"Barry" was the great romantic leading man of the 1880s on the American stage. His personality mirrored that of the more dashing roles he played--the Captain in "The Heart of Maryland" for instance--for he was garralous, funny, quick with his fists, adventurous, and irreverent. Married to the talented and tolerant Georgina Drew, he fathered John, Ethel, and Lionel Barrymore, the most talented trio of sibling performers ever to grace stage and screen. John was viewed as replicating the talents and the irrepressible temperament of his father.
Born in India to English parents as Herbert Blythe, educated at Oxford, and intended for the colonial Indian judiciary, Barrymore became entraced with acting while in his late teens. He headed to America in 1875 rather than New Delhi, and used his good looks and verbal facility to talk his way into Augustin Daly's troupe. His debut on Broadway took place in Daly's hit play, "Pique," in December 1875. Virile, unaffected, and charming, he became the favorite stage partner of several great actresses--Helen Modjeska, Lily Langtry, Mrs. Leslie Carter, Minnie Maddern Fiske, and Marie Burroughs--and toured incessantly in their star companies.
One of his pasttimes during the long transits was writing. He composed plays, "The Robber of the Rhine" and "Najesda" a vehicle for Modjeska, and numbers of magazine articles, including some on physical fitness, a pursuit of his. His aggressive manliness sometimes led to problems, particularly when others felt their manhood challenged; he was shot in Texas in 1879 by badman Jim Currie. His brawls with others made the papers. This volatility may have contributed to his mental breakdown in 1901, when dementia occasioned his confinement to an asylum.
As an actor he was charismatic, and very much a creature wholly invested in the stage moment. Yet he was notoriously cavalier about memorizing lines, totally uninhibited about ad libbing lines in the white heat of inspiration, and entirely unafraid of anyone (with perhaps the exception of his mother-in-law, Mrs. John Drew)who might chide him for his infidelities to script.His greatest successes as a leading man were as Captain Swift, as Rawdon Crawley in "Becky Sharp" with Mrs. Fiske, and in "Diplomacy" playing with John Drew. David S. Shields/ALS