Joe Sawyer: Palooka from the Playhouse

A toot on the bugle this morning for character actor Joe Sawyer (Joseph Sauers, 1906-1982). Frequently cast as Irishmen, Sawyer was actually German-Canadian. His tough-looking mug was equally adept at comedy and crime stories. I initially knew him as Sgt Biff O’Hara on the old Adventures of Rin Tin Tin TV series from the 1950s, which I watched in reruns during the 1970s. His character seemed very much modeled on Victor McLaglen’s in old John Ford movies, and Sawyer himself was to work with Ford several times, enough to be considered a member of his stock company. A lot of the time, Sawyer resembled classic comedy hand Tom Kennedy, and for a time (1941-52) Sawyer was in a comedy team with William Tracy in Hal Roach “Streamliners”. He was also in the “McGuerin” series with William Bendix.

Sawyer got his early experience and training at the Pasadena Playhouse, and had a small role in at least one Broadway show, The Inspector General (1930). His first screen role, of over 200, was a musical short called Campus Sweethearts (1931) with Rudy Vallee and Ginger Rogers. Other comedy stuff besides the above mentioned includes Olsen’s Big Moment (1933) with El Brendel, the all-star College Humor (1933), Son of a Sailor (1933) with Joe E. Brown, Jimmy the Gent (1934) with James Cagney, Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) with W.C. Fields, the 1945 version of Brewster’s Millions, The Naughty Nineties (1945) and Comin’ Round the Mountain (1951) with Abbott and Costello, Joe Palooka Champ (1946), If You Knew Susie (1948) with Eddie Cantor, The Traveling Saleswoman (195), Blondie’s Hero (1950), and The Kettles in the Ozarks (1956).

For John Ford he was in The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Long Voyage Home (1940), and How the West Was Won (1962). Other classics he appeared include: The Petrified Forest (1935), The Walking Dead (1936), Union Pacific (1939), Frontier Marshall (1939), Dark Command (1940), Santa Fe Trail (1940), Sergeant York (1941), They Died With Their Boots On (1941), The Outlaw (1943), Gilda (1946), Pinky (1949), It Came from Outer Space (1953), The Killing (1956), and North to Alaska (1960) — the subtext there is that he routinely worked with some of Hollywood’s best directors. He also worked in B movies, mostly westerns, including several Gene Autry pictures.

Sawyer retired at the young age of 56, and spent most of his remaining two decades indulging his passion for sea travel.

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