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The 'brains' and 'action' heavies who had meaty roles and lots of dialog ... and the players who were fathers, ranch owners, lawman, mayors, judges, lawyers, storekeepers, newspaper editors, wardens, etc.

(From Old Corral image collection)
Charles Middleton

Full name:
Charles Brown Middleton

Nickname: "Charlie"

1879 - 1949

Left - Charles Middleton in his most famous role as "Ming the Merciless" in the trio of Flash Gordon cliffhangers.

He's wearing the Ming costume from the third serial, FLASH GORDON CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE (Universal, 1940).

While most of the B film baddies and supporting players are forgotten by the current generation of movie viewers, there's one actor from that period and genre who is probably remembered. It's none other than Charles Middleton, and his most famous role was that of 'Ming the Merciless' in the three FLASH GORDON serials which starred Buster Crabbe.

Charles Brown Middleton was born in Elizabethtown, Kentucky in 1879, and his parents were Hugh and Mary Middleton. Father Hugh was a Confederate officer in the Civil War, attaining the rank of Captain in the Georgia Infantry.

The Middleton family were in Chattanooga, Tennessee when the 1900 census was taken. Father Hugh was a Justice of the Peace and son Charles was an actor.

Middleton's early years as an actor was highlighted in a July, 1902 article and photo in the Paducah (Kentucky) Sun newspaper. Excerpts from that article: "... Charles B. Middleton, leading man and stage director with the La Belle Park Theater stock company. This is Mr. Middleton's second season in Paducah ..." ; "Mr. Middleton is a native Kentuckian, having been born in Elizabethtown." ; "Mr. Middleton will star with his own company ... the coming winter season."

He met actress Leora Spellmeyer in the early 1900s and they began working together and touring on the vaudeville circuit circa 1906. Charles and Leora tied the knot in 1908 in Pennsylvania, and settled down in the Freeport and Hempstead areas in Nassau County, New York. Located about thirty five miles from New York City, Freeport and Hempstead were popular communities for stage and vaudeville performers. Daughter Leora was born in 1915. And Charles was a long time member, director, and president of the L.I.G.H.T.S. Club (Long Island Good Hearted Thespian's Society). There's many trade publication mentions of "Middleton, Spellmeyer and Company" and "Middleton and Spellmeyer" playing various locations in the United States and Canada. And 1909 and 1910 issues of Variety noted their tours in England. Below are a few trade and newspaper ads.

Charles and Leora's act was one of many on a bill at theaters and vaudeville houses, and they performed together from about 1906 through the late 1920s.

On the left is an ad for Middleton, Spellmeyer & Co. and their "A Texas Wooing" playlet in January, 1910 in Boston.

In large letters at the bottom of the ad is Added attraction James J. Corbett - that's "Gentleman Jim" Corbett, heavyweight boxing champ.

1909 - Charles and Leora in England.

1919 ... and their home base was Freeport, New York.

In the early movie business, many production companies were located in New York and New Jersey. Leora and Charlie were cast in one film, probably due to their New York residence. Grossman Pictures, Inc. had their studio in Ithaca, New York and produced the serial $1,000,000 REWARD (1919) ... and that cliffhanger is among the lost/missing. The Middletons continued traveling and performing, including a tour on the Orpheum circuit. But by the late 1920s, vaudeville was in decline and they headed west to Hollywood and newfangled talkin' pictures. Charlie was about fifty years old when he made this career change. Slim and with a chiseled face and booming voice, he became typecast as an evil / maniacal character or authority figure. And you can spot him portraying over zealous preachers ... shyster lawyers ... the town leader whippin' up a lynch mob ... a sinister lawman or judge ... the conniving and vicious boss of an orphanage or reform school. And he occasionally portrayed political leaders Abraham Lincoln and Confederate States president Jefferson Davis.

He did some low-budget westerns, and following are a few examples:

However, Middleton's claim to fame are the villain and character roles he did in many serials. Here's my favorites:

He free lanced everywhere, doing a mix of meaty parts and bits in A and B grade films. Examples: he's the frustrated Foreign Legion commandant in the Laurel and Hardy short BEAU HUNKS (Hal Roach/MGM, 1931) and feature THE FLYING DEUCES (RKO, 1939); he's a prosecutor vs. the Marx Brothers in DUCK SOUP (Paramount, 1933); in the Three Stooges short SPOOK LOUDER (Columbia, 1943), Charlie plays a butler; he's the "strangler" in one of PRC's best, STRANGLER OF THE SWAMP (PRC, 1946); and Middleton was the boss of the wrecking crew in the chaotic MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE (Selznick/RKO, 1948). He also appeared in a half dozen Will Rogers films in the 1930s as well as four Cecil B. de Mille epics during the years 1932-1947. Long time ago, I was watching our local PBS TV station which was running SHOWBOAT (Universal, 1936) with Irene Dunne and Alan Jones ... and Middleton is a lawman and gets a couple lines of dialog. A busy man.

