Posted by Moira Finnie on April 8, 2009
A few weeks ago, Jenni, a regular reader of this blog, asked if we could write more about character actors here. In an effort to satisfy her and my curiosity about one of those too often obscure figures, I’d like to offer this brief profile of an unforgettable actor whose name took me years to discover. He went by character names such as these on screen: Old Timer. Old Codger. Old Geezer. Old Coot. Old Miner. Old Con. Flophouse Bum. Sleepy Martin. Flunky. Barfly. Squint. Curly. You get the picture. He seems to have been born old, and perhaps bald. He could also convincingly play some minor character with a menial occupation, if any.
Hank Worden (1901-1991), an actor who worked in the business of show from 1930 to 1991, often appeared very briefly–even without credit, in movies directed by Hollywood hacks, journeymen and the legendary likes of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway and King Vidor. He also appeared in self-parodying dreck such as Please Don’t Eat the Babies (1983), though he brought to even those unworthy vehicles a vague sweetness and strangeness that was simultaneously endearing and disturbing. The impression he made during his brief spotlight moments, in particular in his role as the addle-pated Mose Harper in Ford’s masterwork, The Searchers (1956), place his best characterizations somewhere West of both Shakespeare’s Fools and the characters from Samuel Beckett’s absurdist Waiting for Godot. Almost all Hank‘s characters have a strange, off-kilter style as they react to the world in an often odd, demented fashion, apparently clinging to some shreds of an identity that appears to have been torn up by the roots long ago.
The real Hank Worden, who was born Norton Earl Worden in July 23, 1901 in Rolfe, Iowa, was an articulate man and college-educated individual at a time when that was a rarity. He grew up literally in the saddle on a Montana ranch, the son of a couple who met in the mining fields of Colorado, where his mother was a schoolmarm and his father was a miner turned engineer. Young Hank, (yes, he was a lad once), chose to be a cowboy after he failed to become a pilot in the Army. He found his way into rodeos and became a bucking bronco rider of some note in that competitive world. His comfort in the saddle and his hardy nature helped him ignore any pain he may have felt when he was thrown and fell badly from horses. Twenty five years after his time with the rodeo shows, an x-ray would reveal that he’d been walking around with a broken neck for a quarter of a century.
By January, 1931, he began his association with legitimate show biz after reportedly being stranded in a wintry NYC following a lay-off from a traveling rodeo that had visited the Big Apple as the country slipped deeper into the Depression. He was lucky enough to appear in the Theatre Guild production of Lynn Riggs’ Green Grow the Lilacs, a slight play about life on the plains with Franchot Tone as Curly and June Walker as Laurey in the leads, as well as a future star of Western swing, Woodward Ritter, later better known as Tex Ritter, who became a close friend of the already bald young Worden. Hank‘s role in that play, naturally enough, was listed in the cast credits as simply “A Cowboy”, according to Broadway records. (Twelve years later, the Riggs piece was rewritten, scored anew and marked the breakthrough for a newly formed musical team, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, who renamed it and had a bit of a hit in 1943. You may have heard of it. It was called Oklahoma! ). When the show closed after less than two months in March of 1931, the resilient Worden reportedly found employment as a chauffeur for multimillionaire Harvey Firestone (as in the tires), and later worked for some time as a NYC cabbie. (I wonder if passengers heard him say “Thank ya, thank ya kindly” when they gave their hack driver a tip?).
Eventually, the gentle Mr. Worden returned to the West, taking on stints as a trail hand in the Grand Canyon and as a ranch hand at a dude ranch, where he sang ditties such as “The Old Chisum Trail” for guests, with Hank‘s distinctive twang lending these tunes some extra zing. This job led to his acquaintance with actress Billie Burke and her daughter. The widow of Florenz Ziegfeld turned Hollywood character actress, (who specialized in creating roles as well-bred society space cadets and good witches), took a shine to the ingratiating, down-to-earth Hank, recommending him to several Hollywood producers. By the mid-1930s, Worden was beginning to pile up many, many uncredited appearances in good and bad movies. The actor would cite the Gary Cooper movie, The Plainsman (1936), directed by Cecil B. DeMille, as his first appearance of note, though it was a bit of a thrill to spot HW in the crowd of lumberjacks in Howard Hawks’ Come and Get It (1936) last time I saw it.
