, but it would be another decade before he fully embraced villainy. It was the 1953 3-D horror classic The House of Wax that catapulted Price into horror-movie fame. During the 1950s, when the genre was undergoing a resurgence of public interest, Price appeared in two cult classics, both directed by the master showman of horror, William Castle: The House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler.

American International Pictures's cycle of films based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe and directed by Roger Corman ultimately transformed Price into the modern King of Horror. Shot on a ridiculously low budget in fifteen days, Corman's House of Usher (1960) was a tour de force for Price, who played the tormented Roderick Usher. The film was both critically acclaimed and financially successful. Price and Corman made five more Poe films together, from the lighthearted Tales of Terror (1962) to the surreal The Masque of the Red Death (1964). The Raven (1963), a delectable comedy that united Price with fellow horror stars Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre, became a particular audience favorite and remains a staple of late-night television. Price's tongue-in-cheek approach delighted his fans, as did his willingness to spoof himself in popular TV shows such as The Brady Bunch and Batman, on which he appeared as the villainous Egghead.

To counteract his horror persona, Price assembled and sold the Vincent Price art collection for Sears, Roebuck & Company; and wrote three best-selling gourmet cookbooks. Cultured and intelligent, Price was often referred to as Hollywood's Renaissance man.

During the early 1970s, Price continued to make horror classics such as The Abominable Dr. Phibes, but he grew discouraged as the genre changed from Gothic tales to slasher films and decided to return to his roots in the theatre, spending almost a decade touring the globe with his one-man show about Oscar Wilde. In the mid-1980s, Price was introduced to a whole new generation when Michael Jackson asked the seventy-two-year-old actor to provide the rap for his megahit "Thriller." And in 1987, Price played his first non-horror role in decades in the acclaimed film, The Whales of August, starring Bette Davis and Lillian Gish.

In 1982, Price was contacted by a young animator at Disney named Tim Burton who had made a short film about a boy who wanted to grow up to be Vincent Price. When the actor agreed to narrate the film, Price and Burton became friends. Eight years later, it would be Burton who provided the ailing actor with his cinematic swan song as the kind-hearted inventor in Edward Scissorhands.

—Victoria Price

Further Reading:

Price, Vincent. I Like What I Know. New York, Doubleday, 1960.

Williams, Lucy Chase. The Complete Films of Vincent Price. Secaucus, New Jersey, Citadel Press, 1995.