Who was Clark Gable? - Biography, Death & Quotes

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

In this lesson, we will learn about the life, fame, and death of Hollywood icon Clark Gable, star of ''Gone with the Wind'' and ''It Happened One Night.'' We will explore his early life in Ohio, his fascination with theater, his successes in Hollywood, and his untimely death.

Frankly, My dear, I don't give a damn.

Clark Gable (1901-1960) was an icon of the silver screen. He starred in films such as Gone with the Wind (1939) and It Happened One Night. In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, Gable starred in over 75 films. He acted alongside Hollywood starlets including Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, and Loretta Young. He was typecast in roles of the heroic adventurer and the hard-to-get romantic. But as we will discover, Gable's screen image and his biography tell two different stories.


He was born William Clark Gable in 1901 in the small town of Cadiz in eastern Ohio. He went by 'Billy' for most of his youth. His mother wanted to name him Clark, but his father, William Sr., protested because it was too effeminate. His mother died when Gable was just 10 months old. In an act of contrition, his father revised the birth certificate to include the middle name Clark on the same day that he filed his wife's death certificate.

William Sr. remarried in 1903 to Jennie Dunlap. Billy (Clark) grew close to his step-mother. At 16, he moved to Akron where he saw his first play. He was immediately hooked. He began volunteering as a stagehand, eager to one day act on the stage.

When Jennie passed away in 1919, it turned Gable's life upside down. First he traveled with his father to Oklahoma, where they worked on the oil fields. Three years later, Gable joined an acting troupe and traveled with them to the Pacific Northwest. He finally landed in Portland, Oregon, where he met Josephine Dillon, an acting coach. She would become his first wife.


In 1924, Gable and Dillon moved to Hollywood. Dillon set up an acting school and commenced with the business of grooming Gable as a Hollywood star. The first step in transforming him into a screen actor was to change his name. Billy finally became Clark Gable. Dillon tutored him in movement and voice, and paid for the dental work to get rid of the gaps between his teeth. Gable and Dillon separated just a few years later when he moved to New York to peruse a career on the stage.

Gable finally got his first film speaking role in The Painted Desert (1931), which led to a contract with MGM. Gable's first big hit was It Happened One Night (1934) with Claudette Colbert, which won him his first and only Academy Award.

King of Hollywood

In 1939 Gable played the part of Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind, a performance that established him ''King of Hollywood.'' The unforgettable line, ''Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn,'' cost the studio $5000 in fines. The producers said it was absolutely worth it.

Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh in Gone with the Wind
Gone with the wind

At first, the title of 'King' was just a joke. But over time it became part of his persona. A formal crowning ceremony was actually staged on the Ed Sullivan show. Still, Gable said, ''This 'King' stuff is pure bullshit. I eat and sleep and go to the bathroom just like everybody else. There's no special light that shines inside me and makes me a star. I'm just a lucky slob from Ohio. I happened to be in the right place at the right time, and I had a lot of smart guys helping me--that's all.''

That same year, Gable married Carole Lombard, whom he starred with in No Man of Her Own (1932).

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