Les Adams has Middleton identified in about 175+ sound era films - that number includes 45 westerns and 15 serials.

The real Charles Middleton was the exact opposite of the vile evildoer that he often portrayed on the screen. I was in Arizona at a business conference in the early 1980s and was able to visit Buster Crabbe. I recall him smiling when he reminisced about Charles Middleton, calling him "Charlie Middleton" and that he was a "nice man" devoted to his craft and family.

Leora passed away September 4, 1945. Charles suffered for years from heart problems and died on April 19, 1949 at the Jared-Sidney Torrance Memorial Hospital, Torrance, California.

Middleton is one of my favorites. And I recall him screaming the names "Flash Gordon !!!" and "Tom Morgan !!!" in response to Buster Crabbe and Tom Mix foiling another nefarious deed. Wonderful memories!

Above is a photo of Leora Spellmeyer Middleton courtesy of the Freeport, New York Historical Society and Freeport, New York Memorial Library. The publisher of the photo was the Press Bureau of the Palace Theater.

You can find more details at the New York Heritage Digital Collections website at:

Above - from the November 5, 1932 issue of Hollywood Filmograph, available at the Internet Archive.

(From Old Corral collection)

Left to right are Charles Middleton (as 'Zaroff'), Jason Robards, Sr., and Tom Mix in the chapterplay, THE MIRACLE RIDER (Mascot, 1935), Mix's last film.

The 'Zaroff' character may have been inspired by Basil Zaharoff, a World War I arms and munitions dealer, and Wikipedia has info on him:

  Although some of the data is incomplete or inaccurate, the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) has information on:
     Charles Middleton:
     Middleton's wife, actress Leora Middleton (1888 or 1890 - 1945):
     Middleton's grandson, actor Burr Middleton:

The New York Heritage Digital Collections website has a 21 page L.I.G.H.T.'S. Club (Long Island Good Hearted Thespian's Society) souvenier program from their third annual Circus and Wild West show in July, 1922. The group toured Long Island, New York and the cast included Middleton, Eddie Foy, Victor Moore, and George Jessel:

Though he reportedly did a lot of stage plays, the Internet Broadway Database lists one play for Middleton, the February-March, 1946 Broadway production of "January Thaw". This was about six months after the death of his wife Leora:

There's a lot more details about Middleton's extensive work in cliffhangers at Daniel Neyer's "The Files of Jerry Blake" website:

Lengthy interview about Charles Middleton with his grandson, actor/entertainer Burr Middleton:
          Part 1:
          Part 2:
          Part 3:

On the trail of Charles Brown Middleton
The Family Search website (free), (subscription), Variety, ProQuest obituaries, Newspaper Archives and the death certificate provide more on Middleton and family. Lots of confusion with his birth year - in the info below, you'll find 1875, 1876, 1878, and 1879:

