When you mention Milton Sills today, even many film historians draw a blank. Yet he was one of the biggest movie stars of his time. And he was a Chicagoan—through and through.
He was born in the city in 1882. His family had money—Dad was a mineral dealer, Mom was a banker’s daughter. Milton grew up on the South Side, attended Hyde Park High School, then entered the University of Chicago in 1899.
Sills studied philosophy and psychology, played sports, joined a frat–the whole Joe College bit. He also did some acting in a few campus productions.
After graduating in 1903 he was hired by the university to teach mathematics. Sills had talked about studying for a Ph.D, and it’s not clear what happened to that plan. What is known is that by 1905 he was a professional actor, part of a company that put on plays in Chicago and in the college towns of the Midwest.
Sills got his big break when he went to New York in 1908. Legendary producer David Belasco saw the young actor perform, recognized his talent, and helped promote his career. Over the next few years, Sills appeared in several Broadway plays.
It was the early days of motion pictures, and the movies were silent. Sills made his screen debut in a 1914 production called The Pit. The movie was a success, and earned him more work.
Sills was a versatile actor. He was a tall, brawny, muscular man who could play physical roles with ease. At the same time he was an intellectual who wrote poetry, and penned magazine articles without the aid of a ghost writer. Because of this background, he also looked comfortable in the more cerebral roles.
By the 1920s he was an established leading man. Sills scored notable triumphs on Miss Lulu Bett, Single Wives, and The Sea Hawk. The last film—don’t confuse it with the Errol Flynn version–often turns up on Turner Classic Movies.
Though busy in Hollywood, he kept in touch with his Chicago roots. Sills contributed to the University of Chicago’s alumni magazine, and made regular trips home to see his widowed mother. On one such visit, hundreds of female fans mobbed him and caused a near riot.
Sound came to the movies in 1927. Many silent-film actors couldn’t make the adjustment, and their careers were over.
Sills was at his peak. As a veteran stage actor he knew how to deliver dialogue, and the transition appeared easy. Yet nothing is ever certain in the entertainment business. Sills hesitated about taking the plunge into talkies.
In 1928 he took a partial plunge. The Barker is a drama about carnival life. Like many films of the time, it’s part talkie, part silent. Sills plays the title role. He has an excellent speaking voice, and he really can act.
Now Sills began to have health problems. He took a long vacation from work and rested in the Adirondacks. Early in 1930 he returned to Hollywood, filming Man Trouble and The Sea Wolf.
On September 15, Sills was playing tennis with friends at his Santa Monica home when he suddenly collapsed. Effort to revive him were futile. He was dead of a heart attack at 48.
Today Milton Sills in memorialized with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. But he is buried back in his hometown, at Rosehill Cemetery.