Posted by Richard Harland Smith on February 23, 2007
By the age of 13, I was hooked on John Willis’ Screen World, a hardcover compendium of movies released in the US during the previous year. I saved my pennies so I could afford that book each time a new one came out. In addition to credit lists and illustrations, each volume concluded with an obituary section through which I’d pore, slack-jawed at the celebrity passings. Sometimes those deaths really hit the bone.
Screen World 1981 brought news of the death of actor Charles McGraw from injuries sustained by falling through a glass shower door. Born Charles Butters on May 10, 1914, the actor had paid his dues in theatre and on the radio before making his film debut in an uncredited bit in John Brahm’s monster-on-the-moors sleeper The Undying Monster (1942). At 5’10”, Charles McGraw was not the tallest guy in the room, nor was he the handsomest… but he stood out. He had a face that looked cold chiseled out of granite, eyes with that thousand yard stare career soldiers are said to possess and a voice on him, low and guttural, like a boot heel grinding teeth on concrete.
I had seen the actor in a few things: Hitchcock’s The Birds (as a gruff diner patron), In Cold Blood (as spree killer Robert Blake’s gruff father Tex) and in the Dan Curtis telefilm The Night Stalker (as a gruff police captain). None of these were vintage McGraw but he was great in all of them. McGraw's death made me curious about his life, so I had a lot of backtracking ahead of me. It took me years to see his seminal work: as half of The Killers (1946), as vengeful con Red Kluger in The Threat (1949), as an Honest Joe turned bad by true love in Roadblock (1951) and as righteous cops in Armored Car Robbery (1950) and The Narrow Margin (1952). McGraw’s drill instructor mien assured him a busy career playing military men of every stripe: sergeants in War Paint (1953) and Joe Butterfly (1957), lieutenants in Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957) and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), captains in The Story of Molly X (1949) and The Defiant Ones (1958) and sheriffs in Hang ‘em High (1968) and Tell Them Willy Boy Is Here (1969). During the 1950s, McGraw was the star of the short-lived Casablanca TV series, playing alongside a number of the original film's supporting cast (Marcel Dalio, Ludwig Stössel and big Dan Seymour) promoted to characters of greater importance.
Coming this August from noir specialist Alan K. Rode is Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy (McFarland), which promises many behind-the-scenes anecdotes about his ribald adventures… his long and fitful marriage to a beautiful Eurasian woman, the mystery of his truncated World War II military service; and the true story of his tragically horrific death… few actually knew the enigmatic, complex man beyond the tough guy demeanor, funny stories and barroom bluster. He led a life of exuberant excess that gradually descended to a tragic denouement. The McFarland website hasn't yet added this book to their store, nor listed a cover price. So haunt the site, tough guys… and start saving those pennies.
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