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Lillian Gish: First Lady of American Cinema

by Legacy Staff

Lillian Gish had a legendary acting career. From her first silent film in 1912 to her final movie performance in 1987 at age 93, Gish worked for an amazing 75 years.

When we think of actors with impressively long careers, we usually picture a career spanning several decades. Forty years? Fifty? It’s the rare actor who has worked successfully for 60 years. But Lillian Gish’s illustrious career lasted even longer than that. From her first silent film in 1912 to her final movie performance in 1987 at age 93, Gish, who was born 120 years ago today, worked on big screen and small for an amazing 75 years.

It wasn’t just Gish’s longevity that earned her the honorific “First Lady of American Cinema.” It was her talent, too – talent that took her from the highly emotive style of early silents to success in talkies, then to Technicolor, television, and Broadway stardom. It seemed Gish could tackle almost any type of acting job.


As we remember Gish on her birthday, we’re taking a trip through her amazing acting career.

When Gish and her sister Dorothy were young, they became friends with a neighbor in New York City who would soon become one of the first movie stars – Mary Pickford. Pickford introduced the sisters to pioneering director D.W. Griffith, who gave them their start in movies. In 1912, they starred together in his short silent film, An Unseen Enemy.

Within two years, Lillian Gish was a star, appearing in more than 25 movies. She starred in some of Griffith’s legendary films, including Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm.

Gish’s initial transition to talkies was tricky – it was often difficult for silent film stars to adapt to the new methods of acting that talkies required. For some time, the bulk of her work was done onstage, including a memorable Hamlet –– she proudly reflected, “I played a lewd Ophelia!” By the 1940s she was back onscreen, gaining an Oscar nomination for her role in Duel in the Sun.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Gish was frequently on television – in guest roles and in movies, and also on behalf of a cause that was dear to her heart. Gish was at the forefront of advocating for the lost art of the silent film, giving speeches around the country in support of the medium that began her career. On TV, she hosted a PBS series that presented silent films, The Silent Years.

In 1987 Gish starred in her final film, The Whales of August, alongside two other classic movie stars, Bette Davis and Vincent Price. At 93, Gish was initially reluctant to take the role, but she was persuaded to turn in one last fine performance.

In 1993, Lillian Gish died at age 99. The life she lived was long, and the legacy she left behind extraordinary. She was truly one of the stars who made the movies great.

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