The son of an Ohio oil driller and farmer, American actor Clark Gable had a relatively sedate youth until, at age 16, he was talked into traveling to Akron with a friend to work at a tire factory. It was in Akron that Gable saw his first stage play, and, from that point on, he was hooked. Although he was forced to work with his father on the oil fields for a time, Gable used a 300-dollar inheritance he'd gotten on his 21st birthday to launch a theatrical career. Several years of working for bankrupt stock companies, crooked theater managers, and doing odd jobs followed, until Gable was taken under the wing of veteran actress Josephine Dillon. The older Dillon coached Gable in speech and movement, paid to have his teeth fixed, and became the first of his five wives in 1924. As the marriage deteriorated, Gable's career built up momentum while he appeared in regional theater, road shows, and movie extra roles. He tackled Broadway at a time when producers were looking for rough-hewn, down-to-earth types as a contrast to the standard cardboard stage leading men. Gable fit this bill, although he had been imbued with certain necessary social graces by his second wife, the wealthy (and, again, older) Ria Langham.
A 1930 Los Angeles stage production of The Last Mile starring Gable as Killer Mears brought the actor to the attention of film studios, though many producers felt that Gable's ears were too large for him to pass as a leading man. Making his talkie debut in The Painted Desert (1931), the actor's first roles were as villains and gangsters. By 1932, he was a star at MGM where, except for being loaned out on occasion, he'd remain for the next 22 years. On one of those occasions, Gable was "punished" for insubordination by being sent to Columbia Studios, then a low-budget factory. The actor was cast by ace director Frank Capra in It Happened One Night (1934), an amiable comedy which swept the Academy Awards in 1935, with one of those Oscars going to Gable. After that, except for the spectacular failure of Gable's 1937 film Parnell, it seemed as though the actor could do no wrong. And, in 1939, and despite his initial reluctance, Gable was cast as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, leading him to be dubbed the "King of Hollywood."
A happy marriage to wife number three, Carole Lombard, and a robust off-camera life as a sportsman and athlete (Gable enjoyed a he-man image created by the MGM publicity department, and perpetuated it on his own) seemed to bode well for the actor's future contentment. But when Lombard was killed in a 1942 plane crash, a disconsolate Gable seemed to lose all interest in life. Though far beyond draft age, he entered the Army Air Corps and served courageously in World War II as a tail-gunner. But what started out as a death wish renewed his vitality and increased his popularity. (Ironically, he was the favorite film star of Adolf Hitler, who offered a reward to his troops for the capture of Gable -- alive).
Gable's postwar films for MGM were, for the most part, disappointing, as was his 1949 marriage to Lady Sylvia Ashley. Dropped by both his wife and his studio, Gable ventured out as a freelance actor in 1955, quickly regaining lost ground and becoming the highest paid non-studio actor in Hollywood. He again found happiness with his fifth wife, Kay Spreckels, and continued his career as a box-office champ, even if many of the films were toothless confections like Teacher's Pet (1958). In 1960, Gable was signed for the introspective "modern" Western The Misfits, which had a prestigious production lineup: co-stars Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, and Eli Wallach; screenwriter Arthur Miller; and director John Huston. The troubled and tragic history of this film has been well documented, but, despite the on-set tension, Gable took on the task uncomplainingly, going so far as to perform several grueling stunt scenes involving wild horses. The strain of filming, however, coupled with his ever-robust lifestyle, proved too much for the actor. Clark Gable suffered a heart attack two days after the completion of The Misfits and died at the age of 59, just a few months before the birth of his first son. Most of the nation's newspapers announced the death of Clark Gable with a four-word headline: "The King is Dead." ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi