Posted by Richard Harland Smith on February 21, 2014
Character actor Royal Dano died twenty years ago this May. That’s about the only rationale I can offer for why he’s been on my mind lately. I haven’t, to the best of my knowledge, seen him in anything recently and his birthday isn’t coming up for nine months. He’s not turning 100 or anything… he just popped into my head the other day. I confess Dano is never very far from my thoughts. If you went to the movies between 1950 and 1990, or grew up during the Golden Age of Television, you knew his face. And that voice, as deep as Big Muddy. And those eyes, so blue, like the big sky hanging over the American prairie. A working actor from 1947 on, Dano appeared on stage, in films, and on television for nearly fifty years. He only stopped working because he died. I though today I might talk a little about Royal Dano so that, when the anniversary of his death comes along on May 15th of this year, we might all mourn together the loss of a great American actor.
Royal Dano always seemed to be less an actor, someone who had to learn lines and hit his marks, than a personality torn right out of the history books. He seemed, even his wildest roles, authentic and genuine. He played Abraham Lincoln multiple times, as well as Swiss pioneer John Sutter (for the 1978 TV movie DONNER PASS: ROAD TO SURVIVAL) and paterfamilias to the outlaw Dalton gang (in the 1979 Dan Curtis telefilm THE LAST RIDE OF THE DALTON GANG) and abolitionist John Brown (in a scene above from SKIN GAME from 1971). From role to role, Dano gave off a vibe of stoicism, a strength honed by privation and hard labor. He seems such a product of the prairie, of the canyons, and one-horse towns that it might surprise you to learn he was born in New York City.
Royal Edward Dano was born on November 16, 1922, in New York City. The son of a typesetter for The New York Times, The New York Daily Mirror and The New York Daily News, he grew up among Irish immigrants on the West Side, at 59th Street and 10th Avenue, hard by the Hudson River. During high school, Dano worked as a copy boy at The Daily News, which gave him a taste of the world (albeit second hand) but cost him the tip of one finger, sliced off in a proof press. After his high school graduation in 1942, he hit the open road, traveling the country, living hand to mouth. An offer from his father to put him through college brought him back to Manhattan and to study for a short time at New York University. Imagine the young Royal Dano kicking around Washington Square and maneuvering the rabbit’s warren of Greenwich Village back in the days when real bohemians lived there. To offset his tuition, Dano got a part-time job in the Empire State Building, screwing in lightbulbs on all 85 floors. The onset of World War II brought Dano into military service, where he got his first taste of performing as part of the Army’s special services provision and a job entertaining troops hard at work building the Burma Road. Dano’s superior officer? Major Melvyn Douglas. Not long after the war, the two would reunite for a 1950 episode of CBS’ Lux Video Theatre, titled “To Thine Own Self.”
Back in the States, Dano hit the Broadway circuit and played small parts in shows that lasted one and three performances. An exception was a small role in the original Broadway cast of FINIAN’S RAINBOW, which opened in January 1947 and ran for over 700 performances. Cast in support of star David Wayne, the 23 year-old Dano played a 65 year-old man (and understudied the role of the Sheriff — a part he would play many times over during his long career). Dano developed a reputation as a comic actor, praised by the critics however short-lived were his showcases. In 1949, he won a New York Critics Circle citation as a promising newcomer. That same year, he wore his Army fatigue jacket to the auditions of Joshua Logan’s SOUTH PACIFIC in February of 1949. Though he didn’t get a part in the show, photographer Eugene Smith took a picture of the nervous young actor that ran in the April 1949 issue of Life magazine… a shot that got him a feature film role in UNDER THE GUN (1951), a prison crime drama starring Richard Conte and Audrey Totter and shot on location in Florida and small parts in John Huston’s THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE (1951) and MOBY DICK (1956).
