Posted by Richard Harland Smith on February 22, 2013
I was watching GUN CRAZY (1950) the other night for the whateverth time and at about 66 minutes in I heard a familiar voice. I was looking at the woman in the ticket booth, in the way I love to focus on extraneous characters (somewhat in line with what Morlock Greg wrote about on Wednesday) but that voice pulled my focus left… and I said out loud “Hey, it’s Ross Elliott!” The name may well not mean much to you but he’s been on my radar for over forty years.
Ross Elliott (right) is one of those actors who seems to me like someone I grew up with, literally, in my home town. There was something real about the guy, lived-in and work-a-day. He held on to his Bronx accent all his life, which playing city guys or one who just happens to live in the Mojave Desert. (More about that later.) In GUN CRAZY, he plays a Fed tracing the payroll money stolen by lamming lovers Peggy Cummins and John Dall right up to the front door of the dance hall in which they are cutting a rug… prompting their panicked flight out the back door and urging this film noir classic towards its tragic finish. In which Ross Elliott does not figure at all. No, this is it for him in GUN CRAZY… about a minute of screen time. Such is the life of a jobbing actor.
I’m not aware of the provenance of this studio portrait of Ross Elliott but it clearly dates from his earliest days as an actor. Born in New York City in 1917, Elliott started acting in summer camp before the Depression and continued the pursuit at City College of New York, from which he graduated in 1937. Already a veteran of black box theatre and summer stock (where he honed his craft as a rep player, trading one character for another in quick succession), he joined Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre and appeared in its inaugural, modern dress production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, crafted by Welles as an anti-Fascist polemic. The production ran in repertory with The Shoemaker’s Holiday and later that year he would return to the Great White Way in Danton’s Death. Elliott allegedly participated in Welles’ October 30, 1938 radio adaptation of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds but his name appears in no cast lists I’ve ever seen and I can’t pick out his voice from the surviving recordings of the broadcast — still, he may very well have been called in to fill in background noise during crowd scenes. Elliott eventually left the company to tour with the comedy What a Life, directed by George Abbott. Elliott joined the army for service in World War II, where he acted with fellow GIs Gary Merrill, Ralph Nelson, and his What a Life costar Ezra Stone. Spotted by the producers of the Irving Berlin musical, Elliott found himself playing himself in This Is the Army on Broadway in 1942 and recreating the role for the 1943 film adaptation. After the war, Elliott toured in Apple of His Eye, replacing Tom Ewell as Walter Huston’s son in the tale of a widowed farmer who falls for his considerably younger housekeeper.
When the tour ended in Detroit, Elliott decided to try his luck in Hollywood. He had small roles in a number of pictures but his urban aspect restricted him for the most part to crime thrillers, playing characters on both sides of the law… and sometimes in between. In WOMAN ON THE RUN (1950), directed by Orson Welles associate Norman Foster, Elliott played an unhappily married San Francisco artist-manqué who witnesses a mob rub-out and takes a powder from police protection (personified by sardonic Mutt & Jeff team Robert Keith and Frank Jenks), forcing his estranged wife (Ann Sheridan) to set out to find him with the help of newsman Dennis O’Keefe. It’s Sheridan’s picture, not Elliott’s, who remains largely out of it. Nevertheless, one senses that the filmmakers were trying Elliott out on the public, giving them a good look at the top and them pulling him back into the shadows, to see if there would be any curiosity, any buzz. (Elliott’s character in WOMAN ON THE RUN has more backstory than any character he every played onscreen, even when he had more actual screentime.) The attention gave Elliott cause to believe he might make it as a leading man, but it never happened. Not hard to see why — he’s a through-and-through character player, you see that right away. Face a bit too narrow, teeth a bit too prominent, hairline a touch too high, and a funny, sideways manner of speaking. I can’t say how Ross Elliott felt about this realization at the time but stardom’s loss was a definite gain for the ensemble.
