Vincent Price – The Versatile Villain – By Dennis Grisbeck

Anybody who hears the name “Vincent Price” will certainly remember two things: His piercing gaze and his legendary, sinister laughter. This multifaceted actor will always be remembered as the evil villain: cackling maniacally, performing monstrous deeds, and meeting his inevitable doom. However, there are many other sides to this remarkable man that many are not aware of, including his love of cooking, poetry, art, and orchid gardening (he was cremated along with his favorite gardening hat).

Born Vincent Leonard Price Jr., in St. Louis, Missouri on May 27, 1911, Vincent was the youngest of 4 children. Being born of a well-to-do family (his father was a prosperous business man who owned the National Candy Company in St. Louis.), he was afforded the opportunity to study at Yale University, graduating in 1933 at the age of 22. Receiving degrees in Art History and English, Vincent decided to try his hand at teaching. It was after only a year of teaching at Yale that Vincent realized his skills were not up to his standards and decided to move to Europe in order to further his education. Vincent packed his bags and moved to London, studying fine arts at the Courtauld Institute of London University. While studying in London, Vincent became interested in theater. Taking advantage of the cheap ticket prices at the time, Vincent attended as many performances as he was able.

During this period, theater producers were eagerly looking for actors with American accents to cast in their plays. Taking a chance, Vincent auditioned and got a double-role of a policeman and a judge in the play “Chicago”. In 1934 Vincent also appeared in the London production of “Victoria Regina”, which was to be a huge break for him so early in his acting career. The producer of the play, Gilbert Miller, took the play from London to New York where one of the most popular actresses of the time, Hellen Hayes, was cast in the leading role to play opposite Vincent. The play opened in New York in December 1935 and ran until 1938, bringing Vincent into the public’s eye. It was also during these busy, formative years, that Vincent met and fell in love with actress Edith Barrett, whom he married on April 23, 1938.

Vincent took his first movie role in the Hollywood production of “Service De Luxe” in 1938. Although Vincent acted with great ability in “Service De Luxe”, he wasn’t fully recognized for his talents until the 1939 film “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex”. The film cast Price as Sir Walter Raleigh, along with other big stars such as Bette Davis and Errol Flynn. This extra exposure was the catalyst he needed in order to finally gain the public’s attention and admiration. It is interesting to note that although Vincent Price appeared in a few horror-movie roles early in his career, it was not until 15 years later that he became a horror icon after starring in the 1953 file “The House of Wax”. In fact, Price was considered a Hollywood heart-throb, even being featured in several teenage “hunk” magazines in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Price also keep busy on the stage as well, performing in a critically acclaimed one man Oscar Wilde show which toured America for many years.

When Vincent was 29, his wife Edith gave birth to their first child, Vincent Barrett Price, on August 30, 1940. Keeping busy in Hollywood, Price continued to take roles in as many as 17 films between 1940 and 1947! In addition to his work in film performances, Vincent also took part in radio shows, using his smooth, velvet voice to woo the air waves. It was also during this period of rising stardom that Vincent and his wife separated and eventually divorced in 1947.

Two years later, in 1949, Vincent married a woman named Eleanor Grant. Vincent and Eleanor moved to Los Angeles where he continued to make films and also began to dabble in television, even hosting a TV production of “The Christmas Carol”. (Now there’s something you probably wouldn’t associate with Vincent Price!)

Taking advantage of the latest 1950’s Hollywood trend, the 3-D movie, Vincent Price starred as Professor Henry Jarrod in the classic horror film, “House of Wax” (1953). From this point on, Vincent would continue to star in numerous horror films, such as “The Fly” (1958) and “The House on Haunted Hill” (1959). Despite starring in several other non-horror films during these years, Vincent would from then on always be associated with the horror genre.

In addition to acting, Vincent was also a successful author and published his first book in 1959, an auto-biography entitled “I Like What I Know”. He also wrote in 1961 titled “The Book of Joe: About a Dog and His Man”, a story based on Vincent’s own relationship with his beloved canine companion. Vincent was also a well respected chef and authored several popular cook books. In 1965, Price and his wife co-authored their first cook book called “A Treasury of Great Recipes”. Four years later, in 1969, Vincent and Mary wrote their next cook book called “Come into the Kitchen”. Finally, they came out with a five-book set called “A National Treasury of Cookery” which was a historical overview of recipes and cooking in the early years of the United States. This set of books consisted of ‘Recipes of Early America’, ‘Recipes of the Young Republic’, ‘Recipes of Westward Empire’, ‘Recipes of Ante Bellum America’, ‘Recipes of Victorian America’.

