Warner Oland (born Johan Verner Ölund, October 3, 1879 – August 6, 1938) was a Swedish-American actor most remembered for playing several Chinese and Chinese-American characters: Dr. Fu Manchu; Henry Chang in Shanghai Express and most notably Honolulu Police detective Lieutenant Charlie Chan. His career that included time on Broadway and numerous film appearances, including 16 Charlie Chan films.
When he was 13, Oland's family emigrated to the United States in November 1892 on board the S/S Thingvalla, which sailed from Christiania, Norway, to New York. After an initial stay in New York City, the family settled in New Britain, Connecticut. Educated in Boston, Oland spoke English and his native Swedish, and eventually translated some of the plays of August Strindberg.
As a young man, Oland pursued a career in theater, at first working on set design while developing his skills as a dramatic actor. In 1906, he was signed to tour the country with the troupe led by Russian-American actress Alla Nazimova (1879 – 1945). The following year he met and married the playwright and portrait painter Edith Gardener Shearn (1872-1968). Shearn made an ideal partner for Oland. She mastered Swedish, helping him with the translation of Strindberg's works that they jointly published in book form in 1912.
After several years in theater, including appearances on Broadway as Warner Oland, in 1912 he made his silent film debut in Pilgrim's Progress, a film based on the John Bunyan novel. As a result of his training as a Shakespearean actor and his easy adoption of a sinister look, he was much in demand as a villain and in ethnic roles. Over the next 15 years, he appeared in more than 30 films, including a major role in The Jazz Singer (1927), one of the first talkies produced.
Oland's normal appearance fit the Hollywood expectation of caricatured Asianness of the time, despite his having no proven Asian ethnic background. Oland portrayed a variety of Asian characters in several movies before being offered the leading role in the 1929 film The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu
The enormous worldwide box office success of his Charlie Chan film led to more, with Oland starring in 16 Chan films in total. The series, Jill Lepore later wrote, "kept Fox afloat" during the 1930s, while earning Oland $40,000 per movie. Oland took his role seriously, studying the Chinese language and calligraphy.
Despite his wealth and success, Oland suffered from alcoholism that severely affected his health and his 30-year marriage. In January 1938, he started filming Charlie Chan at the Ringside. However, a week into shooting, his erratic behavior culminated in his walking off the set, causing the film to be abandoned. After a spell in the hospital, he signed a new three-picture deal with Fox to continue playing Chan.
At the same time, he was involved in a bitter divorce from his wife which prevented him, by court order, from traveling overseas and moving his assets abroad. He was also soon involved in a public incident when, having ordered his chauffeur to drive him to Mexico, he was observed during a rest stop sitting on the running board of his car throwing his shoes at onlookers. The divorce settlement, favoring his wife, was announced to the media on April 2, 1938, and the same day he left the US by ship, turning up in southern Europe, then proceeding to his native Sweden where he stayed with an architect friend.
Warner is referenced anonymously in Paramahansa Yogananda's spiritual classic “Autobiography of a Yogi”, when they met on a train, [a famous actor who was, at first, critical of Yogananda's eastern garb] and the conversation soon evolved into an amicable philosophical discussion.
In Sweden, Oland contracted bronchial pneumonia, worsened by the apparent onset of emphysema from years of heavy cigarette smoking and he died in a hospital in Stockholm. Oland's last film was the unfinished Charlie Chan at the Ringside. Fox reshot Oland's scenes with Peter Lorre and released the finished picture as Mr. Moto's Gamble (1938). Following cremation in Sweden, his ashes were brought back to the United States by his ex-wife for interment in the Southborough Rural Cemetery in Southborough, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, where the Olands had previously resided in a historic farmhouse.
Alistair, Rupert (2018). "Warner Oland". The Name Below the Title : 65 Classic Movie Character Actors from Hollywood's Golden Age (softcover) (First ed.). Great Britain: Independently published. pp. 196–199. ISBN978-1-7200-3837-5.
Katchmer, George A. (1991). Eighty Silent Film Stars: Biographies and Filmographies of the Obscure to the Well Known (hardcover) (First ed.). Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland. ISBN978-0-89950-494-0.
Huang, Yunte (2010) Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History (New York: W W Norton)