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The son of a journalist father and physician mother, Carradine was given an expensive education in Philadelphia and New York. Upon graduating from the Graphic Arts School, he intended to make his living as a painter and sculptor, but in 1923 he was sidetracked into acting. Working for a series of low-paying stock companies throughout the 1920s, he made ends meet as a quick-sketch portrait painter and scenic designer.
He came to Hollywood in 1930, where his extensive talents and eccentric behavior almost immediately brought him to the attention of casting directors. He played a dizzying variety of distinctive bit parts -- a huntsman in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), a crowd agitator in Les Miserables (1935) -- before he was signed to a 20th Century Fox contract in 1936.
His first major role was the sadistic prison guard in John Ford's Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), which launched a long and fruitful association with Ford, culminating in such memorable screen characterizations as the gentleman gambler in Stagecoach (1939) and Preacher Casy ("I lost the callin'!") in The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Usually typecast as a villain, Carradine occasionally surprised his followers with non-villainous roles like the philosophical cab driver in Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938) and Abraham Lincoln in Of Human Hearts (1938).
In the 1940s, Carradine appeared as Count Dracula (taking over for Bela Lugosi) in two films for Universal Pictures. In 1945's House of Dracula he appeared alongside Lon Chaney Jr. (as the Wolf Man) and Glenn Strange (as Frankenstein's Monster).
Throughout his Hollywood years, Carradine's first love remained the theater; to fund his various stage projects (which included his own Shakespearean troupe), he had no qualms about accepting film work in the lowest of low-budget productions. Ironically, it was in one such film, PRC's Bluebeard (1944), that the actor delivered what many consider his finest performance. Though he occasionally appeared in an A-picture in the 1950s and 1960s (The Ten Commandments, Cheyenne Autumn), Carradine was pretty much consigned to low-budget projects during those decades, including such horror epics as The Black Sleep (1956), The Unearthly (1957), and the notorious Billy the Kid Meets Dracula (1966). He also appeared in numerous television programs, among them Twilight Zone, The Munsters, Thriller, and The Red Skelton Show, and from 1962 to 1964 enjoyed a long Broadway run as courtesan-procurer Lycus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Though painfully crippled by arthritis in his last years, Carradine never stopped working, showing up in films ranging from Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask (1972) to Peggy Sue Got Married (1984).
Married four times, John Carradine was the father of actors David, Keith, Robert, and Bruce Carradine.