Today is the birthday of memorable character actor Lionel Stander (1908-1994). Let’s face it, with that voice, that puss and that accent, the Bronx born Stander’s career was assured from the get-go, was it not?
Stander began racking up Broadway credits in 1928, adding film work at Brooklyn’s Vitagraph studios starting in 1932. It was the latter phase that made me consider including him in our “Stars of Slapstick” series, for he starred in such comedies with the likes of Fatty Arbuckle and Shemp Howard. Warner Bros released a bunch of those films on DVD recently. And I’m here to tell you these shorts are excellent. But this stint formed only a small part of his career; we do not think of Stander primarily as a slapstick comedian.
In 1935 he moved to Hollywood, where he made an indelible impression as part of the ensembles in screwball comedies and other films, notably The Milky Way (1936) and Professor Beware (1938) with Harold Lloyd; Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town; and the original version of A Star is Born (1938). His left wing activities began to cause a slowdown in his career in the late 30s, although in the classical Hollywood era he was also to appear in Danny Kaye’s Milky Way remake The Kid from Brooklyn (1946; reprising his original role) and Preston Sturges’s The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947, also with Lloyd) and Unfaithfully Yours (1948), et al.
During lean years there was lots of radio work (for which his raspy voice was ideally suited) to pick up the slack, as in this vintage clip from The Danny Kaye Show:
In the post-war years he gradually worked his way back toward the limelight, in pictures like Tony Richardson’s crazy all-star black comedy The Loved One (1965), Once Upon a Time in the West (1966), The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971) with Robert De Niro and Jerry Orbach, The Cassandra Crossing (1976), and Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977). And lastly, his popular role as Max on television’s Hart to Hart (1979-1984, with later tv-movie sequels in 1993 and 1994).
If you include a rumored gig he had as an extra on a silent movie in 1926, his career lasted almost 70 years!
He also, over the decades, managed to go through six wives. The first five lasted an average of seven years each. The final one hung in there 23 years, up until he died. Dare I conjecture that this is the one who loved him so much it transcended even the sound of his voice —