For many decades, the one man who embodied the popular conception of a Bowery resident was a character known as Chuck Connors. Connors was a garrulous, cheerful fixture of Chinatown, who had grown up in the Five Points and later served as a messenger for Chinese merchants. Frequently found in Chinatown’s notorious dives, Connors soon gained a reputation as a Chinatown guide for slumming uptown tourists. He was featured as a Bowery character by a couple of New York newspaper reporters, which served to spread his fame throughout the city. A former boxer, Connors was also championed by dive-owner Scotty Lavelle and Richard Fox, publisher of the National Police Gazette.
In addition to regaling people with his heavy dialect anecdotes, Connors was a talented dancer who–along with his favorite female partners–was frequently invited to balls in order to add color to the event. He pioneered some comical (but adroit) dance moves, and became a favorite of the Tammany politicos who often sponsored these entertainments. Publisher Fox even published a book of Chuck’s anecdotes Bowery Life, illustrated by Chuck in some of his mugging poses.
Actor Chris Simmons has made of video of his uncanny recreation of Chuck Connors dialect:
In the beginning, there was only one Chuck. This is literally true, since many sources credit Chuck Connors as being the first person presumed to be nicknamed “Chuck” for Charles. Except his name was not Charles. It wasn’t even Connors. He was born about 1861 as Patrick O’Connor. He once suggested his nickname came from his affinity for “chuck” (steak, or food in general?). [Thanks to Chris S. for correction–ed.]
As a young man, Chuck Connors was one of the intrepid juveniles that performed at the Grand Duke’s Opera House on Baxter Street. He and another boy named Tommie Winn(g) performed an acrobatic act as “The Winn(g) Brothers.”
Chuck’s heyday as a minor celebrity lasted from the early 1890s to 1905. In that year, Chuck’s first wife, Nellie Noonan, passed away with tuberculosis. Chuck himself was slowing down, aged by drink and ring pummelings. As Herbert Asbury relates in Chapter XIV, Section 3 of The Gangs of New York, 1905 was also the year when Connors was challenged as the unofficial mascot of Chinatown by a young Italian bootblack who styled himself “Young Chuck Connors.” Asbury named the upstart as Frank Salvatore, but the source for this story, a January 11, 1905 New York Post article titled “King Chuck Abdicates,” doesn’t name the usurper. Asbury probably makes more of this story than it warranted, for there is no evidence that the rival Chuck persisted in stealing the original Chuck’s act.
Still, this anecdote foreshadows the strange turn Chuck Connors’ legacy took even after his death in 1913.
Skip ahead a dozen years to the mid-1920s. Young stage starlet Mae West arrives at a New York Hotel, and shimmers through the lobby. An old off-duty policeman sees her and freezes in stunned amazement (which may not have been an uncommon reaction). Mae sees him and asks what’s wrong. The man explains that Mae is the spitting image of the girl he loved in younger days, but their romance was ill-fated. Mae listened with interest to the story, set against the backdrop of the Bowery district, and thought it would be a good premise for a stage production.
To research the story further, she was introduced to a former radio singer who was now acting in his own vaudeville routine, Chuck Connors, Jr. Billed as the son of the original Chuck Connors, Chuck Jr. regaled Mae West with stories from the Bowery of the gay nineties, along with artifacts from the career of the first Chuck. With Chuck Jr.’s help, they developed the production that hit the stage as Diamond Lil in 1928. The plot included the role of Chuck Connors. It was a runaway hit, but Mae’s scandalous character, seductive presence, and double entendre lines elicited demands for censorship.
Though Mae West successfully transitioned to (pre-Hays code) Hollywood, she struggled to get Diamond Lil adapted to film. Paramount finally agreed to film it in 1932, but insisted on a title change, and that no references were made to the play. It was released as She Done Him Wrong in January, 1933, starring Mae West, Cary Grant, Noah Beery, and Tammany Young (as Chuck Connors.)
