Ubiquitous character actor Roy Roberts (Roy Barnes Jones, 1906-1975) acquitted himself memorably in almost every genre, on stage, screen and television. I associate him with comedies, as well as westerns, some noir and even horror. Amazingly, he had close to a thousand professional credits.
We lead with comedy since that’s our thing and Roberts made appearances in so many of the classic sitcoms I watched in reruns as a kid. His persona was usually that of a gruff businessman or something similar, which suited him well for straight-man roles and foils in comedy plots. He played a lot of these kind of roles over the last 20 years of his career. He had regular or recurring parts on The Gale Storm Show (1956-1960, as the ship’s captain), McHale’s Navy (1963-65, as an admiral), The Beverly Hillbillies (1963-67, as a rival to Mr. Drysdale), Petticoat Junction (1963-70, as a railroad president), The Lucy Show (1966-68, as a bank president), and Bewitched (1967-70, as Darren’s Father). He guested in similar one-shot roles on My Little Margie, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, The Jack Benny Program, The Joey Bishop Show, The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Dennis the Menace, Make Room for Daddy, The Munsters, The Addams Family, Green Acres, That Girl, My Three Sons, Family Affair, and The Doris Day Show. And he’s in comedy movies like It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), I’ll Take Sweden (1965, with Bob Hope), Tammy and the Millionaire (1967), Some Kind of a Nut (1969), and Walt Disney’s The Strongest Man in the World (1975, his last credit, as it happens).
Roberts played a carnival owner in Nightmare Alley (1947) and Vincent Price’s business partner in House of Wax (1953). His dozens of western credits across the decades range from playing a mayor in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946), to a recurring part on Gunsmoke. Likewise his noir associations stretch from He Walked By Night (1948) to Chinatown (1974).
Roberts got his start as an actor in his native Tampa, Florida. He spent the second half of the 1920s touring the country with traveling stock companies. This led to his first Broadway part, in a comedy called Old Man Murphy (1931). This led to over a dozen more Broadway performances in shows like the original production of Twentieth Century (1932-33), and Preston Sturges’s short-lived Carnival in Flanders (1953).
Lucille Ball clearly loved Roberts. They had worked together as early as Miss Grant Takes Richmond (1949). In appeal he was not unlike her usual foil Gale Gordon. As we mentioned, Roberts had been a regular on The Lucy Show. Thus, it was fitting that his last TV credit should be on a 1974 episode of Here’s Lucy, as a doctor.
Roberts died of a heart attack in early 1975. And that too fits, does it not? Nearly every one of his characters seemed to have “Sooner or later I will die of a heart attack” written on his face.