Biography of Cary Grant, Famous Leading Man

Cary Grant
Maureen Donaldson / Getty Images

Cary Grant (born Archibald Alexander Leach; Jan. 18, 1904—Nov. 29, 1986) was one of American's most successful actors of the 20th century. He made his way out of an unhappy home life in Bristol, England, by joining a troupe of British comedians, then crossing the Atlantic to try his hand at vaudeville before becoming a suave screen presence and one of Hollywood’s favorite leading men.

Fast Facts: Cary Grant

Known For: One of filmdom's favorite leading men

Also Known As: Archibald Alexander Leach

Born: Jan. 18, 1904, in Bristol, England

Parents: Elias James Leach, Elsie Maria Kingdon

Died: Nov. 29, 1986, in Davenport, Iowa

Films: "Topper," "To Catch a Thief," "North by Northwest," "Charade"

Spouses: Virginia Cherrill, Barbara Woolworth Hutton, Betsy Drake, Dyan Cannon, Barbara Harris

Children: Jennifer Grant

Notable Quote: "So would I," when told by an interviewer that "Everybody would like to be Cary Grant."

Early Life

Grant was the son of Elsie Maria Kingdon and Elias James Leach, a suit presser in a clothing manufacturing plant. The working-class family of Episcopalians lived in a stone row house in Bristol, England, kept warm by coal-burning fireplaces and heated arguments between Grant’s parents.

A bright boy, Grant attended the Bishop Road Boys’ School, ran errands for his mother, and enjoyed movies with his father. When Grant was 9, his life tragically changed when his mother disappeared. Told that she was resting at a seaside resort, Grant wouldn’t see her for more than 20 years.

Now raised by his father and his father’s cold, distant parents, Grant buried his sad, unsettled home life by playing handball at school and joining the Boy Scouts. In school, he loitered in the science lab, fascinated by electricity. The science professor’s assistant took 13-year-old Grant to the Bristol Hippodrome to show him the lighting system he had installed. Grant became infatuated, not with the lighting but with the theater.

English Theater

In 1918, at 14, Grant took a job at the Empire Theater assisting the men working the arc lamps. He frequently skipped school to attend matinees. Hearing that the Bob Pender Troupe of comedians was hiring, Grant wrote Pender an introductory letter, forging his father’s signature. Unbeknownst to his father, Grant was hired and learned to walk on stilts, pantomime, and perform acrobatics, touring English cities with the troupe.

Grant's devotion was thwarted when his father found him and dragged him home. Grant got himself expelled from school by peeking at the girls in the restroom. With his father’s blessing, Grant rejoined the Pender troupe. In 1920, eight boys, Grant among them, were selected from the troupe to appear at New York's Hippodrome. He sailed for America to begin a new life.


While working in New York in 1921, Grant received a letter from his father saying he had fathered a son named Eric Leslie Leach with another woman. Grant gave little thought to his half-brother, enjoying baseball, Broadway celebrities, and living beyond his means.

When the Pender tour ended in 1922, Grant stayed in New York, selling ties on the street and performed on stilts at Coney Island while watching for another vaudeville opening. Soon he was back at the Hippodrome using his acrobatic, juggling, and mime skills.

In 1927, Grant appeared in his first Broadway musical comedy, "Golden Dawn," at the Hammerstein Theater. Because of his good looks and gentlemanly ways, Grant won the leading male role in a 1928 play, "Rosalie." He was spotted by Fox Film Corp. talent scouts and asked to take a screen test, which he flunked: They said he was bowlegged and his neck was too thick.

When the stock market crashed in 1929, half the Broadway theaters closed. Grant took a pay cut but appeared in musical comedies. In the summer of 1931, Grant, hungry for work, appeared at the outdoor Muny Opera in St. Louis, Missouri.


In November 1931, 27-year-old Grant drove cross-country to Hollywood. After a few introductions and dinners, he had another screen test and received a five-year contract with Paramount, but the studio rejected his name. Grant had played a character named Cary on Broadway; the play's author suggested that Grant take that name. He picked "Grant" from a studio list of last names.

Grant’s first feature film, "This Is the Night" (1932), was followed by seven more films that year. He took parts rejected by seasoned actors. Although Grant was inexperienced, his looks and easy working style kept him in pictures, including a couple of popular Mae West films, "She Done Him Wrong" (1933) and "I’m No Angel" (1933).

Marrying and Going Independent

In 1933, Grant met actress Virginia Cherrill, 26, star of several Charlie Chaplin films, at the William Randolph Hearst beach house and sailed for England that November, his first trip home. They married on Feb. 2, 1934, in London’s Caxton Hall registry office. After seven months, Cherrill left Grant, claiming he was too controlling. They divorced in 1935.

