Sidney Sommers Toler was born in Warrensburg, MO, the son of a renowned horse-breeder, Col. H.G. Toler, in 1874; three weeks later, the family moved to a stock farm near Wichita, KS, where he grew up. From an early age, he showed an interest in acting, and got his start at seven when he played Tom Sawyer in an adaptation written by his mother (this in a period in which the author Samuel Clemens was very much alive and the book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was a popular contemporary work). Toler enrolled in the University of Kansas but abandoned his studies in favor of pursuing a career as an actor after receiving some words of encouragement during a brief encounter with actress Julia Marlowe. At 18, he headed to New York. He did a stint in the Corse Payton stock company, based in Brooklyn, where he became a leading man specializing in romantic parts over a period of four years.
Toler later had his own stock company, based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, for five years, and became a successful playwright, authoring The Dancing Masters, The Belle of Richmond, The House on the Sands, Ritzy, and The Golden Age, among many other plays. One of his works, The Man They Left Behind, was a major hit regionally and was being performed simultaneously by 18 different companies, and Toler himself once had a dozen different acting companies on the road performing his work. Two of his plays, Golden Days and The Exile, were also produced on Broadway. But it was during his 14 years with producer David Belasco that Toler became a Broadway star, culminating with his portrayal of Kelly the iceman in A Wise Child. Following a run of the play in Boston, Hollywood beckoned; with the full arrival of sound, the film mecca was suddenly desperate for experienced stage actors -- and in 1929 he made the move into films. Over the next nine years, he worked in 50 movies, in everything from comedies to Westerns, including Madame X, White Shoulders, Tom Brown of Culver, Our Relations (playing the belligerent ship's captain in the Laurel and Hardy comedy), and The Phantom President.