Vincent Price was also a renowned art enthusiast, and had amassed a large art collection in his home. Vincent even had a business arrangement with Sears department stores which sold his “Vincent Price Collection”. Price also arranged and donated a large collection of art to the East Los Angeles College in 1951. This art collection is still managed by the Price family and will be celebrating its 55th anniversary next year.

The 1960’s were a busy time for Vincent on the silver screen as well. Price was cast in a popular series of movies loosely based on Edgar Allen Poe stories: “House of Usher” (1960), “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1961) and “Tales of Terror” (1962). These three movies permanently fixed Vincent Price as a horror icon; a connection which Vincent openly relished. Furthermore, on April 27th, 1962, Vincent and his wife had their first child together, Mary Victoria. (In 2000, Victoria wrote an excellent biography on her father called “Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography”.)

Vincent continued to star in film and theater during the 1960’s and 1970’s, appearing in over 35 roles between 1965 and 1975 alone! In 1971, Vincent starred in one of his most famous roles, Dr. Phibes, in “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” (1971). This movie was so successful it was quickly followed by a sequel just a little over 1 year later, “Dr. Phibes Rises Again” (1972). Despite these active and prosperous times, Vincent’s marriage to Eleanor failed, and they were divorced. In 1974 Vincent remarried again, this time to actress Coral Browne, a marriage that would last until her death nearly 20 years later.

The rest of the 1970’s and 1980’s were lean years for the horror genre, one in which Price took in stride, using his extra free time to focus on writing and art collecting. To make up for the dwindling number of movie roles, Vincent focused on television and theater instead, such as hosting a popular British cooking show called “Cooking Price-Wise”, which allowed him to both keep in the public eye and perform on of his favorite activities: cooking. Price often poked fun at his horror-icon status by making guest appearances on popular TV shows such as “This Is Your Life”, “The Dean Martin Show”, “The Tonight Show” and even “The Muppet Show” and “The Brady Bunch”(!). His television career also included hosting the popular television show “Mystery!” for an astounding 10 years! In addition to television, Price also toyed with pop music, good-naturedly provided a “ghostly” rap for Michael Jackson’s hit song “Thriller” in 1983.

In 1990, the young and upcoming director, Tim Burton, a huge admirer of Price, cast Vincent in his final movie role in the film “Edward Scissorshands”. A short time after, on May 29, 1991, Vincent’s wife Coral died after a long struggle with cancer. Later that year, a memorial for Coral was held but Vincent’s health was so poor he could not attend. Instead, he wrote a touching letter which he gave to director John Schlesinger to read out loud at the service:

“Dear John:

When I was courting Coral, the first gift she gave me was a photo of herself simply signed, “Remember Coral” — not really a challenge as the problem was, how could you forget her? I’ve come to believe remembering someone is not the highest compliment — it is missing them. I find I miss every hour of Coral’s life — I miss her morning cloudiness, noon mellowness, evening brightness. I miss her in every corner of our house, every crevice of my life. In missing her, I feel I’m missing much of life itself. Over her long illness, as I held her hand or stroked her brow, or just lay still beside her, it was not the affectionate contact we’d known as we wandered down the glamorous paths we’d been privileged to share in our few years together; we were marching towards the end of our time and we both knew it. But, in our looks, our smiles, the private, few, soft-spoken word, there was hope of other places, other ways, perhaps, to meet again.

One fact of Coral I’ll always miss, her many, many devoted friends — many here, today, in this beautiful church, celebrating her life more than mourning her death, and missing the liveliness of her wit, her personal beauty, her outgoing self. I love them all for loving her. Many of you have shared more of her life than I have, but that very private and intense passion for her is mine alone. She survived that last long year on the love of her friends, their caring and concern — and very especially yours, dear John.

I miss you all, and though we may not meet as often, nor in the great good company of my wife, you are in my memory locked.

All my love, Vincent”

Sadly, later that year Vincent was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and lung cancer. Vincent Price, illustrious actor, author, cook, gardner, and father, succumbed to his illnesses on October 25, 1993, at the age of 82. Without a doubt, Vincent Price’s generosity and contribution to the arts will be remembered for generations to come.