William Wallace Halleck Reid was born into an acting family in 1891 in St. Louis, Missouri. His mother was an actress and his father James “Hal” Reid was a playwright and actor. Although Wallace acted a bit as a child his parents made sure he went to school. First he was sent to a military school and then a seminary in Pennsylvania, graduating in 1909. By all accounts he was a talented and handsome all-American boy, a skilled musician and sportsman.
When Hal went to Selig Polyscope Studios in Chicago to write and direct films, Wallace followed. He was not interested in being an actor but preferred to be behind the scenes as a cameraman. However, at 6’2” with blonde hair and blue eyes, the camera loved him. He was quickly cast as an actor. His first film was 1910s “The Phoenix”. Wallace and his father would occasionally act together and his father acted through 1919, passing away in 1920.
In 1911 Wallace went to Vitagraph with one of his father’s scripts in his hand, hoping to direct it himself. Once again his looks got in the way (poor guy). He was cast as an actor, although he would occasionally direct. In 1912 he was cast in “The Red Cross Martyr” with Florence Turner. The two would continue to make several films together. Wallace continued churning out short films and in 1912 alone he made 36 films.
One of those films was “His Only Son” with Dorothy Davenport. Dorothy was already an established actress from an acting family. At first she was unimpressed by Wallace but soon enough they were in love and married in 1913.
Wally’s On Top
Wallace Reid’s career continued with great promise, making 17 films in 1917. That year his wife also gave birth to a son, Wallace Reid, Jr. Throughout this time, Wallace had a reputation of being a bit of a daredevil who enjoyed fast cars and a good drink. He was universally liked both by women for his good looks and men for his all-American athletic persona. Even a young Clara Bow waited outside a theater in Brooklyn for hours for a chance to get a glance at the matinee idol. She later credited this experience with inspiring her to try movies out for herself.
In 1918 Wally, as he was known by friends and the press, made another 10 films. Six of these were with actress Ann Little, including a mix of dramas and comedies like “House of Silence”, “The Firefly of France” and “The Man from Funeral Range”. Unfortunately a large portion of Wallace Reid’s films are lost, including all from 1918.
In 1919 Reid filmed the romantic race car adventure film “The Roaring Road”, again with Ann Little. This started a string of the genre for Wallace. His love for racing cars continued off screen as well, with a rumored car accident involving producer Thomas H Ince somewhere around this time. Wallace was on top of the world when he filmed 1919s “The Valley of the Giants” with Grace Darmond. This recently recovered film, “The Valley of the Giants”, was filmed in California. It would have been just another film on Wallace Reid’s resume had an unfortunate turn of events not occurred.
He had nearly finished filming the movie, when he and the crew were involved in a terrible train wreck while moving locations from California to Oregon. The caboose of the train jumped tracks and flipped completely over, injuring nearly everyone on board.
Wally suffered a three inch cut in his scalp and received six inches. Unfortunately, the pace of the film needed to (or was made to) continue. Rather than get the care and attention he needed, he was prescribed morphine for his pain and sent back to set. This would begin an addiction that he was never able to shake.
Once the film was over, Wally continued filming another two movies that year including “Hawthorne of the U.S.A.” with Lila Lee . The following year he made another five films. By this time he was fully addicted to the morphine that the studios had provided him with to keep him going. His wife later admitted that he had gone to “drug dens”. He used morphine to numb his pain from the accident and used alcohol to try and cover his tracks.
At this point he was still able to function in films and he made follow ups to his race car success, “The Roaring Road” with “Excuse My Dust” again with costar Ann Little and his son Wallace Reid Jr making an appearance. He also made race car adventure films, “Double Speed” and “What’s Your Hurry” as well as “Sick Abed” and “Dancin’ Fool” with Bebe Daniels.
A Steep Decline
He continued making films at a steady pace, with another seven films under his belt in 1921. Even though his morphine addiction was taking over his personal life, his career was moving along and studios were (allegedly) pumping him filled with drugs to help keep the momentum. While filming “The Affairs of Anatol”, costar Gloria Swanson said she avoided him as best she could because of his drug use.
In 1922 Wallace and Dorothy “adopted” a second child, three year old Betty, although it was rumored Betty was actually a child from an affair that he had had. Wally made 10 films in 1922, at the height of his addiction. How he could even act at this point and how the studios could look the other way is upsetting.
By the time Wallace made “Nobody’s Fool” in late 1922 he could barely stand, was down to 130 lbs on his 6’2” frame and was at the point of no return. While filming one day he collapsed and was taken to a sanitarium where he told studio execs he would either come out clean or dead.
While at a sanitarium it came out in the press that Wallace was a drug addict. Although it came as a great shock to the public that their all-American hero was dealing with demons, Hays and studios supported his treatment and focused on his rehabilitation rather than missteps. Unfortunately Wallace was not able to recover. In January of 1923, while still hospitalized, he came down with the flu. He passed away shortly thereafter with Dorothy by his side. He was only 31 years old.
His wife Dorothy Davenport made a film “Human Wreckage” starring Wally’s old costar Bebe Daniels. It’s purpose was to bring awareness about drug use and toured around America showing the film. She never remarried. Even though Wallace Reid made over 160 films in 12 years, he is most known for being the first Hollywood actor to die of drug addiction (or the most widely publicized anyway). Another tragic ending to such a promising and affable young actor.