The Five Phases (and Fancy Footwork) of Russ Tamblyn

Tom Thumb: The role he was BORN to play

A tribute today to Russ Tamblyn (b. 1934). Ironically, I’ve already written a post on Russ’s much more obscure father, Eddie Tamblyn, a vaudeville performer, because that is the nature of this blog. But it’s occurred to me that there’s many a reason to talk about Russ’s career here as well and we shall enumerate them. Above all, his early work as a highly athletic dancer puts him firmly in the vaudeville/ old school musical tradition. When screen musicals died, it left little place for him to go and he wound up making lots of psychotronic/ exploitation movies, another favorite area of ours. Here are the 5 Tamblynian phases:

Child Star

He started out as a child star, often billed as Rusty Tamblyn, in such films as The Boy With Green Hair (1948), The Kid from Cleveland (1949), Samson and Delilah (1949), Father of the Bride (1950), and Father’s Little Dividend (1951).

Acrobatic Dancer and Star of Musicals

Tamblyn could sing and act, but where he truly shone was as a dancer. To this day, his turns in many vintage movies dazzle and it seems astounding that Hollywood couldn’t devise a way to keep showcasing this skill after the early ’60s. After all, he could do stuff like this:

Tamblyn’s musicals include Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Deep in My Heart (1955), Hit the Deck (1956), Tom Thumb (1958), West Side Story (1961), and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1963). The Fastest Gun Alive (1956) was not a musical, but Tamblyn’s “shovel dance” in a picnic scene was one of the highlights of the movie. And he was an uncredited choreographer on the Elvis film Jailhouse Rock (1957). Today he is best known for West Side Story, but as you see he did so much more than that.


Thanks seemingly to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Tamblyn has worked extensively in the western genre over his career, notably: Many Rivers to Cross (1955), The Fastest Gun Alive (1956), The Last Hunt (1956), The Young Guns (1957), Cimarron (1960), How the West was Won (1962), Gunsmoke (1965), Son of a Gunfighter (1965) and Iron Horse (1967).

Psychotronic/ Exploitation

This is a catchall category encompassing racy melodrama, juvenile delinquent films, low-budget horror, and, eventually acid-hippie films. The thread starts relatively early in his career with “respectable” outings like Peyton Place (1957) and High School Confidential (1958), the latter of which surely paved the way for West Side Story. Then came his first horror film The Haunting (1963), also a mainstream film. But towards the end of the ’60s we get into The War of the Gargantuas (1966), Satan’s Sadists (1969), Scream Free! (1969), The Last Movie (1971, Dennis Hopper’s follow up to Easy Rider), Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971), The Female Bunch (1971), and Black Heat (1976).

Stunt Casting/ Comeback

Eventually enough time passed that younger directors had been influenced by Tamblyn’s early work including the exploitation stuff. And so he was once again cast in mainstream stuff that seemed to reference his long career. He played a choreographer on Fame (1986-87). David Lynch put him in Twin Peaks (1989-1991 and 2014) and his Twin Peaks movie Fire Walk with Me (1992, though his scenes were cut.) Chris Elliott put him in Cabin Boy (1994). Quentin Tarantino put him in his western Django Unchained (2012). Tamblyn’s recent role in The Haunting of Hill House (2018) seemed to simultaneously reference his appearance in the original The Haunting AND his role as a psychiatrist in Twin Peaks — quite a feat!

And lastly…just as his performing father Eddie passed a torch to him, Russ’ daughter Amber Tamblyn is also a major star. Once thought of as a sort of acid casualty and has-been, today he is a sort of respected elder statesman, and someone still working in show business well into his 80s. Fancy footwork indeed!