Clifton Webb was the most improbable of movie stars that one could imagine -- in an era in which leading men were supposed to be virile and bold, he was prissy and, well, downright fussy. Where the actors in starring roles were supposed to lead with their fists, or at least the suggestion of potential mayhem befalling those who got in the way of their characters, Webb used a sharp tongue and a waspish manner the way John Wayne wielded a six-gun and Clark Gable a smart mouth, a cocky grin, and great physique. And where male movie stars (except in the singing cowboy movies) were supposed to maintain a screen image that had women melting in their arms if not their presence, Webb hardly ever went near women in most of his screen roles, except in a fatherly or avuncular way. Nevertheles, the public devoured it all, even politely looking past Webb's well-publicized status as a "bachelor" who lived with his mother, and in the process turned him into one of Hollywood's most popular post-World War II movie stars, with a string of successful movies rivaling those of Wayne, Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, or any other leading man one cares to name. Indeed, Webb was for more than 15 years a mainstay of 20th Century Fox, his movies earning profits as reliably as the sun rising -- not bad for a man who was nearly rejected from his first film on the lot because the head of production couldn't abide his fey mannerisms.
Clifton Webb was born Webb Parmalee Hollenbeck, in Indianapolis, IN, in 1891 (his date of birth was falsified during his lifetime and pushed up by several years, and some sources list the real year as 1889). His father -- about whom almost nothing is known, except that he was a businessman -- had no interest in preparing his offspring for the stage or the life of a performer, a fact that so appalled his mother (a frustrated actress) that she packed herself and the boy off to New York, and he started dancing lessons at age three. By the time he was seven years old, he was good enough to attract the attention of Malcolm Douglas, the director of the Children's Theatre, and he made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1900 (when he would have been either seven, nine, or 11), playing Cholly in The Brownies. Webb was taking lessons in all of the arts by then, and in 1911, made his operatic debut in La Bohème. It was as a dancer, though, that he first found his real fortune -- seen at a top New York nightspot, he so impressed one lady professional that she immediately proposed a partnership that resulted in an international career for Webb.