A Star is Born: Larry Parks as Al Jolson

13 02 2011

poster - jolson story

New York Times, Oct. 27, 1946

Introducing Larry Parks, Al Jolson’s Alter Ego”

A YOUNG man from Olathe, Kan., who is prancing the Music Hall’s screen as Al Jolson, is the sudden current personification of the “‘Star Is Born” motif. His name is Larry Parks. In setting about to make “The Jolson Story” two years ago, Columbia Pictures put on the traditional search for the man who would play the name role. Most of the aspirants had indulged in that popular American indoor sport, giving an imitation of the “Mammy” perpetrator. None, however, seemed to be just what Sidney Skolsky, the columnist who who turned producer to film the story of his lifelong friend, ordered.

This young man, Larry Parks, aged 31, was on the studio contract list. He had made a swarm of “B” pictures, had supported Paul Muni in “Counter Attack,” had played a Technicolor Western bad man in, “Renegades.” He had also done some quiet home work in the study of Jolson records, and when he said he’d like to try out for the Jolson role, he was given a test. At this point Columbia’s big boss, Harry Cohn, Skolsky, director Alfred E. Green and Jolson himself realized that the grail was right there on the home lot. The emotions of Parks himself, at realization of what the part would mean to him, added up to a pleasant panic,

Then began the grind of transforming Larry Parks of Olathe, Kan., and later of Joliet, Ill., to Al Jolson of New York, Hollywood and the globe. Jolson and Parks became inseparable, going to the races together and to shows and ball games and fights. Jolson talked with his alter-ego- for hours; he put on for him one-man shows, in which he reproduced the high spots of his famous routines. He re-created for Parks the atmosphere of the old Winter Garden, and of the first sound picture, “The Jazz Singer.”


Parks, who is 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighs 160, has small literal resemblance to Jolson, but as the companionship continued he took on the mannerisms and characteristics of the man. In the end, by virtue of constant association, the empathy or osmosis or trans-substantiation was complete and Parks became Jolson to a point at which he was a little frightened. He could not stop being Jolson, he says, even when he was alone. He is alone a good deal, because his wife, Betty Garrett, to whom he has been married for two years, is the star of Broadway’s “Call Me Mister.”

Becoming Al Jolson was far from the thoughts of Larry Parks when he was studying to be a doctor at the University of Illinois. His father was an advertising man, his mother a talented organist. He had had two childhood illnesses which left him with a weakened heart, and one leg slightly shorter than the other. His own will power and determination to be like everybody else, plus the encouragement of a hearty, non-coddling medical man, cured him, Today he’s a good swimmer, plays lacrosse, goes in for motorcycle racing.

Pullmans to Pictures

He thought doctors were wonderful and that it would be fine to be one. Onlytrained by his musician mother, he had done a little singing on the Joliet radio station, and at college he joined the dramatic club. By the time he had his Bachelor of Science degree he had decided not to use it. Then it was Broadway, and no jobs. He became an usher at Carnegie Hall, and later a uniformed guide at Radio City. “And this, ladies and gentlemen,” the dark-eyed, dark-haired guide would say, “‘is the Music Hall, showplace of the nation.” He made friends, at this time, with another would-be actor who was also a guide. The friend’s name was, and is, Gregory Peck.

Parks read Theatre Arts Monthly, answered sixty-four stock company ads, had six replies and took the job with the Guy Palmerston Players in Massachusetts because it offered a high of $20 a week. After that it was New York’s Group Theatre, where he played small parts in “My Heart’s in the Highlands” and “The Pure in Heart.” Then his father died, and he gave up acting for a more reliable income as a Pullman inspector on the New York Central Railroad out of Chicago. He hated it. When John Garfield, who had become interested in him at the Group Theatre, sent him a wire saying that a part awaited him in Warner’s “Mamma Raviola,” he hopefully hopped a bus to Hollywood. Thirty-six hours before “Mamma” was to start she was canceled.

The despondent and out-of-funds young man served as stooge while Barry Fitzgerald was testing for the part later played by Edward Everett Horton in Columbia’s “Here Comes Mr. Jordan.” Mr. Fitzgerald was found not to be the type; Mr. Parks was put on the contract list. His “B” career started with “Mystery Ship,” and after that, for thirty-odd pictures, it was the usual bleak miscellany of the film beginner. And now its “‘The Jolson Story,” and the letter B has been deleted from Mr. Parks’ alphabet. Coming up is another double-A–the Technicolor “Down to Earth”–in which he plays opposite Rita Hayworth, who plays Terpsichore, The Muse of the Dance.


Turner Classic Movies includes the following bio details on its website:
One of the most unfortunate victims of the second House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) wave was actor Larry Parks, who had transitioned from a stage career into a string of movie roles that eventually culminated in his Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Al Jolson in 1946’s The Jolson Story. He was hauled before HUAC only a few years later, and his early familiarity with the Communist Party, which he admitted to in his testimony, was enough to shatter his career.   Married to MGM musical star Betty Garrett, Larry Parks‘ life as a movie actor was basically over, and although he and Betty toured in a stage show together, eventually Larry devoted more time to non-entertainment businesses and only acted a few more times.   The obvious pain the HUAC proceedings inflicted on Parks’ life made him one of the most unfortunate stories of the blacklist.



