The End of an Era…
Roland Winters was born Roland Winternitz in Boston, Massachusetts on November 22, 1904. He was in his middle teens when he worked on a cargo ship that sailed to Central America and later to the West Indies during the summer. It was at about this time that Winters began his career on the stage, working in theater groups around Boston. In 1924, at the age of twenty, he was acting in Broadway productions, beginning with Firebrand, which was produced by a friend of his brother. During this period, Winters also played bit parts in a couple of silent films.
In 1931, Winters got the job of announcing Braves and Red Sox games on radio station WNAC. He continued to work in radio until 1947, when he was cast in the role of Van Duyval in the Twentieth Century-Fox production of 13 Rue Madeleine which starred James Cagney.
James S. Burkett, who, with Philip N. Krasne, had purchased the screen rights to Charlie Chan from Sidney Toler in 1943, had Winters test for the role, following the death of Toler. Immediately after Winters’ trial scene, Burkett informed him that the part was his.
At the age of 43, Roland Winters, more than thirty years younger than the late Sidney Toler, and virtually the same age as Keye Luke, who would again appear as Chan’s Number One Son, Lee, opposite him in both The Feathered Serpent (1948) and The Sky Dragon (1949). Viewers sometimes comment on Winters’ seemingly lethargic portrayal of Charlie Chan. A possible answer is that his seeming lack of energy, plus the addition of touches of gray to his dyed black hair, were meant to give the impression of an older, more Toler-like Chan.
The six films in which Roland Winters portrayed Charlie Chan, along with the rest of the Monogram Chan series that had preceded them, still pale when compared to the much higher-budgeted films from Twentieth Century-Fox. However, they are often an improvement over a number of the final films that Sidney Toler had made. Mantan Moreland continued in his role of Birmingham Brown, and Sen Yung (Victor Sen Young) remained in the series as Charlie Chan’s Number Two Son, except that he was now referred to as “Tommy” rather than “Jimmy.”
Although the Charlie Chan series came to an end with The Sky Dragon, Monogram Pictures had planned to shoot several more Charlie Chan films in Europe that were to feature Winters and Keye Luke without Mantan Moreland. The first film was to have the working title Charlie Chan in London. Because of a requirement of the British government, Monogram had placed funds for this project and other planned Charlie Chan films within banks in that country. However, without warning, the British Finance Minister devalued the English Pound. With their funds suddenly slashed in value, Monogram was forced to cancel the series. Roland Winters and Keye Luke were given the news as they were preparing to leave for England.*
With this, an era, framed by the Charlie Chan film series, had come to an end. However, his legend would live on with the detective eventually returning years later in a new series of adventures and through a new entertainment medium.
* Charles P. Mitchell, A Guide to Charlie Chan Films.