Posted by Susan Doll on October 8, 2012
The careers of character actors seem to be a study in contradictions: They are unsung in their roles yet highly respected in the industry; they are unknown by name but recognizable by face. Though today’s character actors can add texture and depth to almost any movie, their numbers can’t compare to the hundreds of supporting players in the films of the 1930s through the 1950s, which was as much a Golden Age for characters actors as it was for classic movies.
Character actors from the classic era were not movie stars. They rarely played the protagonist or leading lady, and expectations of their contributions to movies differed from that of stars. They specialized in well-defined secondary roles that were suited to their physical characteristics or individual voices. Once a character actor established a specific image, viewers learned to recognize the actor’s face and then associate him or her with certain roles. Characters that seemed sketchy or slight on the written page were vividly brought to life and given distinction by the casting of the right veteran character actors. Some of these actors played within a very narrow range, essentially appearing in the same roles for decades. Others enjoyed a versatile persona that allowed for some diversity while still fulfilling viewers’ expectations for their characters.
Though appreciated and even beloved, character actors lacked the glamour, excitement, and sex appeal of movie stars. Fans doted on the intimate details of the lives of the stars, but they knew little about character actors, including their names. Because it wasn’t the job of character actors to lure audiences into the theaters, they were rarely promoted or publicized. They were not fodder for fan magazines. I think movie-goers would have been surprised by the deeds, accomplishments, or personal lives of some of the character actors. I know I was.
Arthur O’Connell was nominated for an Oscar twice in supporting roles for Picnic and Anatomy of a Murder, giving him more recognition than most character actors received. I remember O’Connell as the father in one of my favorite Elvis Presley films, Follow That Dream, and as the father in one of the worst Presley flicks, Kissin’ Cousins. A few years after Kissin’ Cousins, O’Connell spent a month with American soldiers in Thailand and in South Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. While there, he took down the names and home phone numbers of all the soldiers from California. When he returned, he called the parents or families of 250 soldiers to relay personal news from the battlefront. Most of the families had not heard anything from their sons or husbands in weeks, and news of their loved ones was accepted with tears, relief, and happiness. The graciousness and gratitude of the family members stayed with O’Connell for the rest of his life.
John Qualen became one of John Ford’s stock players after the director saw him as the Swedish janitor in Street Scene, a role he reprised from the Pulitzer-Prize-winning play. Ford cast him as a Swede in Arrowsmith, though Qualen is best remembered as Muley in The Grapes of Wrath or as the rancher Jorgensen in The Searchers. Qualen made over 170 films in his long career, often playing immigrants with little education. In his personal life, he took great pride in being Treasurer of the Authors Club of Los Angeles, a social and professional organization for writers and lovers of the written word. The L.A. Authors Club was headed by Howard Hughes’s uncle, Rupert Hughes, a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and silent-era director. Qualen was also a member of the Masquers, a social organization for the fellowship of actors originally founded in 1925.
As a child, I was a faithful viewer of Hogan’s Heroes, the television sit-com set in a Nazi prison camp– an unfathomable premise to us now. The main Nazi officers and key comic foils in the show were Colonel Klink, played by Werner Klemperer, and Sergeant Schultz, played by John Banner. Both had fled Nazi Germany during the 1930s and had served in the U.S. military during WWII. After six seasons on the show and two Emmy wins, Klemperer, who was a concert violinist and the son of conductor Otto Klemperer, began a second career as a guest musical conductor and concert narrator for symphonies. Banner had been a matinee idol in the Viennese theater before immigrating to America in 1939, when he quickly landed a role in the Broadway review From Vienna despite the fact that he knew no English. He spoke his part phonetically.
A few years ago, I picked up a collection of 1930s postcards of movie star homes for next to nothing in an antique store in the Midwest. I was excited that the collection featured the homes of some of the era’s biggest stars—Carole Lombard, William Powell, Alice Faye, Marlene Dietrich, Dick Powell and Joan Blondell (married at the time), and Joan Crawford, among others. One name I did not recognize was Bob Burns, though I recalled his face when I researched his name. Burns became famous for playing rural Southern characters, or “hillbillies.” Though his characters were often uneducated and unsophisticated, Burns had attended the University of Arkansas in his home state. He worked his way up from silent films to costar in musicals, often alongside Bing Crosby. He was also a major radio star during the 1930s, where he told tall tales of Arkansas country folk. He became famous for the invention of an oddball musical instrument called the bazooka, which he originally constructed from two gas pipes and a whiskey funnel. During WWII, the name was given to the first jet-propelled anti-tank weapon because of its resemblance to instrument. Burns invested his earnings wisely in real estate in the San Fernando Valley, becoming a very wealthy man. Of all the names in that collection of postcards, it seems Burns had led the happiest and most rewarding life.