14 responses

3 09 2009



24 03 2010
Shirley Schmehl

I did not remember Al Jolson when he was in his heyday because I was too young. When “The Jolson Story” came out into the theatres my mother took me and I was hooked from then on. He was the greatest then and no one even comes close today. I have both the Jolson story and Jolson sings again on video and play them over and over. Larry Parks was superb in the role and deserved and should have won the Academy Award for his performance.

3 10 2010
Lori Werling

What Hollywood did to Larry Parks was a dirty shame, when you see what goes on in Hollywood today, his involvement with Communisim was nothing, especially since he never participated in any activities and after leaving the committe, he was the only one who had the guts to own up to it. They should have given him a medal for his bravery in owning up to it and admitting that his only loyalty was to America. A great actor, a handsome guy, and from what I read, a very “nice guy”, had his career unjustly destroyed by some politicians who were looking for glory and, thankfully, not achieving it.

6 02 2011
Louise Lang Page

Larry Parks in The Jolson Story made a great impression on me when the movie first came out. To this day, if it’s playing on TV, I stop everything and watch it. After all these years, I think the Academy should give him a special honor. Very few actors leave such a strong memory. Perhaps this could alleviate some of the pain I’m sure his family has lived with all these years. Remember that Charlie Chaplin and Ingrid Bergman were welcomed back. And as others have said, these days the actors get away with everything….

3 03 2012
Sandy Pister

Larry Parks was brilliant in The Jolson Story and what happened to him is beyond tragic.

He deserves some recognition by Hollywood for such an incredible, indelibile performance.

It will always be one of my favorite movies and beyond that, Parks’
performance will never be forgotten.

4 03 2012
Louise Lang Page

Hi Sandy Pister, I was happily surprised to read your comment about Larry Parks. I’ve felt the same way for years. Even now, after all these years, it would be so respectful of the Academy to recognize his amazing performances in both The Jolson Story and Jolson Sings Again. Another year has passed, and another Oscar ceremony has come and gone without doing so. Every time these movies are shown on television, I’m transformed again into that world. Thanks Sandy for your comment.

27 01 2014
Kathleen Billington

I love Jolson’s voice and Larry Parks portrayal of Jolson. I have watched the Jolson movie many times. Larry Parks deserved recognition and didn’t deserve to be blacklisted. He hurts me to think of the injustice.

24 02 2014
Pam Holder

I love larry parks in the Jolson Story and Jolson Sings again.I have watched them many many times and when I can I play Al Jolson songs on cd and imagine Larry Parks singing in the movie. I agree that he should be given recognition for the movie and also the injustice done to him


3 08 2014

look how the actors talk against the USA today and are praised for it . I have no respect for Hollywood actors today who are ignorant and don’t most of the times, don’t even know what is going on. If you notice at times actors that you haven’t heard about for a long time give their opinion to be in the news again. The family went thru hell with the black list. He was not the only actor that suffered. Maybe that is what we need with some of the actors such as Shaun Penn and others like him, but they don’t mind taking America money.

20 03 2015
Patricia Miller

I watched The Jolson story and Jolson sings again over and over in 1945 first saw this film in the U K with my Mother we would watched it over and over again and I was just a little girl when it came the cinemas in London . My Mother loved it so much I had to go along and see it with her over and over again and now today I love it just as much as she did.I have bought the DVDs Larry Parks should be given recognition for the movie. He was truly amazing in the part of Al Jolson Could not fault him and the miming was incredible. He did not deserve to be blacklisted.

1 05 2015
emy atchley

I found Jolson Story as a young teenager and was hypnotized by the performance of Larry Parks. He should be honored and applauded for those performances. I have those movies on DVD and they come up on Classic Movies. I watch them over and over again and never get tired of the show.
After I saw Jolson Story first time as a kid I wanted his music. My Mother was amazed saying he was a great star when she was my age and here I am going through the same idolatry. Please tell Academy Awards that they should honor Larry Parks and not run him into the ground. That was nothing compared to what the actors do today and get away with it.

5 05 2015
Alan Valentine

My dad thought Larry parks was brilliant after seeing his films i can only agree

14 07 2021
Irwin Miller

I loved The Jolson Story as a kid, and when Larry Parks was appearing on Broadway in a play in the 60s, I asked my Dad to take me into Manhattan to meet Parks backstage. He was older, and bearded, but immediately recognizable. He immediately signed a photo of himself as Jolson from the films, which I own on DVD. I later learned about his heartbreaking testimony before HUAC that effectively ended his film career, with the exception of a supporting role in John Huston’s Freud with Monty Clift in 62. A wonderful actor and individual who passed too soon at 60.

6 11 2022
irene thomson

its never to late to right a wrong they wouldn’t even let him have \ wall of fame star but they let Donald Trump have one.
he was a wonderful actor and human being his wife Betty Garrett was also a member of a com/party but because she was pregnant she wasn’t called but the were both unofficially
blacklisted it was due one person that kept blocking them getting work. I have just finished reading her book very good read.

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