In 1936, rather than re-signing with Paramount, Grant hired an independent agent to represent him. Grant could now choose his roles, taking artistic control of his career, unprecedented independence at the time.

Between 1937 and 1940, Grant honed his screen personality as an elegant, irresistible leading man. He appeared in two moderately successful films, Columbia's "When You're in Love" (1937) and RKO’s "The Toast of New York" (1937). Then came box-office success in "Topper" (1937) and "The Awful Truth" (1937), which received six Academy Awards, although Grant, the leading actor, received none.

Mother Resurfaces

In October 1937, Grant received a letter from his mother, saying she wanted to see him. Grant, who thought she had died years before, booked passage to England after he finished filming "Gunga Din" (1939). At 33, Grant finally learned that his mother had suffered a nervous breakdown and his father put her into an asylum. She had become mentally unbalanced from guilt over losing an earlier son, John William Elias Leach, who had developed gangrene from a torn thumbnail before he turned 1. After watching him around the clock for several nights, Elsie took a nap and the child died.

Grant got his mother released and purchased a Bristol home for her. He corresponded with her, visited often, and financially supported her until she died at 95 in 1973.

Marrying Again

In 1940, Grant appeared in "Penny Serenade" (1941) and received an Oscar nomination. He didn't win, but he became a box-office star and, on June 26, 1942, an American citizen.

On July 8, 1942, Grant married 30-year-old Barbara Woolworth Hutton, granddaughter of the founder of Woolworth's and one of the world's wealthiest women. Later, Grant received his second Oscar nomination for Best Actor for "None but the Lonely Heart" (1944).

After several separations and reconciliations, the marriage ended in divorce on July 11, 1945. Hutton had lifelong psychological problems; she was 6 when she found her mother’s body after her suicide.

In 1947, Grant received the Kings Medal for Services in the Cause of Freedom for meritorious service during World War II, when he had donated his salaries from two movies to the British war effort.

On Dec. 25, 1949, Grant married for the third time, to 26-year-old Betsy Drake, his co-star in "Every Girl Should Be Married" (1948).

Briefly Retiring

Grant retired from acting in 1952, sensing that newer, grittier actors such as James Dean and Marlon Brando were the new draw rather than light-hearted comedic actors. Drake introduced Grant to LSD therapy, which was legal at that time. Grant claimed to find inner peace regarding his troubled upbringing.

Director Alfred Hitchcock enticed Grant to leave retirement to star in "To Catch a Thief" (1955). Its acclaim followed two earlier Grant-Hitchcock successes: "Suspicion" (1941) and "Notorious" (1946). Grant starred in more films, including "Houseboat" (1958), where he fell in love with co-star Sophia Loren. Although Loren married producer Carlo Ponti, Grant’s marriage to Drake became strained; they separated in 1958 but didn't divorce until August 1962.

Grant starred in another Hitchcock film, "North by Northwest" (1959). His suave performance made him the archetype for Ian Fleming’s fictional spy, James Bond. Grant was offered the role by producer Albert Broccoli, but Grant thought he was too old and would commit to just one film of the potential series. The role went to 32-year-old Sean Connery in 1962. Grant’s successful movies continued with "Charade" (1963) and "Father Goose" (1964).

Becoming a Father

On July 22, 1965, 61-year-old Grant married a fourth time, to 28-year-old actress Dyan Cannon. In 1966, Cannon gave birth to a daughter, Jennifer, Grant's first child. Grant announced his retirement from acting that year. Cannon reluctantly joined Grant’s LSD therapy, but her scary experiences strained their relationship. They divorced on March 20, 1968, but Grant remained a doting father.

On a trip to England, Grant met hotel public relations officer Barbara Harris, 46 years his junior, marrying her on April 15, 1981. They remained married until his death five years later.


In 1982, Grant began touring the international lecture circuit in a one-man show called "A Conversation with Cary Grant," talking about his films, showing clips, and answering audience questions. Grant was in Davenport, Iowa, when he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while preparing for the show. He died that night, Nov. 29, 1986, at age 82.


In 1970, Grant received a special Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his acting achievements. Coupled with his two previous best actor Oscar nominations, five Golden Globe best actor nominations, 1981 Kennedy Center honors, and nearly two dozen other major nominations and awards, Grant's place in film history is secure, as is his image of grace and civility.

in 2004 he was named the greatest movie star of all time by Premiere magazine.