Henry Travers: The Character Actor Who Landed a Heavenly Role

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By Ken Zurski

Travers John Heagerty, better known as Henry Travers, was an English stage actor who came to America in 1917 and starred in numerous Broadway productions that spanned nearly two decades.

His most famous stage role was in “You Can’t Take It With You,” a Pulitzer Prize winning play about “a man from a family of rich snobs who becomes engaged to a woman from a good-natured but decidedly eccentric family.”  In over 380 performances, Travers played the role of Grandpa Vanderhof, the patriarch of the oddball Sycamore family.  When it came time to make a movie version, however, Travers was passed over for the more well known American film actor Lionel Barrymore. Jimmy Stewart played the lead.

“You Can’t Take It With You” became the highest grossing picture in 1938 and won an Oscar for Best Picture.

Director Frank Capri won Best Director, his third in five years.

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Although Capri went with more established actors in the Oscar winning film, in 1945, when casting for a new production, he found a role for Travers as a bumbling but goodhearted guardian angel who saves a man from taking his own life and shows him the true spirit of living. In turn, the angel earns his wings to heaven.

The angel, of course, was named Clarence and the film was titled “It’s a Wonderful Life.” 

The rest of the movie’s cast was a familiarity.  Capra tapped the steady Lionel Barrymore to portray the miserly banker, Mr. Potter and mainstay Jimmy Stewart played the part of George Bailey.  Travers got fourth billing behind actress Donna Reed who played George’s wife, Mary. 

“It’s a Wonderful Life” received 5 Academy Award nominations in 1947, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Stewart and Best Director. It ran its course and faded off as most movies did in mid-20th century. Then in the 1970’s, three decades after it’s release,  the movie gained a newfound interest and dedicated fans.  It has been a beloved perennial holiday favorite ever since.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” was also a bit of swan song for the interminable character actor. After decades in the business and over 50 films, Travis’ appeared in just one more movie, a 1949 comedy, “The Girl for Jones Beach,” starring Ronald Reagan. That same year, Travis retired from acting. He was 75.

Travers didn’t live long enough to see his character “Clarence” become so revered.

He died in 1965 at the age of 91.

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