He was born William Clark Gable on February 1, 1901 in Cadiz, Ohio to Adeline and William H. Gable. When he was growing up, he was known as Billy Gable.
His mother died from epilepsy when he was seven months old. He was brought up by his father, Will, an oil rigger who later became a farmer, and his gentle, devoted stepmother, Jennie, a milliner. Clark later said, "She was a wonderful woman." At the age of 14, he was already 6 feet tall and weighed 150 pounds. Growing up, Gable had ambitions to be a doctor.
He attended Hopedale Grade School and later Edinburgh High School. At the age of sixteen, when his family moved to a farm 60 miles away at Revena, Ohio, Clark quit high school and went to work at an Akron tire factory. He decided to become an actor after seeing the play, "The Bird of Paradise," which was playing at the Music Hall in Akron. While he continued to work at the tire factory, he took an unsalaried job as a backstage call boy with the stock company.
A year later, he received word that his stepmother, Jennie was dying. He rushed back to be with her. After her death, his father did not want him to return to acting. His father took him to the Oklahoma oil fields, hoping that Clark would want to be an oilman. However, Clark wanted to return to the theatre. On his twenty-first birthday, he inherited $300 from his grandfather and went to Kansas City to join a traveling troupe called the Jewell Players. After two months the troupe folded, stranding him in Butte, Montana. He hitched a ride to Bend, Oregon and worked in the lumberyards for a few months so he could get enough money to get to Portland. While in Portland, he sold men's ties in a department store, did odd jobs for a newspaper and later was a telephone linesman.
In 1924 he joined a theatre company in Portland, organized by Josephine Dillon, who became his acting coach. When she moved to Hollywood, he did too. They were married on December 13, 1924. He made his first film appearance in 1924 as an extra in a silent film starring Pola Negri called "Forbidden Paradise." He changed his name to Clark Gable in 1925. He continued to do extra work in silent films and well as stage roles. While on tour in Houston with a stock company, he met socialite Ria Langham, who he later married.
He returned to theatre in NY, playing mostly villains. In 1930, he returned to Los Angeles and was a hit in the lead role of "Killer Mears" in the play, "The Last Mile," where was "discovered" by both Lionel Barrymore and director Mervyn LeRoy. He was initially rejected by both MGM and Warner Bros. in screen tests because "his ears were too big." Hal Wallis' sister, agent Minna Wallis, saw Clark's MGM test and got him a part in the Pathe western, "The Painted Desert" (1931).
Lionel Barrymore requested another screen test, and this second test pleased MGM's Irving Thalberg. In December, 1930 he was signed a two-year contract with MGM at $350 a week. In his dozen films released in 1931, he went from being unknown to a star. That same year, he stole the show in "A Free Soul," by slapping and pushing the star, Norma Shearer. It was actually a sequence suggested by Shearer's husband, MGM boss Irving Thalberg, in order to turn the audience against him. It did exactly the opposite. As Shearer recalled, "It was Clark who made villains popular. Instead of the audience wanting the good guy to get the girl, they wanted the heavy to win her." The next year, he became MGM's most important star after he played opposite Jean Harlow in "Red Dust."
After "Red Dust," Paramount borrowed him for a role in a comedy called "No Man of Her Own" (1932). He co-starred with his future-wife, Carole Lombard. It was their only film together. When MGM continued to typecast Clark in "treat 'em rough" roles, he asked for a change, stating "People are bored to death when I rough up disagreeable women. And I'm getting pretty sick of it myself." In 1934, when he refused to play another one of these roles, he was "disciplined" by the studio and farmed out to Columbia for a Frank Capra comedy originally entitled, "Night Bus." The film became the classic "It Happened One Night." Clark received the Oscar (R) for his performance. The film itself made Oscar (R) history by being the first to win all five major Oscars (R): Best Picture (which was Columbia's first win), Best Director (Frank Capra), Best Writing Adaptation (Robert Riskin), Best Actress (Claudette Colbert) and Best Actor (Clark Gable). The film was enormously popular. When Clark Gable took off his shirt, revealing his bare chest, undershirt sales plummeted.