Sixth-billed in WOMAN ON THE RUN, Elliott went unbilled in GUN CRAZY, in AFFAIR IN TRINIDAD (1952), in which he plays the dead body of Rita Hayworth’s husband, and STORM WARNING (1951). This Warner Brothers remake of its earlier THE BLACK LEGION (1936) focused more squarely on the Ku Klux Klan, with hero Ronald Reagan out to ankle the white supremacist outfit, whose members are hidden in their hateful doings by hoods. Elliott plays a local, friendly to Reagan by day (albeit edgily so) but snakier in a crowd…
… as in this scene, where he heckles a broadcast journalist in town to cover an inquest related to a Klan slaying. The film doesn’t so far as to put Elliott in a Klan robe but STORM WARNING is less an expose of racist militias than it is of the regular folk who allow these groups to flourish and impact law and legislation. As potentially threatening as Elliott’s character may be, he remains likeable in his own way, due in large part to the personality the actor brings to the bit. Or maybe that’s just me talking. Even when playing a hayseed jerk, I can’t help but like the guy.
In BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953), Elliott had one of his better early roles as an atomic physicist testing bombs in the arctic circle. As fate would have it…
… the blasts awaken a slumbering dinosaur.
And, well… let’s just say Elliott spends the rest of the show in the wings.
I’d guess the first time I ever noticed Elliott in something was in Universal’s TARANTULA (1955), playing a small town newsman who becomes the reluctant third leg of a three-man investigation committee headed up by desert doctor John Agar and county sheriff Nestor Paiva. Elliott’s scenes with his costars are run through with wry humor and punctuated by his character’s half-angry, half-amused diatribes for being squeezed out on a big exclusive. “Joe Burch” isn’t really good for much, from a narrative standpoint, but he serves as a jovial exposition dump, asking layman questions of Agar’s medico hero. Later, he spearheads the collection of dynamite used (in vain) to stop the eponymous arachnid but he spends most of the third act looking on, reacting appropriately (“Holy cow!”) and filling out the frame so other people can talk.
Elliott is tenth-billed in Universal’s MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS (1958), as a college town cop who helps investigate a series of bizarre murders.
He’s not the lead cop on the case but he does get to bodyguard hero Arthur Franz, initially a prime suspect in the murders and then cleared when evidence points to a predator with misshapen hands, a veritable missing link. Of course, we know more than he does.
“Sgt. Eddie Daniels” is no great shakes, he’s not particularly funny or smart, but he does get to bust some hero moves as Franz goes missing and Sgt. Eddie follows in close pursuit, .38 drawn as he jumps from a window and tear-asses through the shadows unconcerned for his own safety.
We know, of course, that he should be concerned.
Tenth billing owes you no favors.
Okay, so that’s how I know Ross Elliott. But I bet 90% of the people reading this who recognize his mug will remember him as the commercial director who coaches Lucy Ricardo through her pitch for Vitameatavegamin on I LOVE LUCY in the classic episode “Lucy Does a TV Commercial.” It’s one of Lucille Ball’s crowning achievements but the bit showcases what made Ross Elliott so great, too — so easy, so comfortable, and such character disseminated so effortlessly. Married in 1954, Elliott transitioned away from features for the most part and into television (pick ‘em: THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, PERRY MASON, THE PEPSI COLA PLAYHOUSE, STUDIO 57, WIRE SERVICE with Mercedes McCambridge, PERRY MASON, MIKE HAMMER, M SQUAD with Lee Marvin, DEATH VALLEY DAYS, MAVERICK, PETER GUNN, THE FUGITIVE, TWILIGHT ZONE, THRILLER, KUNG FU, appearances on THE JACK BENNY PROGRAM and THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS SHOW, and recurring roles on SEA HUNT, THE VIRGINIAN, GENERAL HOSPITAL) through the second half of the 50s and from then on. He continued to pop up in films as he grew older, playing a variety of establishment characters — doctors, sheriffs, doctors, bank managers, military men — in such films as KELLY’S HEROES (1970), SKYJACKED (1972), THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974). Retired in 1986, he died in 1999, at the age of 82. I guess I should be grateful that his obituary was carried at all by the major papers but the remembrances were cursory. The New York Times obit (“Ross Elliott, 82, an Actor on TV Series”) ran about 160 words and Variety‘s slightly less than 300. He got more respect in the United Kingdom, where The Independent‘s Tom Vallance took a respectful 1,300 words to sum up a career spanning nearly 50 years and a life spent in the service of character. I have plenty more Ross Elliott movies to catch up on (to say nothing of his hundreds of TV appearances) and I look forward to every one of them, as I would to a visit with an old friend.
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