Edward Brophy: Of Mice and Mel Brooks

Edward Brophy (1895-1960) was one of those streetwise character actors they loved so much in the ’30s and ’40s: short, bald, stocky, with a high-pitched squeaky voice. Whether cast in an important supporting role or as a walk-on he always made a visual impression, although in his biggest movie roles he wasn’t seen at all: he was the voice of Timothy J. Mouse in Walt Disney’s Dumbo (1941).

A New York City native, Brophy studied briefly at the University of Virginia, intending to be a lawyer. He broke into the movie business working for the Norma Talmadge/Joe Schenck studio as a supporting player and assistant director. His first acting role was in Talmadge’s Yes or No (1920). Mothers of Men (1920) was the first of eight pictures he assistant directed. It is through the Talmadge connection that he became pals with Buster Keaton, who was married to Norma’s sister Natalie, becoming Godfather to the couple’s second child in 1924. The following year he married Norma’s secretary, Annie.

By the late ’20s, Brophy was at MGM, where he assistant directed Slide Kelly Slide and West Point under Eddie Sedgwick, both in 1927. From here, Brophy went on to be unit manager or production manager for all of Buster Keaton’s films at MGM, playing bit roles in most of them as well, which became the stepping stone to his becoming a full-time actor. In The Cameraman (1928) he’s the guy whose clothes get mixed up with Buster’s at the swimming pool. He’s the irritating drill sergeant in Doughboys (1930). All the way to Buster’s last MGM picture What, No Beer? (1933) in which he played a rival gangster.

Gangsters, cops, fight managers, and the like were the usual sorts of roles he was cast in. His character names tell the story: Spike, Slugs, Flash, Maxie, Buzz, Killer, Squinty, Bugs, Doc, Butch, Lefty, Moose, Shadow, Weepy, Ziggy, Potsy, Stuffy. Lest there be confusion about his ethnic identity, his character’s surnames were usually things like Dolan, Flannigan, Grogan, Coogan, Delaney, and McGuire, usually when he played cops. Other early MGM pictures he was in include such classics as The Champ (1931), Freaks (1932), The Thin Man (1934), The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), Naughty Marietta (1935), and Mad Love (1935). In addition to Keaton, Brophy supported many other classic comedians over the years, including Marie Dressler and Polly Moran in Prosperity (1932), Ted Healy and the Three Stooges in the shorts Beer and Pretzel and Hello Pop! (both 1933), Eddie Cantor in Strike Me PInk (1936), W.C. Fields in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1937), and Danny Kaye in Wonder Man (1945).

All told Brophy has nearly 150 screen credits, the last of which was John Ford’s Two Rode Together, released posthumously in 1961. Legend has it that Brophy was watching a boxing match on TV when he died. Brophy’s name lives on! Mel Brooks was a fan of his, and named Ron Carey’s character after him in the movie High Anxiety (1978).

For more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.