Guideposts Classics: Jean Hersholt on Waiting for Small Miracles

In this story from August 1953, actor Jean Hersholt shares how the role of a kindly country doctor impacted his life.

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- Posted on Oct 29, 2015

Actor Jean Hersholt

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. 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.

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The good doctor who wrote the confession was not, of course, impersonating me. I am still Jean Hersholt. Or am I? Is there a time when the character becomes the man, or the man takes on the substance of the character?

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.

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.

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.

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.”

It is on such occasions that my favorite fellow lets me down—Dr. Christian simply has not been able to pass his M.D. on to me. But I have found, even without his technical knowledge, that his faith can work wonders.

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.

READ MORE: ROSALIND RUSSELL ON FAITH AND HEROISM

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

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.”

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.

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.

Where did he come from, this country doctor who never was, yet who is such a warm reality to so many people, myself included?

I was born in Copenhagen in 1886, the son of actor parents. In 1913 I came to America, worked across the country, and arrived in Hollywood with $20 in my pocket.

I put on my cutaway, invested in a shine, plastered my thick hair down, and went to a studio. The director’s opening remark concerned my suit. “Have you got other clothes like that? You’re hired. Fifteen dollars a week.”

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. Via was openly rebellious when an over-eager press agent enhanced my menace with unauthorized, untrue stories that I beat her.

Only occasionally was I permitted a lovable part, one of these as a doctor in Men in White. This role, seen by director Henry King, was to change my life.

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.

READ MORE: WILL ROGERS JR. RECALLS HIS FATHER'S LESSONS

“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 tour days.”

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.

When our first daily rushes went to Mr. Zanuck by air his reply sizzled back over the wire. “Quints great. Hersholt terrible. Retake everything.” What saved me then was Dr. Dafoe. Once he began helping me, the going was easier.

Over the next four years we made three pictures with the quints, and the doctor got so he even let me hug them and love them a little.

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.

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.

Today the imaginary town of River’s End has become so real that we have a map for aspiring script writers to follow. And of aspiring script writers we have thousands, for Dr. Christian’s program is entirely written by listeners.

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.

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