The Original Kevin McCarthy

Kevin McCarthy (1914-2010) is one of those actors most people don’t know that they know. At best, he bumped his head against mainstream fame, never quite catapulting himself into the upper echelons. Yet he is well known to various subcultures of aficionados — his Venn Diagram would depict a rare intersection of the Actor’s Studio/Method Cult, with Classic Horror & Sci Fi, and, indirectly, the literary world. Lantern-jawed, with a toothy, lopsided, very-Irish grin, he was verging on handsome, but both too quirky and too bland (if such a thing is possible) to cross over into many leading man roles, though he was often cast as second lead. He was just the right type to play political operatives and businessmen.

His older sister was the novelist Mary McCarthy (1912-1989), author of The Company She Keeps, The Grove of Academe and The Group; one-time wife of critic, author and editor Edmund Wilson; and hilarious antagonist of Lillian Hellman. Kevin, Mary and their siblings were orphaned when both parents died in the Influenza of 1918, and were raised by relatives.

The same year that Mary married Wilson, 1938, Kevin attained his first Broadway role, in Robert E. Sherwood’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois. It was the first of 20 Broadway turns over nearly 50 years. In 1942 he was cast in an experimental production called Mexican Mural which also featured Montgomery Clift and Libby Holman. McCarthy was to be a close friend (and occasional collaborator) of Clift’s for the remainder of the latter’s life, and was in fact the person who witnessed his famous 1956 car crash and went for help. When the Actor’s Studio was founded in 1947, Clift and McCarthy were among its earliest students. McCarthy was in Harold Clurman and Elia Kazin’s historic (if short lived) production of Maxwell Anderson’s Truckline Cafe (1946), featuring the Broadway debut of Marlon Brando, as well as Karl Malden and David Manners. This was followed by Anderson’s Joan of Lorraine (1946-47). He played the role of Biff in the 1949 London premiere of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and also in the 1951 film version with Fredric March, Mildred Dunnock, and Cameron Mitchell (for he which he was nominated for an Oscar). A decade later, McCarthy would also appear in the film of Miller’s screenplay The Misfits. He was Vershinin in the Actor’s Studio’s 1964 production of The Three Sisters, made into a 1966 film with Geraldine Page, Shelley Winters, Kim Stanley, Sandy Dennis, Luther Adler, James Olson, and Robert Loggia.

That’s some heady company, and you’d think it would lead to prestige right down the line. The record is more mixed however. The culprit is possibly a choice he made in 1956. His best remembered role nowadays (and one of his few starring turns) was the lead in the Cold War era sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. A couple of decades later, this led to so much nostalgic stunt casting that he became something of an honorary late-career horror star. He has a terrific, high visibility cameo in the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and you can also see him in Joe Dante’s Piranha (1978), The Howling (1981), Innerspace (1987) and Matinee (1993); as well as Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), Dark Tower (1989), and Ghoulies III (1991).

A third major strand in McCarthy’s body of work might be put under the heading of “melodrama/ soap opera”. This work includes the original 1960 Broadway production of Advise and Consent, and movies like Mark Robson’s The Prize (1963), Gore Vidal’s The Best Man (1964), Edward Dmytrk’s Mirage (1965), Arthur Hailey’s Hotel (1967), Kansas City Bomber (1972) with Raquel Welch, and tv movies like Mary Jane Harper Cried Last Night (1977), Rosie: The Rosemary Clooney Story (1982), and Poor Little Rich Girl: The Barbara Hutton Story (1987). He was a regular on the series The Survivors (1969) with Lana Turner; and Flamingo Road (1980-82) with Morgan Fairchild, Mark Harmon and Howard Duff; and had recurring roles on Bay City Blues (1983-84) and The Colbys (1986-87). And naturally he did the usual guest appearances on all the hit shows of the day, things like The F.B.I., Columbo, Hawaii Five-O, Fantasy Island, and Murder She Wrote.

McCarthy did two prominent Kurt Vonnegut projects: the Broadway adaptation of Happy Birthday,Wanda June (1970-71) and the TV movie Between Time and Timbuktu (1972). Other comedies included A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966), a 1974 TV movie of June Moon (which also featured Beatrice Colen), Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976), My Tutor (1983), A Masterpiece of Murder (1986) with Bob Hope and Don Ameche, Fast Food (1989), UHF (1989), and the Addams Family Reunion (1998). He also had a recurring role on Beatrice Arthur’s short-lived sitcom Amanda’s (1983), no doubt leading to his later appearance on Golden Girls.

McCarthy never did retire, although most of his later work was pretty schlocky. His last role, released posthumously was in the 2012 film The Ghastly Love of Johnny X.

As I think this post establishes, McCarthy boasted a full and estimable resume, in scores of well known projects. Yet somehow he himself didn’t attain high visibility. I think he was one of those team players, content to do his part in the ensemble to strengthen the overall product. The sad reality now is that, even if you Google his name, you will find it buried — he’s been eclipsed by his eponymous counterpart in the U.S. Congress. Which means, at least, that I can add him to this post from a couple of days ago about guys with the same name. We all have our parts to play in the Grand Drama of History.