  • had the Roster of Confederate Soldiers of Georgia, 1861-1865: Charles Middleton's father Hugh M. Middleton was commissioned an officer in Company H, Georgia 39th Infantry Regiment on 04 Mar 1862. Promoted to Full 2nd Lieutenant on 05 Jul 1862. Promoted to Full 1st Lieutenant on 01 Oct 1863. Promoted to Full Captain on 09 Jan 1864.
  • 1880 census summary and census takers worksheet - 44 year old M. H. Middleton (born Georgia; occupation "Retail Grocer"), his 35 year old wife Mary A. (born Georgia), one year old son Charlie B. Middleton (born Kentucky), along with three daughters, two sons and several other people reside in Elizabethtown, Hardin County, Kentucky. Charles' birth year would be 1879:
  • 1890 census is unavailable - it was lost in a 1921 fire (and water damage) at the Commerce Building in Washington, D.C.
  • 1900 census summary and census takers worksheet - Family Search has the family last name misspelled as Middelton. 65 year old Hugh M. Middelton [sic] (born Georgia), his 56 year old wife Mary A. (born Georgia), Mary's 90 year old father Edward Carter (born South Carolina), 30 year old daughter Margaret (born Kentucky) and 24 year old son Charles B. (born Kentucky) are living in Chattanooga, Hamilton County, Tennessee. There's a bunch of other folks at their address, some listed as grandson, boarder, etc. Father Hugh's occupation is "Justice of the Peace". Charles' occupation was "Actor", and is listed as single and 24 years old with an October, 1876 birth date:
  • October 3, 1908 Pennsylvania marriage license of Charles Brown Middleton (29 years old; born Kentucky) to Teresa Leora Spellmeyer (21 years old; born Missouri) and they married in Carlisle, Cumberland County, Pennsyvania. Both report their residence as New York City. This is the first marriage for Leora, but Charles reports that he was divorced in September, 1908 and the cause was "desertion":
  • 1910 census summary and census takers worksheet - 42 year old Charles Middleton (born Texas) and his 23 year old wife Leora (born Missouri) own their home at 712 Nassau Avenue, Hempstead, Nassau County, New York. Their occupations are "Actor" and "Actress":
  • January 30, 1915 issue of Variety had the birth announcement of daughter Leora: "Charles B. Middleton (Middleton and Spellmeyer) was presented with a daughter by his wife last Friday."
  • had the 1915 New York census - 35 year old Charles B. Middleton (occupation actor), his 25 year old wife Leora (occupation actress), 4 month old daughter Leora, and a servant reside in Hempstead, Nassau County, New York.
  • World War I draft registration dated September 4, 1918 - 40 year old Charles Brown Middleton was born October 7, 1878. He lives in Freeport, New York. Occupation and employer was "Actor Vaudeville, United Booking Office, Palace Theater Building, New York, New York". Contact is his mother, Mrs. H. M. Middleton, Chattanooga, Tennessee:
  • 1920 census summary and census takers worksheet - 40 year old Charles B, Middleton (born Kentucky), 31 year old wife Leora Middleton (born Missouri), and 4 year old daughter Leora (born New York) were living in Village of Freeport, Nassau County, New York They own their home but I couldn't decipher the address. Occupations of Charles and Leora are "Dramatic Actor - Vaudeville" and "Dramatic Actress - Vaudeville":
  • had the 1925 New York census - 48 year old Charles B. Middleton (occupation actor), his 3? year old wife Leora (occupation actress), and 10 year old daughter Leora reside in Hempstead, Nassau County, New York.
  • 1930 census summary and census takers worksheet - renting at 1432 Kings Road, Los Angeles, California are 49 year old Charles B. Middleton (born Kentucky), 38 year old wife Leora (born Missouri), their 15 year old daughter Leora (born New York), the parents of Middleton's wife Leora (Charles W. and Matilda Spellmeyer, both 64 years old and both born Missouri), and several boarders. Middleton was not a military veteran. Occupations of Charles and Leora are "Actor - Motion Pictures" and "Actress - Motion Pictures":
  • 1940 census summary and census takers worksheet - Charles and Leora Middleton own their home at 4058 Fairway, Los Angeles, California. His occupation was "Actor - Cinema", and in 1939, he worked 26 weeks and earned $5000.00+:
  • World War II draft registration - 62 year old Charles Brown Middleton was born October 7, 1879 in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. He lives at 12021 1/2 Hoffman Street, North Hollywood, California. Occupation and employer is "Free Lance Actor - All Studios" and contact is the Screen Actors Guild:
  • California Death Index has a record for Leora Theresa Middleton. She was born July 13, 1890 in Missouri, father's last name was Spellmyer [sic], and she passed away September 4, 1945 in the Los Angeles area:
  • Death certificate: 74 year old Charles Middleton was hospitalized for five days at the Jared-Sidney Torrance Memorial Hospital, Torrance, California. On April 19, 1949, he had an operation for gangrene of his right foot. He passed away on April 22, 1949 and cause of death was arteriosclerotic heart disease due to generalized arteriosclerosis (of 20 years duration). Middleton was born October 7, 1874 in Kentucky; was widowed; occupation was "Actor - Motion Pictures"; he was not a military veteran; parents were Hugh Middleton and Mary Carter. His home address was 1422 Kingsley Drive, Los Angeles. Pierce Bros. Hollywood was the funeral director with burial at Hollywood Cemetery. Mrs. Wm. F. Ladd Jr., Playa Del Ray, California was the death certificate informant (and she was his daughter Leora).
    There was a death certificate correction filed on April 25, 1949 which changed his name, age and birth date from Charles Middleton, age 74, born October 7, 1874 to Charles B. Middleton, age 69, born October 7, 1879.
  • The California Death Index mirrors the corrected death certificate - Charles B. Middleton was born 10/7/1879 in Kentucky, Mother's maiden name of Carter, and he passed away on 4/22/1949:
  • Several newspapers carried obituary and funeral information on Middleton: he passed away at the Torrance Memorial Hospital, Torrance, California. His funeral was April 25, 1949 at Pierce Brothers' Hollywood and actors William Farnum and Alan Mowbray were to deliver eulogies. The April 26, 1949 Motion Picture Daily had coverage of the funeral: "... William Farnum and Alan Mowbray gave readings at the funeral ceremonies." ; "A daughter, Mrs. William F. Ladd, survives."

Find A Grave website notes that Charles Middleton and and his wife, actress Leora Theresa Spellmeyer, are interred at Hollywood Forever cemetery, Los Angeles, California.
Middleton's grave marker shows his birth year as 1874:
Leora Middleton:

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