Actor Jean Hersholt Discusses the Faith Behind His Iconic Role as Dr. Christian
By Movieguide® Staff
Actor Jean Hersholt, known for MEET DR. CHRISTIAN and THE STUDENT PRINCE IN OLD HEIDELBERG, explained how faith plays a part in the “small miracles” of life.
Hersholt’s acting career spanned over 40 years, but perhaps his most beloved character was Dr. Christian.
Through the RKO Radio Pictures, Hersholt portrayed the beloved physician Dr. Paul Christian in six movies between 1939 and 1941 and once a week on the radio program for 16 years. The character also received a television series in 1956, the year that Hersholt died.
In 1953, Hersholt shared how his presence on-screen encouraged his faith.
“A physician recently wrote me: ‘I have been impersonating you,’ he said. ‘Badly, I’ll admit. But to the best of my ability. Nor do I offer an apology. It had to be done.’ One of his patients, a small girl suffering great pain, kept calling for Dr. Christian,” Hersholt wrote in an article. “The frantic mother begged him to assume the role. ‘I adopted a Danish accent,’ the physician wrote, ‘and tried to dispense solid, cheerful comfort along with prescriptions. The child recovered.’”
“You see, she had faith in Dr. Christian. And so have I,” Hersholt added. “For 16 years now I have been appearing on radio once a week as Dr. Paul Christian of River’s End, Minn., and in the minds of millions of listeners, I have merged with the character I portray.”
Hersholt confessed that when people viewed him and his character, Dr. Christian, a synonymous, it led to some embarrassing moments.
“Even Via, my patient wife now for 39 years, once introduced me as “Dr. Christian.” She says it was a natural slip, as she often feels like a bigamist,” Hersholt said. “This double life is interesting, but in many ways embarrassing. Once, for instance, I was recognized at an accident and asked to set a broken arm.”
He continued: “Then there was the time I made a speech in a small town near Ogden, Utah. A warm reception was given me by the town’s inhabitants, among them two elderly sisters, one with her neck swathed in bandages, her voice evident only as a hoarse whisper. ‘What shall I do about this?’ she whispered to Dr. Christian. ‘See your local physician,’ replied Jean Hersholt, hiding behind his warmest country doctor smile. The two sisters did a sharp about-face, and as they marched off, I overheard one say to the other, ‘He just won’t serve for nothing.’”
However, these small discouragements did not distract Hersholt from the good that his wholesome character did for so many listeners.
“I have found, even without his technical knowledge, that his faith can work wonders,” Hersholt said of Dr. Christian. “Every Christmas I get a card from a girl in New York who depended, ten years ago, on that faith. The original letter, one of hundreds sent each week to Dr. Christian asking for all manner of help and guidance, came from a young polio victim, bedridden for many months, deeply discouraged.”
“As with all such letters, I answered it personally. I advised her, as the disciple James once advised in another letter written some 2000 years ago, ‘Let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.’ James: 1-4,” he added. “Back came her answer. She would try—but she did so want to see me. Again I wrote: ‘If you really want to see me, keep that in your mind. When I come to New York in the spring, I am sure you will be well enough to come to my broadcast. I’ll send you the tickets myself.’”
Hersholt recognized the risk of making that promise but said that he would rely on faith.
“Was I taking a great deal on myself to make that promise? I was standing on the same kind of faith that I have discovered every fine physician knows, for he has seen it work when everything else failed,” Hersholt said. “Then, too, I knew a good deal about Patience; I had Her as a companion during the uphill climb in my own profession. Yes, I was willing to stand on faith—and so was the child. She came to the broadcast.”
Although Hersholt is known for his roles of care and love, early in his career, the Copenhagen-born actor portrayed villains. However, days before another production where Hersholt played the villain, a surprise call from another studio would change his career trajectory.
“For 20 years it was my duty, in the role of a villain, to make life miserable for such stars as Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. But expert villainy was against my nature,” Hersholt said. “In 1935 I was preparing for a role in which I killed four people, when an urgent call came for me to report to another studio. The part of Dr. Allan Dafoe in The Country Doctor, famous physician and advisor to the Dionne quintuplets, had been left vacant by the tragic death of Will Rogers. I was called in to test for this by director Henry King.”
“‘But I’m not available,’ I protested, feeling sorry for myself. ‘My own studio will never let me go—we start to shoot our script in four days,’” Hersholt recalled. “That night, however, Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century-Fox conferred with Louis B. Mayer of MGM, which held my contract. Mr. Mayer agreed to release me, and the following night I breathlessly boarded the train for Canada.”
“It was from Dafoe that I learned much of the supreme faith, the confidence in man’s goodness, the kindly humor, the understanding and common sense which make the life of a country doctor one of daily miracles. Our films caught his spirit,” Hersholt continued. “Dr. Dafoe has been dead some eight years. But my personal hope is that a bit of this Canadian doctor’s warmth and wisdom, live on more vibrantly in Dr. Christian, his Danish counterpart.
“Has Hersholt, personally, brought anything to Dr. Christian’s growth? I should like to think it, yet he is a hard fellow to live up to, the kindly doctor, so patient and wise. We have come very close, through the years; we enjoy the same things: old friends, old pipes, oft-told tales. But I believe Dr. Christian is still leading—still teaching me how to wait humbly upon God for the small miracles which are a never-ending part of our everyday lives.”