Paramount’s rival, 20th Century Fox, countered with the film The Bowery, released later in 1933. It starred George Raft, Jackie Mason, and Wallace Beery (Noah’s brother!) as Chuck Connors. In this case, Beery as Chuck Connors was the lead character. The plot revolved around a (fictional) bitter rivalry between Chuck Connors and Steve Brodie, the Brooklyn Bridge daredevil jumper (Raft). The film included episodes unflattering to Connors’ character, including the notion that he had prevented firefighters from saving a burning building full of Chinatown residents.
The studio rivalry became manifest when Chuck Connors Jr., who supported Paramount’s She Done Him Wrong, brought a libel suit against 20th Century Fox for disparaging the career of his father. The suit was brought to court, where the Fox lawyers revealed that Chuck Jr. was not the son of Chuck Connors at all, but was really his nephew, George Anthony Miller. The libel suit was tossed thanks to Jr.’s lack of candor.
The kerfuffle over the ghost of Chuck Connors did not stop there. The 1939 New York World’s Fair presented, as one of its exhibits, a Potemkin gilded-age New York Bowery street, with entertainment produced by George Jessel. Its main feature was “Chuck Connor’s Saloon.” The real Chuck Connors, it should be noted, spent most of his waking hours in saloons, but never ran one.
Chuck Connors’ restless identity was finally vanquished by the amazing career of actor and athlete Kevin Joseph Aloysius Connors, known to all TV and movie fans of the latter 20th century as Chuck Connors. From The Rifleman to The Big Country to Soylent Green, Connors had a string of hit roles that remain etched in collective memory. Today, he remains the reigning Chuck Connors of popular culture, while the original Chuck is all but forgotten.
3 thoughts on “Chuck Connors Loses His Identity”
I was pleasantly surprised to see my Chuck Connors video in this blog. Chuck has been my “thing”,so to speak,for some time . I have presented stage performances about him as well as currently researching a biography of Chuck. This is, in itself, a Herculean task – unraveling all the legends and half truths that have accumulated . Alvin Harlow’s book”Old Bowery Days” seems to be a font for many of them. Chuck was actually born Patrick G. O’Connor in 1862 on Mott St in NYC to Phillip O’Connor and Catherine O’Connor (both born in Ireland) Although many sources give Chuck’s birthplace as Providence, RI (and many of his friends thought that was the case) it wasn’t. Though Chuck and his family did live there around 1869 (and one of Chuck’s sisters was born there). Chuck once stated that his nick name came from his love of a good “feed” (“I’m gonna have me a good’chuck’ “). After the death of Nellie Noonan Chuck married Rose Brown (she also tragically died early). Chuck also had an extensive stage career in Vaudeville and Melodrama beginning in1890 (usually always playing himself) providing more realism than any actor of the day in any contemporary “slum drama”. His stage (and film) career continued up to the year of his death in 1913. Chuck appeared in three (silent) films- two shorts for Biograph and one feature film in1913. The feature film was not released until 1914. There were even rumours- after Chuck’s death- of plans to erect a statue of him somewhere Downtown. Of course, this never happened
Chris, I would love to see one of your Connors and/or Hart-Harrigan shows. Do you have any upcoming dates?
Does any footage of those movies of Connors survive?
There are /were two short Biograph films made around 1899/1900. Chuck in a boxing match and Chuck in a Chinese retaurant. As there are a number of surviving Biograph films there is a good chance those two films survive. I am looking into that. The third film is a feature film from1913 “New York Society Life and the Underworld”. It seems that film is “lost”. I have seen some stills from it,however. Evidently there is a scene in it showing Chuck showing the sites of the Bowery to a group of “rubberneckers”. Over a year ago I did the Chuck Connors play at the Theatre For The New City on First Ave. I am looking to do it again in the City – either at TNC or some other outlet.. As far as Harrigan and Hart go I was asked to submit a script to the Irish Repertory Co.on W. 23rd St . I did submit the script and there was a meeting – then the virus happened and everything shut down . So I don’t think anything will happen until next year. There is always the chance that we could also be doing a separate performance of Harrigan and Hart material at some other venue in the City next year – in addition to the Irish Rep show.