Anyone who watched a lot of movies from the 1930s to the early 1960s would probably recognize his face, even if they didn’t know his name.
Joe Sawyer was a character actor who appeared in over 200 films. From 1954 to 1959, he starred as Aloysius “Biff” O’Hara, the tough but kind-hearted cavalry sergeant on the television series. The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. What a lot of people also don’t know is that Joe Sawyer came from Guelph.
He was born Joseph Frederick Sauers (also spelled Sauer) in Guelph on August 29, 1906. His mother, Lavinia (née Bolton) had married his father, Joseph – a German immigrant who was a butcher – in Guelph in 1904. Joseph Sr. died in the age of 24.
The young Sauer attended school in Guelph, but each summer he traveled to Saskatchewan to work on his uncle’s farm. While still a teenager, he went to California.
He graduated from Hollywood High School and enrolled at the University of Southern California where he became interested in acting. Gilmore Brown of the Pasadena Playhouse saw Sauers in a play and had him audition for a role in a George Bernard Shaw production. Major Barbara. This led to Sauer’s involvement as an actor, writer and director in over one hundred Pasadena Playhouse productions.
On Brown’s advice, Sauer traveled to New York. He appeared in many Broadway shows, and in 1930 he married Jeane Wood, the daughter of Hollywood director Sam Wood. This marriage was short-lived. Sauer was also unhappy with the low pay he received in New York. He returns to California and signs a contract with the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio.
Sauer’s first role in a feature film was a small uncredited appearance in 1931 in The public enemy, a gangster film starring James Cagney. It was the start of a long career in which the Guelph actor earned a reputation as one of Hollywood’s most trusted supporting actors.
He appeared in films of nearly every genre, including musicals and comedies, but was particularly in demand for westerns, war films and crime dramas. His burly face, stocky build, and “sharp eyes” gave him the perfect look for badass and badass roles. His slightly high-pitched voice also helped him stand out from the other screen heavyweights.
Sauers played army sergeants, outlaws, cops, mobsters, and sea captains. If a movie with a sports-related story needed an actor to play the role of a hard-nosed coach, Sauers got the call. Although he was of German descent, his characters were often Irish.
Like so many other movie actors, Sauers felt it was necessary for him to change his name. He found that his American colleagues continued to mispronounce “Sowers” and even “Sewers.” Therefore, Joseph Sauers became Joe Sawyer.
As Joe Sawyer he appeared in many great classic films of the time: The Petrified Forest, the western, Sergeant York, The Roaring Twenties, Grapes of Wrath and They died with their boots On, to name a few. He shared the screen with some of the biggest stars of the day, including Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Bette Davis, Ida Lupino, Errol Flynn, Henry Fonda, Loretta Young and Jane Russell. His circle of close friends included John Wayne, with whom he fished and played poker, and Bela Lugosi.
In 1937 Sawyer married a starlet named June Golden. She was 10 years younger than Joe, but was the love of his life. They remained together until his untimely death from leukemia at age 44 in 1960.
Sawyer has made guest appearances on several television shows, including border doctor, maverick, Peter Gunn, sugar foot, Surf side 6 and Bat Masterson. June’s death devastated Sawyer and he declared he was retiring from acting. However, his pal John Wayne convinced him to make cameo appearances in the movies. North to Alaska and How the west has been conquered. Wayne said it would help him “forget some things”.
Unlike the tough characters he portrayed in the movies, Sawyer was an avid reader who was a well-known patron of some of America’s top bookstores. He was a painter and a musician, and he loved travelling. His son Riley said he was as comfortable on an ocean liner as he was on a freighter.
When Sawyer wasn’t acting in movies and TV shows, he was involved in Los Angeles’ booming real estate industry. He played a key role in building shopping malls and a hospital, and personally helped build homes in an LA suburb.
Sawyer lived his final years in Ashland, Oregon. He died there of cancer on April 21, 1982. The Guelph actor who made a name for himself in Hollywood lives in old movies alongside fellow tough guys like Bogart and Cagney.