MGM never loaned him out to another studio again. The typecasting was broken and he was now being offered a wider range of parts. He was nominated for another Oscar (R) for his role as "Fletcher Christian" in "Mutiny on the Bounty" (1935). He referred to "Mutiny on the Bounty" as one of his favorite films, noting: "...it was history, a story about the struggle of real men, without the usual load of cinema romance." Prior to the release of this film, the Gables went on a cross-country personal appearance tour. Women rioted in every city in which he appeared. Clark lost handkerchiefs, ties, cuff links, even his watch, when fans mobbed him. Surprised by this reaction, he stated, "This power over women that I'm supposed to have was never noticed when I was on Broadway. I don't know when I got it. And by God, I can't explain it."
In November 1935, Clark and his wife, Ria, announced an "amicable separation" and he permanently moved into the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
On January 25, 1936, he met his former co-star, Carole Lombard, at a formal Hollywood society party called The White Mayfair Ball that she was a hostess for. It was the first time they had talked since the making of their only movie together "No Man of Her Own." When they met again, they saw each other in a totally different light. They started to date and they soon fell in love with each other. They called each other "Ma" and "Pa," their nicknames from "No Man of Her Own." They constantly teased each other. He loved the outdoors, especially hunting and fishing trips, and Carole would accompany him and his pals. They became the most popular couple in Hollywood.
Clark's own popularity was not only expressed by his fans, but also by the popular catch-phrase, "Who do you think you are, Clark Gable?" There were even references to him in the movies, most notably the love letter young Judy Garland sang, "Dear Mr. Gable - You Made Me Love You," in "Broadway Melody of 1938." In a poll of entertainment readers, he was overwhelming selected "King of Hollywood" and was officially crowned by columnist Ed Sullivan in 1938.
He was the public's first (and only) choice for the role of "Rhett Butler" in the eagerly awaited film version of Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind." The film's producer, David O. Selznick, faced several obstacles in order to get Clark, one of which was that MGM would not loan him out unless they had distribution rights. Selznick waited until his distribution deal with United Artists expired in order to make the deal with MGM. But when Selznick approached him to do the part, Clark recalled: "Miss Mitchell had etched him in the minds of millions, each of whom knew exactly how Rhett would look and act. It would be impossible to satisfy them all, or even a majority. I knew that. So when Dave Selznick offered me the part, I told him with some pleasure that I was sewed up by my MGM contract. And added that I didn't want the part for money, marbles or chalk." However, eventually Clark signed, making film history as "Rhett Butler."
Clark and Ria Gable were divorced in March 1939. Clark married Carole in a private ceremony in Kingman, Arizona on March 29, 1939, while he had a few days off during the filming of "Gone With the Wind." Powerful newspaper columnist, Louella Parsons, hailed the marriage as "a match made in Heaven."
Clark gave one of the most memorable performances of his career as "Rhett Butler." When he spoke his closing line, "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn," he introduced swearing to the screen. His performance earned him another Oscar (R) nomination. With each subsequent re-release of the film, Gable gained more fans (and the film earned more at the box office, with a recent total at nearly $200,000,000).
Clark Gable and Carole Lombard became homebodies, aside from an occasional hunting or fishing trip, or hosting a few friends or family at the house. The Gable home was called "The House of Two Gables" and was located on a 20-acre estate in the Encino section of the San Fernando Valley outside Los Angeles. It had a "country" style setting. Occasionally, Carole would plan a party at the house, but they were never as lavish as the ones she was known for before their marriage. Their marriage was the considered one of the happiest in Hollywood.
While Clark was working on the film, "Somewhere I'll Find You," Carole went on a War Bond drive that would wind up in her home state of Indiana. Her last cable to him had this teasing line: "Pappy, you'd better get in this man's army." On January 16, 1942, Carole Lombard, was killed in a tragic airplane crash while returning home from the bond drive. He was grief-stricken at the loss of his wife. Production on the film he was making temporarily stopped for a few weeks. Always a professional, he returned to complete the film. The part he played was that of a war correspondent whose brother is killed and the script contained painful lines about death. He insisted that the film not be rewritten. But on his first day back, he announced that he would enlist as a buck private in the Army Air Corps.
