Today we celebrate character actor J. Carrol Naish (1896-1973).
Two surprising things about Naish’s Irish heritage (his parents were Irish immigrants to the U.S.): 1) That it exists at all. Dark of hair and complexion, Naish was most often cast as Southern European, Mediterranean types, as well as Latin-Americans, Native-Americans, Middle Easterns, and Asians. People may have assumed he was whatever ethnicity he was playing, but in a word, he was what they used to call “Black Irish”. And, 2) unlike most Irish immigrants to the U.S., his origins weren’t so humble. His great-uncle was Lord Chancellor of Ireland!
Naish started out in vaudeville. He was a child when he started in show business, performing with Gus Edwards’ kiddie troupe. Originally from New York he moved to the West Coast by the late ’20s to break into film. His first was bit role in What Price Glory? (1926). Over 200 screen credits followed. Among them: The Kid from Spain (1932) with Eddie Cantor, Elmer the Great (1933) with Joe E. Brown, Captain Blood (1935), Anthony Adverse (1936), Beau Gest (1939), Down Argentine Way (1940), Tales of Manhattan (1942), House of Frankenstein (1944), The Southerner (1945), The Beast with Five Fingers (1946), Joan of Arc (1948), Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Rio Grande (1950), Clash By Night (1952), and Sitting Bull (1954). Force of Impulse (1961) marked the end of his Hollywood film phase.
Meanwhile he had also made a major dent in radio and television. He was probably best known as the title character (an Italian stereotype) in Life with Luigi (radio version 1948-53, tv version 1952-53). In 1954, he appeared on Broadway in the original production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, once more playing an Italian! Later TV work included stuff like I Dream of Jeannie, Bonanza and Get Smart.
Naish’s last turn was the lead in the highly psychotronic Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971). As Naish had done a number of horror movies (good and bad, big and small) in his studio days, it was a not unfitting note for him to go on, though not exactly anyone’s finest moment. He died two years later.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, of which J. Carrol Naish was a veteran, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.
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