Hank Worden‘s bread and butter roles came in a series of “B” movies, such as the twelve he appeared in with his friend Tex Ritter between 1937 and 1943, usually appearing as a slow-witted comic character. Sometimes reluctantly appearing in movies for a brief time under the name of Heber Snow, which some sources say was the inspiration of an enterprising producer who guessed that name might make him more popular with Mormon audiences, Hank Worden also acted in small budgeted but often entertaining oaters with Bob Baker, Buck Jones, Gene Autry, George O’Brien, Hopalong Cassidy, and Tim Holt. The journeyman actor would later describe his level in the movies this way in a documentary made by documentarian Clyde Lucas, called, appropriately enough: Thank Ya, Thank Ya Kindly (1991):
“The star would be the first character through the door in a given scene. Next would come the Ward Bonds and the Walter Brennans, actors who were character leads and often familiar to the audience by name. [Worden] would be the third man through the door.” That third man through the door might not be known by name to audience members, but his appearance was a welcome, even expected sight, lending texture, reality and color to the movie.
As an apparently guileless actor with his own particular style and no visible acting technique, Worden found his niche and a bit of immortality when he joined what has come to be described as the “John Ford Stock Company”, consisting of many actors, including such notables as John Wayne, Ward Bond, John Qualen, Maureen O’Hara, J. Farrell McDonald, Jack Pennick, Harry Carey, (Sr. and Jr.), Jane Darwell, and Olive Carey. This career upturn began inauspiciously for Hank when he played an uncredited role as a Cavalryman in Stagecoach (1939). It would be nine years before Worden again stepped in front of a camera directed by Ford when he appeared in Fort Apache (1948), as a “Southern Recruit” in the first of the director’s “cavalry trilogy” films that explored the myths that destroy and nurture a community as the military characters adhere, sometimes reluctantly, to duty and honor in the director’s view of the expansionist West. Stagecoach also marked the beginning of a working relationship and an off-screen friendship between John Wayne and Hank Worden, who would eventually work together on 18 film and television projects.
John Wayne, whose decade of experience prior to Stagecoach had taught him what it was like to struggle to make a living in the poverty row and smaller studio Westerns, took a liking to Worden. While Wayne reportedly had occasional difficulties remaining in character when working with the naturally funny Hank Worden, he immediately took the actor into his circle of working friends, perhaps helping to cast him in a tiny uncredited part in the Three Mesquiteers movie that Wayne made immediately after completing the Ford film, The Night Riders (1939). Not surprisingly, given his proven track record as a working professional in the movies by this time, Hank also married for the first and only time at age 38, when he wed Emma Louise Eaton the following year. The pair would be a couple for 37 years, until her death in 1977.
As a member of the “John Ford Stock Company”, one might have expected that Hank Worden would be subjected to the same hectoring treatment that Ford is said to have doled out to other regulars on his set, especially Ward Bond, a thick-skinned man described as innured to his director’s nearly constant criticism. Yet, as Dobe Carey points out in interviews, (Dobe, aka Harry Carey, Jr. and a recipient of some hellacious Ford treatment, particularly during his debut performance in Three Godfathers in 1948), it was Worden, who would contritely point out his own mistakes with dialogue or action before the director. Perhaps it was the character actor’s good nature, but it may have been that Ford understood that Hank was doing the best he could, and his performances would never improve with too much criticism. When Hank Worden asked periodically if he was doing what the director wanted, others observed a gentleness in John Ford, as he quietly encouraged the actor whenever he appeared on his films, occasionally with a wink and a smile toward an attentive John Wayne nearby, acknowledging that this gifted character actor’s instincts were not something that could be learned or necessarily refined. Seeing Worden in Ford‘s films is a fascinating thing. The strange line readings and sing-song delivery of his lines that sometimes seemed funny or amateurish in other films took on an interesting quality in his movies. In Ford‘s world, Hank‘s stilted speech patterns and faraway gaze, as well as his tall, lanky, almost alien awkwardness becomes compelling. By the time Worden appears in The Horse Soldiers as the Deacon, playing a Southern man whose conscience has led him to aid the Underground Railroad, he becomes a Lincolnesque figure, physically and spiritually, leading the Union soldiers trapped behind enemy lines through a swamp and freedom.
One thing that may have protected the canny player as well as his “innocent talent” in Ford’s eyes, was his understanding of the pecking order on themovie sets he worked on very well. During Three Godfathers, the character actor observed some cutthroat games of dominoes between Ford, Wayne, Pedro Armendariz, and Ward Bond. According to Worden, when Ford was winning, all was well. “The rest of us”, he said, stood around and listened to them…Ford couldn’t stand to be topped, so he cheated.” Wisely, Worden kept out of those games.
