05 January 1890
United States of America
10 April 1952|
Monterey County, California,
United States of America
American actor who was regularly cast in the films of Hal Roach, usually as a heavy or villain.|
Not much is recorded about Leo Willis’s years prior to 1914. At the time of his birth, Oklahoma had not yet received statehood, and birth records are scant, especially for more rural locations such as that where Leo was born. Later records indicate his father’s name was Joseph, and his mother’s Margaret Holdebery (or Margurate Holdebay – there are variant spellings on later documents), and there’s no records of how many siblings Leo may have had. Leo himself seemed unsure of his birthplace; several early documents for which he likely was the source record Texas, but his 1917 draft registration states definitively Wapanucka, OK. This is not too far from the Oklahoma-Texas border, so perhaps there was some confusion early on.
It’s also unclear how or why Leo Willis entered films, but it occurred no later than 1914, for his earliest known credits date from that year.
On 29 June 1914, Leo married May (or Mary) Frances Hennessy. Sources give her birth date as 5 December 1897, suggesting she was only 16 ½ when she and Leo married. That same year, May gave birth to a daughter, Rhea, on December 5. Leo was 24, his occupation “Moving picture actor,” and the family resided at 101 Rauch St. in Venice, CA. These records suggest May was already nearly 4 months pregnant when she wed Leo. A year later, their daughter Enid was born 19 December 1915. The birth certificate lists Leo’s occupation as “Moving picture actor” and his age as 25; May’s age was listed as 18 (an obvious discrepancy with the previous year’s birth record, which gave her age as 19 in an effort to hide the fact she’d been under 18 at the time of conception). The Willises were then living at 503 Bay St. in Santa Monica, a small bungalow (which still stands) only a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Monica Pier.
By 1917 the family had moved again, because Leo’s draft registration card from June of that year shows the family’s address as 641 Ozone Avenue, Venice CA. Leo was then employed as “actor” at “motion picture co.” (which one is unspecified) in Culver City. Leo’s physical description was: height, “Tall,” build “medium,” eyes and hair “brown.” He claimed exemption from the draft on basis of supporting his wife and children, though, strangely, his marital status is recorded “single,” which is probably an error by the induction officer. Later records, such as the 1930 census, do not list Leo as a veteran, so his exemption status was honored.
In 1920, the Willis family was living at 4404 Staunton Avenue, Los Angeles. Leo’s occupation was “Actor – Motion Picture Co.” May (listed as “Mae”) has her age given as 22, Leo’s as 30.
Six years later, May Frances Willis passed away at the young age of 28, on September 17, 1926. Leo did not remarry, and remained a widower the remainder of his life. Indications are that he remained close to his two daughters, however.
The 1930 census places Leo at 1528 East 80th St., in south Los Angeles, a small, Spanish-Mission style stucco cottage that Leo rented for $30 a month. Leo’s marital status by then was “widowed.” Daughters Rhea and Enid were living with him. Leo’s occupation is listed simply as “Actor – Studios,” and he was currently employed.
By 1940 Leo had left the motion picture business, and was residing out in Hemet, CA. Although he listed no occupation on the census in April of that year, Leo indicated “yes” when asked if he had other sources of income, even though he wasn’t working or seeking work. (The census form also has Leo’s age off by a full 9 years, but it’s undeniably him). Leo’s departure from film work after nearly 25 years is curious. His last noticeable appearances date from 1938. Perhaps, with both his daughters married by 1937, he no longer had to support them financially, and decided to semi-retire. (It is to Leo’s credit that he supported both his children and raised them as a single parent for over a decade).
In October 1950, Leo’s daughter Enid married Alfonso Joseph Gallo, a 37 year old son of Italian immigrants. This was Enid’s second marriage; her first, from 1936 to 1950, had been to Samuel Allen, who’d died and left Enid a widow. The Gallos resided in Gardena, CA, but soon moved to Monterey, and indications are Leo joined them there, where he passed away in 1952. Rhea married in 1937, to John Curran, and passed away on the day after her 92nd birthday, 6 December 2006, in Colorado.
Films listed on this page: complete Hal Roach filmography;
plus 1 film with Babe Hardy.