Today is the birthday of Hollywood character actor Lyle Talbot (1902-1996).
And the timing couldn’t be better, as my son got me this terrific new book for Christmas. A biography of Lyle Talbot, you ask? How could that be interesting? On several counts, I answer.
Margaret Talbot has already proven herself as a writer at The New Yorker. Her mind is ruminative and worldly; her style lucid and evocative. In this particular case, the subject is her own father, so the product includes not only a far-greater-than-normal amount of reportage and hundreds of hours of interviews, but insights that would never occur at the hands of an outside observer. In this way, the book has much in common with that of another New Yorker writer John Lahr, Notes on a Cowardly Lion, one of the seminal show biz books of all time (about the comedian Bert Lahr, the author’s father). These are portraits so intimate they include the toilet habits of their subjects. If you think those details are irrelevant in the life of an actor, you are sadly mistaken.
Still, Lyle Talbot? And I say to you yes, old friend, all this and more! First of all, it turns out his life in and of itself was completely fascinating. But, second of all, New Yorker writer that she is, Talbot (the daughter) uses each stage of the journey to stop and examine whatever thing Talbot (the father) was into at that moment, so it ends up being a portrait of America and American show business at the same time. In this way, the book is similar to another recent filial show biz bio, John Major’s My Old Man (which I reviewed here a few days ago).
If you’re like me (and chances are good that you are not), you know Lyle Talbot best from his Ed Wood movies (Glen or Glenda, Jail Bait and Plan 9 from Outer Space). But even so, when I first encountered him in those pictures as a young adult, I had the vague sense that I already knew him from somewhere else. It’s hard to put your finger on. And especially odd, because I hadn’t – and still haven’t to this day – ever seen an episode of Ozzie and Harriet, on which he was a regular from 1955 to 1966). All I can think is that I had encountered him along with the hundreds of other character actors one sees but only semi-registers, over the course of watching television. He had guest starred on many shows I did watch, such as Adam-12, Dragnet and both The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy. In recent years, I’ve had the chance to see a lot of his early movie work on TCM – but we’ll get to that.
I told you Talbot’s life was fascinating and it was. He was raised by his grandmother in a small Nebraska town back when horse and buggies and kerosene lanterns were still a fact of life. At 15 he reunited with his father and his stepmother (his birth mom had died when he was an infant), a fun loving couple who had gone in for acting, performing in tent shows and opera houses. Bitten by the bug, he joined them, first traveling with them with a carnival, where he worked concessions for two years. Then he became a hypnotist’s assistant, then a magician’s assistant. This early carny phase of his career makes me think that he would have fit in with the Ed Wood stock company much more than one might assume. Working on the fringes with freaks was nothing new to him.
Then he broke in as an actor himself, living the old style trouper’s life at a time when live theatre was still flourishing all across the country. From working constantly in the small towns of the Midwest, he gradually made his way to the big cities, including eventually New York, which then led to opportunities like a screen test for Warner Brothers. Talbot was one of those being groomed for stardom in the early (“pre-code era”) days of the talkies. It’s been a revelation seeing a lot of these old movies on TCM in recent years. Some of that first generation of stars stayed on top and even exceeded their early fame (Barbara Stanwyck, Cary Grant, etc). Some, like Mae Clark, Chester Morris, David Manners, Talbot, and many others – though big names at the time – fell behind in the horse race. Hard to imagine, but long about 1930 Talbot (then thin, good-looking, with a full head of hair) was being groomed for stardom. One of his best early showcases was Three on a Match (1932) in which he plays a thorough cad who steals a bored wife away from her husband and child, leading to dissipation and suicide. By the late 30s, though the writing was on the wall that he was to be a supporting player, not a star, and he tacked with the wind. His career may also have been hindered by the fact that he was one of the founding members of the Screen Actors Guild – one of the first couple of dozen members or so, and the first actor from Warner Brothers to join. The studio may have penalized him for that. On top of this he was developing an alcohol problem.
World War 2 interfered with his career even further, and by the late 40s he was relegated to B movies and serials (albeit ones with excellent name recognition, like Batman, Superman and Dick Tracy). In the 50s, he began doing television (in which he continued to work as late as 1987) and some of the Grade Z movies with which he has come to be identified.
Although this has to be said. Talbot did OK. I should have such misfortune. The author writes about some relatively lean times when she was growing up, but looking at Lyle’s IMDB entry, the guy was always working. Like many others one could name, though, his reputation has been hurt by his ethic of never turning down work. Even in the period when he was doing the Ed Wood films and narrating Mesa of Lost Women, he was still appearing in lots of respectable westerns, and doing guest shots on national television. For example, when he did Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), he was not some broken down bum actor as one might assume. He was at the time a nationally recognized face from one of the top tv shows in the country Ozzie and Harriet. He simply had an opportunity to make a few hundred bucks doing a few hours’ work, so he took it.
In his last decades he also did lots of theatre work with touring companies, summer stock etc. For example, he played both Oscar and Felix in productions of The Odd Couple (h’m…I can’t picture him as either one. Murray, maybe, but not Oscar or Felix).
And here’s something cool—and this really clicked into place when I came across it. His son, Stephen Talbot played Gilbert on Leave it to Beaver! Doesn’t that figure? The kid had those same intense, big blue eyes. (Stephen later retired from acting and went on to make documentaries.) Another of Talbot’s sons, David, founded Salon.com
Lyle Talbot died at 94, so long in fact that he buried his last wife (one of several), who was 26 years his junior. And he was pretty spry until the end. You can see him, for example, give an amazingly lucid, energetic interview in the 1995 documentary The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr. , one year before he died.