As soon a production was over on the film, on August 12, 1942, he enlisted in Los Angeles, even though at the age of 41 he was past the draft age. He attended the Officers' Candidate School at Miami Beach, Florida and graduated as a second lieutenant on Oct. 28, 1942. He then attended aerial gunnery school. In February 1943, on personal orders from General Arnold, he went to England to make a motion picture of aerial gunners in action. He was assigned to the 351st Bomb Group at Polebrook, England and flew missions over Europe in B-17s to obtain combat film footage. He took risks described by one friend as "suicidal" to shoot some breathtaking film over Germany. He flew missions doubling as a photographer and tail gunner. On one trip, a shrapnel burst shattered a turret two feet from his head. He won the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal. The inscription on the Air Medal was for "exceptionally meritorious achievement while participating in five separate bomber combat missions" (over Germany, which he had volunteered for). Germany's Air Minister Hermann Goering even put a price on Clark's head, a reward of the equivalent of $5,000, instant promotion, and furlough for anyone who captured him alive. He was relieved from active duty on June 12, 1944, at the rank of Major. His military service brought him new admiration and respect from the public.
After a three-year absence, his return to the screen was in the 1945 film, "Adventure" which was highly publicized and eagerly awaited (complete with MGM's slogan: "Gable's Back and Garson's Got Him"). He consistently starred in one film a year. When MGM remade his film "Red Dust" in 1953 as "Mogambo," Ava Gardner played the part Jean Harlow played, Grace Kelly played the Mary Astor role, and Clark Gable played the Gable role. There was only one Clark Gable, even twenty-one years later.
He continued to have box-office successes. From 1932 through 1943 he was one of the top ten money-making stars. When he returned from the war, he continued in that ranking in 1947, 1948, 1949 and 1955. He was earning $520,000 a year when he left MGM in 1954 to freelance. He became the most expensive free-lance actor in the industry.
He became a mentor, most notably to his then-caddy at the Bel-Air Country Club, actor Robert Wagner, then a high school student in 1949. As Wagner recalled, "Clark Gable - 'The King' himself - was the man who really got me into the movies. I used to caddy for him. He was my idol. I worshipped him. He was the one who talked to me, advised me and helped me. And when he saw that I was really serious about an acting career, he took me to MGM to meet Billy Grady, who was the head of casting." It was Clark's introduction that led to Wagner getting his first part, in "The Happy Years."
He formed his own production company, GABCO, and made the film, "The King and Four Queens," released in 1956. He teamed with Burt Lancaster to co-produce and co-star in the war drama, "Run Silent, Run Deep" (1958), giving him one of his best roles as a submarine commander in conflict with the enemy and his own lieutenant.
He found happiness with Kathleen (Kay) Williams Spreckles. They had met each other years ago and were friends. On July 11, 1955 they were married in Minden, Nevada. Many of their friends saw how happy he was with Kay. Joan Crawford stated, "I love Kay, she's wonderful and she made him happier than he'd ever been in his life. They made each other happy. There had been many men in love with Kay, many girls adored Clark, but when the two got together, it was just right...the kind of close harmony that makes for deep contentment. I'm glad 'the King" had that. As their friend, filmmaker Mervyn LeRoy noted, "I know that Clark loved Carole. When she was killed, he took it very bad and I don't think he was quite the same until some time later when he met Kay. That marriage worked out very well. Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to see his only son born."
Clark was offered the drama "The Misfits" starring opposite Marilyn Monroe and directed by John Huston. As the film's producer, Frank Taylor expressed it, "I knew only one actor in the world who could express the essence of complete masculinity and virility that we needed for the leading role. And that was Clark Gable. At 59 he was still a contemporary image of virility. His essential maleness was right on the surface." Always on time, always professional, he won the respect of the cast and crew. The film's screenwriter, Arthur Miller, later said of all the actors he had ever met, Clark Gable was "the only real man." Clark considered "The Misfits" his best film since "Gone With the Wind." Halfway through the production, he learned that his wife, Kay, was pregnant. He was very proud, announcing, "It's going to be a boy."
Four days after completing "The Misfits," in which he did his own stunts as an aging cowboy, he suffered a heart attack. He died ten days later on November 16, 1960. He received a full military funeral and was buried near Carole Lombard. His son, John Clark Gable, was born on March 20, 1961, 5 months after his death.