Here’s a name no one will know—Joseph Cawthorn. Yet, his life story is like a one-man history of American show business. Born just three years after the Civil War, Cawthorn began his career as a child actor in a minstrel show farce. He then traveled to England where he played in that country’s famed music halls. By the time he returned to New York, vaudeville was fast becoming the entertainment medium for the masses. He turned to vaudeville and survived for many years before moving to the legitimate stage as a comic actor in such musicals as Little Nugget and The Singing Girl. Acclaimed for his ability to mimic and poke fun at a German dialect, Cawthorn was reportedly President Woodrow Wilson’s favorite comedian. Like many stage veterans, he journeyed to Hollywood during the silent era and then made the transition to talkies. From Pickaninny Minstrels in the post-Civil War era to classic films like The Great Ziegfeld and Naughty Marietta, Cawthorn’s career reads like one long adventure in show business—the kind of life story I can’t resist.
Comedienne Louise Fazenda retired in the 1930s, living out the remainder of her long life as the wife of respected producer Hal Wallis and establishing a name for herself as a notable humanitarian and prestigious art collector. But, during the early silent era, she was Mack Sennett’s go-to girl who was willing to try any stunt and to tackle any gag. As the story goes, if Mabel Normand complained about a rough stunt or an unclassy gag, Sennett sent for Fazenda. In Sennett’s one-reelers, she was habitually thrown from great heights, carried around like a prop, tossed in the middle of gag fights, and even dragged by horses. Among her well known sight gags was a penchant for falling bloomers, which often contained more than just Fazenda!
I just caught Eileen Heckart’s Oscar-winning performance in Butterflies Are Free as the overprotective mother of an adult son who is blind. Released in 1972, the film is rife with 1960s themes and references, which are dated, but the performances by Heckart and star Goldie Hawn are not. It might seem that Hawn was costarring opposite male lead Edward Albert, who plays the son, but she was really costarring with Heckart. The two actresses play characters who are complete opposites in age, class, and personality, each vying to be the one major influence on Albert. That they come to a mutual respect that culminates in life-altering changes for both of them is the kind of interplay between women you don’t see any more on the screen. Though Heckart appeared in such films as Miracle in the Rain, Bus Stop, and The Bad Seed, she was most renowned for her roles on Broadway and most recognized for her appearances in every major television show from the 1960s to the 1990s. Considered an actor’s actor, she was called “the best actress alive” by drama critic Kenneth Tynan.
The passing of Davy Jones this year reminded me of how much I still love the ground-breaking television series The Monkees. My favorite Monkee is Mickey Dolenz, who has been in and around show business his entire life. Not only did he play the title role in the old television series Circus Boy, but his father was actor George Dolenz. A tall and handsome Italian, George worked as an olive picker and tinsmith before leaving his native country to run a restaurant on the Riviera, manage a nightclub in Mexico City, and then work in stock in Havana. Dolenz kept his hand in both acting and the restaurant business after coming to Hollywood. He trained at Max Reinhardt’s dramatic school and signed a contract with RKO, while working as a waiter at the Trocadero and then as an assistant manager at Ciro’s. While starring in the lead role of The Count of Monte Cristo on television, he was the co-owner of a Hollywood restaurant called the Marquis.
These are only a few of the life stories of Hollywood’s hundreds of character actors. Their careers remind me that life experience and life-long learning count as much as acting lessons in making for a consistently good performer. [Thanks to my good friend Jenny Grist for giving me Character People: The Stalwarts of the Cinema, which prompted this topic.]
Jones, Ken D., Arthur F. McClure, and Alfred E. Twomey. Character People: The Stalwarts of the Cinema. South Brunswick and New York: A.S. Barnes and Co., 1976.
Jones, Ken D., Arthur F. McClure, and Alfred E. Twomey. More Character People. Seacaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1984.
Lamparski, Richard. Whatever Became of…? NYC: Crown Pub., 1986.
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