One of his most rewarding parts came in The Searchers (1956) when his character of Mose Harper, who in Alan LeMay’s source novel is an older, rational rancher with grown sons, is transformed into a comical seer whose understanding of the Indians and the haunted Ethan Edwards behavior is a key in this mythic story touching on the love, loss, racism, redemptive qualitities and memory within each of us. One example of Mose Harper’s peculiar insight comes when Ethan, (John Wayne) on the hunt for the Comanche raiding party who have decimated the Edwards and other families and stolen the one surviving Edwards child, Debbie, discovers a buried Indian. Edwards and his companions desecrate the hastily concealed grave, removing the stone that covers the body, the cloth that shielded the face, and, after an impotently furious Brad Jorgensen (Dobe Carey) hurls a rock at the dead man, Ethan fires two bullets into the eyes of the corpse. Mose, who says nothing verbally, understands perfectly– in his own weird way–what the vengeful Ethan has accomplished, causing the soul of the dead man to wander between the winds without rest. Mose proves his bizarre credentials as a member of the initial search party looking for the Indian raiding party led by Ward Bond, as you can see here:
While Mose’s longing for a roof over his head and a rocking chair to nestle in is a memorable feature of this movie’s story, Hank Worden‘s loopy character, praying just before an Indian attack “That which we are about to receive, we thank thee, O Lord” becomes a shadow of Ethan Edwards, eventually (and almost inadvertently) leading the searchers to the Indian camp where Debbie and her uncle are reunited in a near tragic moment. In my own loopier moments, I like to think an interesting film might have been made by an enterprising filmmaker focusing on the entire story from Mose Harper’s point of view.
Hank‘s close relationship to Ford and Wayne probably led to his being cast in one of the more significant roles that Worden played when he was asked to play crusty, valiant preacher in the sprawling John Wayne-directed The Alamo (1960). Hank later commented that he wished that Wayne had allowed their mentor John Ford to direct The Alamo since the character actor found that James Edward Grant‘s script was overly verbose. Worden believed that John Ford‘s remarkable instinct for storytelling via action on screen would have been superior to the long pages of dialogue that showed up each day of shooting in the rattlesnake laden area where the movie was filmed in Texas and Mexico. While Ford is said to have directed a few scenes in The Alamo, the star and official director, John Wayne, was generous to his coworkers in his effort to prove himself a consummate filmmaker, (rather than just a perennially underrated actor). Though it has sometimes been cut from prints of The Alamo, the following death scene for Hank’s character is one of the actor’s best moments on film:
Despite such showstoppers as the above death scene in the unwieldy epic production of The Alamo, a film that was given mixed reviews at best, over time as the critical status and popularity of The Searchers grew, the Mose Harper role would prove to be the highlight of Hank Worden‘s career. However, his work with Howard Hawks in Red River (1948) and particularly as the highly amusing role of a simple-minded “PoorDevil” in the underrated and entertaining The Big Sky (1952). Based on A.B. Guthrie’s history of the pathfinders who opened the frontiers of Kentucky and Tennessee to Western pioneers, the actor’s weird versatility for portraying offbeat characters enabled him to bring a comic poignancy to this Native American character, even if the movie was a mixed bag that was at times hackneyed and at other moments quite truthful about the human cost of Westward expansion.
The Big Sky also gave Hank an opportunity to work with fellow character actor Arthur Hunnicutt, (who had one of his best roles in The Big Sky and who also shared the screen with Hank one other time, in the Randolph Scott Western, Sugarfoot in 1951). Though a decade younger than Hank, Hunnicutt would prove to be one of Worden‘s closest friends.
Late in life, the elderly Hank, seemingly acknowledging one of the downsides of longevity, expressed a wistful regret that he could no longer visit his pal Hunnicutt at the Motion Picture Home. Though he would outlive his wife and many of his friends by well over 10 years, Mr. Worden remained active, continuing to appear in movies and episodic television, including Bonanza, Wagon Train, Gunsmoke and Knight Rider, as well as working with a new generation of filmmakers in innovative films such as the critically acclaimed Hammett (1982), directed by Wim Wenders, and Runaway Train (1985), directed by Andrei Konchalovsky. He also worked with a newer star (and later director), Clint Eastwood, with whom he first worked on the tv program, Rawhide. When Eastwood moved on to star and later direct movies, he tapped Worden as a castmate in Any Which Way But Loose (1978) and Bronco Billy (1980).
Worden, who worked until very near his death at 90, appeared as the Bellboy (perhaps the world’s oldest) in David Lynch‘s surreally entertaining sojourn into episodic television, Twin Peaks. The ancient character actor, armed with his work ethic and sense of humor, managed to bring his patented strange courtliness to another generation of viewers and formed a bond with co-star Kyle MacLachlan–despite their 58 year age difference.
Many of the films touched on here can be seen on TCM regularly. Hank Worden can be seen this Saturday, April 11th at 2:30 PM ET, when King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946) slithers into view on the network, with Hank in one of his uncredited roles as “Dance-Floor Cowboy”. Blink and you’ll miss him, dear readers, so look carefully for one more appearance by an intriguing actor.
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