Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award

Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award recipient Harry Belafonte

The Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, an Oscar statuette, is given to an “individual in the motion picture industry whose humanitarian efforts have brought credit to the industry.” The award is named for the Danish actor and translator who was one of Hollywood's most active philanthropists. His service to the industry included 18 years as president of the Motion Picture Relief Fund. He also served as Academy president during a crucial time in the organization's history.


Born on July 12, 1886, Jean Hersholt grew up in Denmark and toured theaters throughout Europe with his performer parents. He appeared in two 1906 Danish films, “Konfirmanden” and “Oplob Pa Frederiksberg.”

In 1913, he emigrated to the U.S., beginning his American film career as an extra in 1915's “The Disciple.” Larger parts followed in 1916's “The Desert” and in three 1917 productions, “Black Orchids,” “The Terror” and “The Showdown.” By the 1920s Hersholt worked under contract to Paramount-Famous Players-Lasky, becoming one of the film industry’s most prolific actors. He was cast as the lead villain in countless films, including Erich von Stroheim’s classic “Greed.”

When “talkies” were introduced, Hersholt managed to overcome his strong Danish accent by becoming a character actor (known for applying his own makeup) in films such as “The Climax,” “Susan Lenox - Her Fall and Rise,” “The Mask of Fu Manchu,” “Emma,” “Grand Hotel,” “The Painted Veil,” “Reunion,” “Dinner at Eight” and “Heidi” (as the grandfather of the title character, played by Shirley Temple).

In 1936, Hersholt portrayed Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe, the real-life obstetrician who delivered the then-world-famous Dionne quintuplets, in “The Country Doctor.” RKO was so pleased with his performance, they wanted to develop a series of films based on the character; but when Dafoe nixed the idea, Hersholt invented the character Dr. Paul Christian, named after his favorite author, Hans Christian Andersen. By 1937 Hersholt (and his once-maligned voice) began what was to become a 17-year-long career portraying the kind, generous and ethical doctor on radio, and in 1939 RKO produced “Meet Dr. Christian,” which led to a six-film series for himself.

In 1938, Hersholt became president of the Motion Picture Relief Fund, an organization that had been providing financial support and other services for motion picture industry employees for more than 15 years. The Fund's efforts were recognized in 1939 with an honorary Academy Award, which Hersholt shared with Fund leaders Ralph Morgan, Ralph Block and Conrad Nagel. During his tenure as president of the Fund, Hersholt was instrumental in leading the effort to create the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California.

From 1945 to 1949, Hersholt deepened his relationship with the Academy by serving as its president. It was during his tenure that the Hollywood studios stopped financing the annual awards ceremony, and Hersholt fought to keep the organization thriving.

In addition to his film work, Hersholt’s Danish background and love of Hans Christian Andersen led to his English translation of over 160 of Andersen’s fairy tales. These efforts were lauded by King Christian X of Denmark, who knighted Hersholt in 1948, and the translations were published in 1949 as a six-volume set entitled “The Complete Andersen.” That same year, he appeared in 20th Century Fox’s “Dancing in the Dark” as himself, and he received a second honorary Academy Award for “distinguished service to the motion picture industry.”

In 1955, Hersholt received his final film credit, in Nicholas Ray’s Western “Run for Cover.” The next year, although he was dying of cancer, he graciously agreed to appear on the first episode of television’s new “Dr. Christian” program, bestowing his “practice” on the new Dr. Christian (portrayed by MacDonald Carey). Hersholt died on June 2, 1956, and almost immediately the Academy established the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

Hersholt’s grave in Glendale’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park is marked with a statue of Klods Hans, a Hans Christian Anderson hero who went forth from Denmark into the world, hoping to win the heart of a princess. Hersholt went forth from Denmark as well, and he won the heart of an entire industry. The Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award is the Academy’s ongoing tribute to Jean Hersholt, a humanitarian whose efforts indeed brought credit to the industry.