PALM SPRINGS, Calif. -- William Demarest, who played the feisty Uncle Charley of television's 'My Three Sons' during a career that started in vaudeville and included roles in the first talking pictures, has died of a heart attack. He was 91.
Demarest, who died early Wednesday, appeared with Al Jolson in 1927 in the first talking musical, 'The Jazz Singer.' Nineteen years later, he earned an Oscar nomination for 'The Jolson Story.'
He was also in the first short talkie -- 'A Night at Coffee Dans.'
A veteran of more than 100 films, Demarest was best known for his role of seven seasons on 'My Three Sons' as Uncle Charley O'Casey. He won an Emmy nomination playing a retired sea captain running a household of three boys and their widowed father.
'Losing him is like losing part of your family,' Fred MacMurray, who starred in the show, told UPI in an interview. 'He was kind of a crotchety old fellow, you know, but that's what he played on the show, and that's what he was -- kind of a warmhearted and lovable old man.'
Demarest also appeared in other series, including 'The Millionaire,' 'Tales of Wells Fargo' and 'Love and Marriage.'
He played with most of the great stars of his time, including Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper and Clark Gable.
Director Frank Capra, who cast Demarest in 'Mr. Deeds Goes to Town' and 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,' called him 'an anchorman ... a strong actor around whom (a director) can build a scene.'
Demarest was born Feb. 27, 1892, in St. Paul, Minn., the son of a second-hand furniture dealer. His family moved to New Jersey, where he played cello with his two older brothers in an act that appeared at fashionable resort hotels.
Later, he worked solo as a dancer and comedian and had a short-lived boxing career as 'Battling McGovern.' After service in World War I, he became a star in vaudeville.
He was not initially impressed by Hollywood, and in 1926 failed a screen test arranged by studio mogul Jack Warner.
'We filmed in L.A., and you could have smelled it in New York,' he later recalled. He signed a contract with Warner Bros. the next year, however, and made 24 films in the next two years.
He returned briefly to vaudeville, but went back to movies after his comedy act was booked between reels of the Mae West film 'She Done Him Wrong' in 1933.
'I went on stage and announced, 'I'm here while they re-wind Mae West,' and I told one gag and got the hell off,' he said.
'And I said to myself, If Mae West and Paramount are going to put me out of the vaudeville business, I'll go back to Hollywood and join Paramount.'
He left show business after cancellation of 'My Three Sons' in 1971, retiring to a home adjoining the Canyon Country Club in Palm Springs.
Demarest was pronounced dead at his home at 12:01 a.m., Riverside County coroner's officials said. A memorialservice was scheduled for Jan. 3 in Palm Springs. Burial was to be private.