Dano’s brief role in MOBY DICK as the mad (or is he?) wharfside prophet Elijah was itself prophetic of his film career, in which his characters tottered between clear-eyed practicality and batshit lunacy. (For my horror film homies, Elijah was the original Crazy Ralph from FRIDAY THE 13TH.) Dano could play crazy like nobody’s business and did so in Paul Bogart’s SKIN GAME (which reunited him with his Army buddy Andrew Duggan) and in Philip Kaufman’s revisionist western THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID (1972), during which he sustained a knee injury while filming his death scene. The injury would plague Dano for 16 years until he took advantage of a director’s strike to undergo the necessary arthroscopic surgery. Why the long wait? He was too damned busy.
“An actor’s greatest fear is that the best role of his career will come along while he’s unable to work,” the actor told writer Donald Porter for the Ogden Standard-Examiner in August of 1987. “So elective surgery can be a dangerous thing.” Through the 50s and 60s, Dano racked up an impressive resume on screens big and small, appearing in prominent roles as a gunslinger in Nicholas Ray’s JOHNNY GUITAR (1954), as a New England lawman in Alfred Hitchcock’s THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY (1955), as a gentle homesteader in ALL MINE TO GIVE (1957), and as the Apostle Peter in KING OF KINGS (1961)…
… while also turning up in episodes of such popular TV series as RAWHIDE, HAVE GUN – WILL TRAVEL, ROUTE 66, THE RIFLEMAN, WAGON TRAIN, THE VIRGINIAN, BONANZA and GUNSMOKE. Dano had tested for the role Marshal Matt Dillon on GUNSMOKE, a part that went, of course, to James Arness. It is probably best that Dano wasn’t cast as Matt Dillon, who needed a certain degree of sex appeal that Dano, for all his talents, did not possess. If there is one quality that seems entirely native to Dano it’s oddness — not necessarily foreignness (though he could play that, too) — but a separateness, an individuality characterized not by rebelliousness but by the isolation of a man who has been made to make his own hard way in life. In truth, Dano had to remake himself to fit in with the Hollywood crowd, losing his New York accent to the point that, by the 1960s, I’m sure most people assumed he was a product of the American west.
Royal Dano was one of those actors whose sheer presence meant instant production value. It’s interesting to go back and see which filmmakers cast him for his looks and which cast him for his voice. Despite his sonorous speaking voice, Dano often played mute (or effectively mute), as the dummy Trout in Anthony Mann’s MAN OF THE WEST (1958), as the stonefaced “Ditto” Stiles in TEACHERS (1984), and as the Air Base preacher in Philip Kaufman’s THE RIGHT STUFF (1983), whose stark presence serves as a harbinger of doom in the days of the first test pilots. (Though he didn’t speak in the film, Dano did get a rare chance to sing.) Probably my first exposure to the enigma of Royal Dano was as the voice of Jacob Marley in MR. MAGOO’S A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1962). Dano’s ghostly wailing chilled my blood when I was a kid and it still works a small wonder to this day. Having already played Abraham Lincoln several times, Dano provided the voice for the animatronic Honest Abe at the 1964 World’s Fair and afterwards in Disneyland’s Main Street Opera House.
Given how cadaverous and menacing Royal Dano could be just by walking in the door, it’s astonishing how few actual horror movies he did, and really not until very near the end of his long career. He was Marianna Hill’s undead artist father in MESSIAH OF EVIL (1973) — whose face winds up blue, just like Ditto in TEACHERS – and a farmer whose back forty becomes a landing pad for KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE (1988, photo at top), and a benighted lightning rod salesman in SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES (1983, photo below), and another ghost, albeit a kinder, gentler one, in HOUSE 2: THE SECOND STORY (1987), which buried him under heavy makeup but gave him one of his better later life roles. His last role was as a gravedigger in George Romero’s THE DARK HALF (1993).
1994 was a bad year for Royal Dano. His son, Royal Dano, Jr., a disabled Vietnam veteran, died prematurely in February. Himself injured in an automobile accident, Royal Dano, Sr., died of pulmonary fibrosis secondary to his injuries less than three months later. He was 77 years old. Gone two decades now, Royal Dano lives on in the movies, and in my heart. Watch a Royal Dano movie tonight.
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