He was heading for an exceptional career in the early 1940s. He had “scored” in several major hit films and was a unique leading man-character actor.
But something unexpected happened — he died, at age 31. His film career almost exclusively at Twentieth Century Fox covered 16 titles in over just five years, 1940 to 1945. (No wonder you’ve never heard of him.)
A big, burly man — standing 6-feet-three-inches tall, and weighing as much as 300 pounds — with a powerful voice, Cregar was tailor made for costumes dramas, swashbucklers and, best of all, a creepy film noir or two.
He was an interesting contrast, the offshoot of an aristocratic family (he studied in England at age eight) who took a job as a nightclub bouncer before getting into movies in 1940.
He became one of Hollywood most reliable heavies. Check him out in the excellent 1941 Fox noir, I Wake Up Screaming, costarring Victor Mature, Carole Landis and Betty Grable in her first non-musical role. The movie’s wonderful cast includes Elisha Cook Jr. and Alan Mowbray (one of Joe’s favorite character actors) with Cregar playing the creepy villain. His is an all too convincing performance.
The interesting thing about Cregar’s career is that he was not pegged as a mere “character actor.” Instead, he had a principal role right alongside Fox heavyweight Tyrone Power in 1942′s The Black Swan (one of five films he made that year). With the Alan Ladd-Veronica Lake duo, he appeared in This Gun For Hire.
One of our favorite Cregar roles was as “Herr Funk” in 1942′s Joan of Paris. A year later he co-starred with Gene Tierney and Don Ameche in Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait. His Jack-the-Ripper-type character appeared in 1944′s The Lodger costarring Merle Oberon and old reliable George Sanders.
Cregar’s last movie outing in 1945 was in Hanover Square, again with Sanders (paired this time with Linda Darnell). He died of heart failure following surgery for an intestinal ailment. He supposedly overburdened his system trying to lose a large amount of weight in a very short period. A richly promising career was over much too quickly.