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The Failed and Forgotten Acting Career of John Wilkes Booth

Some actors start out great, stay great, and die great. Others start out poor, become great, and stay great until they die. Then there are those who start out poor, become great, and then fizzle out just as quickly. The obscure, yet supremely talented old-timey actor, John Wilkes Booth, is exactly that. Much like the Sex Pistols, Booth found it better to burn out than to fade away. This, however, had the unfortunately side effect of relegating his career to relative obscurity.

Booth was born to an acting family who, based on their portraits, seemed very much into tragedy.

Awww, lookit the boo-boo faces. Did some mean ol’ soothsayer claim your son would one day disgrace your family name or something?

Booth debuted in 1855 and initially struggled as an actor, regularly forgetting his lines and getting by on how, for the time, he was really really really ridiculously good-looking. Of course, there really weren’t too many other lookers at the time because it was the 1800′s and nobody had discovered Photoshop yet. Well, except for this one dreamboat Booth palled around with from time to time

John Wilkes Booth: pretty by association

Over time, Booth got better and more confident, and by 1860, he was number 1 with a bullet, widely considered the top actor in the country despite filming exactly zero wacky romantic comedies with Drew Barrymore’s great-great-great-grandmother as an excuse to don board shorts and a Hawaiian shirt and call it a “costume.” The bulk of his stageography was Shakespeare, back when The Bard’s work was only 250 years old and thus considered “fresh.” He was in high demand, pulling in over $20,000 a year. Remember, this was 1860 — back then, $20,000 made you the highest of high society, as opposed to today, when $20,000 a year means you have to eat your Ramen noodles in a tiny, dark, cold studio apartment.

“No Mom, I don’t need to move back home. If celebrities during the Civil War could survive on this kind of paycheck, so can I.”

He even impressed the President of the United States, who greatly enjoyed his work and wished to meet him. Sadly, due to prior engagements with Totally Not An Underground Spy Ring Enterprises, Booth had to decline the invitation. Nevertheless, he continued to act and act well, blowing audiences away with performances in Romeo and Juliet (playing the sexiest mustached Juliet ever, probably), The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, and non-Bardy material such as The Marble Heart and The Apostate.

If nothing else, this proved men in the mid-1800′s COULD survive without bitchin’ facial hair.

In addition, compared to certain other rich and privileged celebrities, Booth kept his nose pretty damn clean. Today, famous cranky people will punch out photographers simply for snapping a few innocent pictures of their bowel movements. But the only red mark on Booth’s record was an 1862 arrest for talking smack about the government. This was a weird period in American history, when you could actually go to jail for criticizing your elected officials, despite that not being close to what the Founding Fathers envisioned. Thankfully, that period came and went in a few years.

Otherwise, this guy would’ve gotten the chair years ago

Then in 1865, on an otherwise-fine April evening, Booth broke his leg onstage and was never seen again. Was it truly that bad of a break? True, 1860′s medicine wasn’t the best, but he was young and spry — he could’ve healed quickly. Instead, he took years of hard work and dedication to his craft, and threw it all away in favor of anonymity. And history has reacted accordingly, relegating Booth’s legacy to a mere shot in the dark, and research turns up virtually no detailed write-ups of his acting beyond acknowledging that it existed.

We know more about his groupies than what he did to get them.

If he had retired in his prime and was still considered a legendary thespian today, that would be one thing. But because he came and went in just a few years and is now all but forgotten, he can only be seen as an historical failure.

All because of that one time.

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