Ford Sterling: American comedian (1883 - 1939) | Biography
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Ford Sterling
American comedian

Ford Sterling

Ford Sterling
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro American comedian
Was Film director Actor Stage actor Film actor
From United States of America
Field Film, TV, Stage & Radio
Gender male
Birth 3 November 1883, La Crosse, La Crosse County, Wisconsin, USA
Death 13 October 1939, Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, California, USA (aged 55 years)
Star sign Scorpio
Spouse: Teddy Sampson (1914-1939)
Notre Dame College, South Bend, Indiana
The details


Ford Sterling (November 3, 1883 – October 13, 1939) was an American comedian and actor best known for his work with Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios. One of the "Big 4", he was the original chief of the Keystone Cops.

Early life

Ford Sterling was born as George Ford Stich Jr. on November 3, 1883, in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

He attended Notre Dame College, South Bend, Indiana, where he fell in love with acting. He would eventually work as an acrobatic circus clown, a vaudevillian, a legitimate stage actor — even a semi-pro baseball player. 


Sterling entered movies in 1911 by way of the American Biograph Company in New York City, working in Mack Sennett's comedy unit. When Sennett relocated to Los Angeles to manage the Keystone Studio in 1912, Sterling went with him. The Keystone comedies were an immediate hit with the public and this was due in no small part to the presence of Sterling, who became the top comic of the company after the departure of Fred Mace. He distinguished himself from the other funnymen on the lot by wearing what was then known as a Dutch make-up, which included a top hat, frock coat, a goatee, and a pair of small wire-framed glasses.

Sterling is perhaps best remembered for his portrayal of "Chief Teeheezel," the hyperkinetic leader of the Keystone Cops.

From 1913 and throughout the 1910s, Sterling was among the most popular screen comedians in the world. Charlie Chaplin recalled that, when joining Keystone in early 1914, he was at first dismayed to discover that he was expected to imitate Sterling. Chaplin and Sterling played together at least twice on film, in the one-reelers A Thief Catcher, directed by Sterling himself, and Between Showers, directed by Henry Lehrman (both 1914).

With Marvel Rea and Alice Maison

As Sterling's workload and fame increased, he became dissatisfied with his $250-weekly salary. In 1914, he left Keystone to star in his own series for Universal. According to his producer, Fred J. Balshofer, Sterling was argumentative and unreliable and later said that he had to discharge him. However, this claim doesn't ring true as others who have worked with Sterling have denied that he was difficult. For example, his one-time co-star June MacCloy told Sterling biographer Wendy Warwick White that he was "charming and a pro" (biography book – Ford Sterling: The Life and Films.) Chaplin also remembered him as being "immensely popular with the public and with everyone at the studio."

Sterling returned to Keystone in 1915 and continued to ply his well-worn bag of tricks, complete with outrageous mugging, jumping and bone-crushing falls.

In the 1920s, he abandoned the short comedy format, instead playing supporting roles in both comedic and dramatic feature-length films, such as Goldwyn production of Victor Sjöström's He Who Gets Slapped (1924) opposite Lon Chaney. With the advent of talking pictures, Sterling returned to appearing in short comedies.

His last film as an actor was Charles E. Roberts' 1937 comedy Many Unhappy Returns, in which he played C.C. aka Henry Morgan alongside Velma Wayne and Barbara Pepper. His last work as a director was on Standing Pat in 1921, which starred Teddy Sampson and Henry Murdock.

Sterling was also a renowned amateur photographer, who won many prizes and at one point (in 1924) even had some of his work exhibited at the Louvre.

Personal life

Sterling was married to actress Teddy Sampson from 1914 until his death on 13 October 1939.


Sterling endured some devastating health problems that brought an end to his career. In his final year — 1939 — a thrombosis in his left leg led to its amputation. He spent a total of sixteen months in the hospital.

He died on October 13, 1939, of a heart attack (following long-standing diabetes) in Los Angeles, California. He is interred in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.


For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Sterling has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6612 Hollywood Blvd.

Chester Conklin (left), Mary Thurman (center) and Ford Sterling (right) in the 1918 Mack Sennett comedy Beware of Boarders


Partial filmography

  • At Coney Island (1912)
  • Safe in Jail (1913)
  • Murphy's I.O.U. (1913)
  • His Chum the Baron (1913)
  • That Ragtime Band (1913)
  • The Foreman of the Jury (1913)
  • The Gangsters (1913)
  • Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life (1913)
  • The Waiters' Picnic (1913)
  • Peeping Pete (1913)
  • A Bandit (1913)
  • For the Love of Mabel (1913)
  • Love and Courage (1913)
  • Professor Bean's Removal (1913)
  • The Riot (1913)
  • Mabel's Dramatic Career (1913)
  • The Faithful Taxicab (1913)
  • When Dreams Come True (1913)
  • Two Old Tars (1913)
  • The Speed Kings (1913)
  • Fatty at San Diego (1913)
  • Wine (1913)
  • A Ride for a Bride (1913)
  • Fatty's Flirtation (1913)
  • Some Nerve (1913)
  • Cohen Saves the Flag (1913)
  • A Game of Pool (1913)
  • A Misplaced Foot (1914)
  • In the Clutches of the Gang (1914)
  • A Thief Catcher (1914)
  • A Robust Romeo (1914)
  • Between Showers (1914)
  • Tango Tangles (1914)
  • That Minstrel Man (1914)
  • The Sea Nymphs (1914)
  • Hogan's Romance Upset (1915)
  • That Little Band of Gold (1915)
  • Court House Crooks (1915)
  • Dirty Work in a Laundry (1915)
  • Fatty and the Broadway Stars (1915)
  • Yankee Doodle in Berlin (1919)
  • Salome vs. Shenandoah (1919)
  • Love, Honor and Behave (1920)
  • The Brass Bottle (1923)
  • The Day of Faith (1923)
  • Hollywood (1923) cameo
  • Wild Oranges (1924)
  • He Who Gets Slapped (1924)
  • Stage Struck (1925)
  • Steppin' Out (1925)
  • Mike (1926)
  • The American Venus (1926)
  • Miss Brewster's Millions (1926)
  • Good and Naughty (1926)
  • Mantrap (1926)
  • The Show-Off (1926)
  • Stranded in Paris (1926)
  • Casey at the Bat (1927)
  • For the Love of Mike (1927)
  • Figures Don't Lie (1927)
  • Chicken a La King (1928)
  • Dreary House (1928)
  • Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928)
  • Sally (1929)
  • The Fall of Eve (1929)
  • Show Girl in Hollywood (1930)
  • Spring Is Here (1930)
  • Bride of the Regiment (1930)
  • Her Majesty, Love (1931)
  • Alice in Wonderland (1933)
  • Keystone Hotel (short subject) (1935)
  • Black Sheep (1935)
  • The Headline Woman (1935)
  • Behind the Green Lights (1935)
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Reference sources
Ford Sterling, Movie Actor, Has Chance of Hope, Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, 8/11/1939.
Ford Sterling, Fight for Life, Ironwood Daily Globe, 8/11/1939; pg.1.
Louvish, Simon. Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett. New York: Faber and Faber, 2003; pp. 62-63.
White, Wendy Warwick. “The Rise and Fall of the Sterling Universal Film Company.” Slapstick (Issue #11, spring 2005) pp. 32-42.
Ford Sterling: The Life and Films. North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2007.
Lon Davis. “Silent Lives: 100 Biographies of the Silent Film Era.” Apple Books.
Sections Ford Sterling

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