Gene Barry: Of Wigs, Worlds, and Wests

The career of Gene Barry (Eugene Klass, 1919-2009) was sporadically amazing. He was at the center of some of my favorite things in the world across the worlds of theatre, film and television, so I’ve always known about him. But his was one of those quietly subdued personalities that takes a LOT of reinforncing to stick in the memory. One is apt to mix him up with the game show guy Jack Barry when only the name is mentioned, though he looked quite a bit different and he occupied entirely different turf. Incidentally, Klass took his pseudonymous surname from the front part of Barrymore. He was far from a Barrymore, but it is perhaps too strong to call him a Barryless. So “Barry”, as Goldilocks might say, is “just right”.

The grandson of Russian Jewish immigrants, raised in Brooklyn and trained in music since childhood, Barry was performing on Broadway by his early ’20s. He had a plum role in Mae West’s Catherine Was Great (1944) — this is one of the credits that should make him legendary though the show has faded in the public’s memory. Barry was almost constantly on Broadway between 1942 and 1951, notably in revivals of things like The Merry Widow and Moliere’s The Would-Be Gentleman (with Bobby Clark!), so his chops were quite well devloped by the time he reached big and small moving picture screens. Barry’s second screen role was a major classic, and still one of my favorite movies, the lead in the 1953 film of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. (Spielberg also gave him a cameo in his 2005 remake. Another notable film was the 1957 Sam Fuller western Forty Guns with Barbara Stanwyck. Barry was in a couple of dozen movies, but his record on big screens was not stellar. It was on television that he was to enjoy his greatest success.

BURKE’S LAW, Gene Barry, 1963-1965, 1963 episode

Barry was to star in five key TV series over a period of about 15 years. In 1955 he was brought in as a regular for one season on Our Miss Brooks as a love interest/foil to Eve Arden. As we wrote here, from 1958 through 1961 he played the title role on the TV western Bat Masterson, probably his best remembered character. He was to play a similarly posh, stylish dude in his next series Burke’s Law (1963-66), about a millionaire homicide detective who is driven around in a Rolls-Royce by a chauffeur. The series was revived again in a campier version in 1994 with Barry also in the lead. From 1968 to 1971, Barry was one of three rotating principals along with Robert Stack and Tony Franciosa on a series called The Name of the Game, about a glitzy high powered magazine publishing firm. And from 1972 to 1973 he played the title character in the British series The Adventurer, about a spy whose cover that he was a movie star. This one also featured Barry Morse and Catherine Schell, both of whom would soon be regulars on Space:1999, which like The Adventurer, was produced by ITC.

All the while Barry guested on other series, of course, The most notable of these appearances was probably the 1968 Columbo pilot, Prescription: Murder. Later he, made the usual rounds of Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, Murder She Wrote, etc.

In 1983 Barry returned to Broadway for the last time in the key role of Georges in the original Broadway production of La Cage aux Folles, for which he was nominated for a Tony. The fact that he had worked with Ray Bourbon four decades earlier in Catherine Was Great no doubt prepped him sufficiently for sharing the stage with a passel of drag queens!

Barry’s penultimate screen credit was in the Carrie Fisher-penned TV movie These Old Broads (2001) with Debbie Reynolds, Shirley MacLaine, Joan Collins, and Elizabeth Taylor. The 2005 remake of War of the Worlds was his last screen appearance.