William Redfield: From “Our Town” to “Cuckoo’s Nest”

The first William Redfield (1927-1976) performances I ever saw were among his last (and I figure my experience is not unusual). He was the persnickety “Harding” in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and he played Felix Unger’s brother Floyd, the Buffalo bubble gum magnate on The Odd Couple (1974). Sadly, he died of leukemia a short time afterward. Though nearly 50 at the time of his death, he had been a professional actor for over four decades.

Redfield was the son of a Ziegfeld Girl and a musical conductor. He’d earned his first of 19 Broadway credits before he was ten years old. His fourth Broadway part was in the original 1938 production of Our Town! Another notable stage credit was the role of Guildenstern in Gielgud’s 1964 production of Hamlet, starring Richard Burton (which informed his popular 1967 book Letters from an Actor). Refield also worked constantly in radio from the 1940s until the end of his life, which was quite late to be working in radio so he must have loved it. Shows he was especially associated with included Now Hear This, The Mariage, X Minus One, Suspense, Yours Truly Johnny Dollar, and CBS Radio Mystery Theatre.

Most of Redfield’s nearly 80 screen credits were in television, initially in live TV dramas like Schlitz Playhouse and Robert Montgomery Presents. He had the lead on the series Jimmy Hughes, Rookie Cop (1953) on the Dumont Network and was a regular on the 1958 TV version of Kitty Foyle. His notable movies before Cuckoo’s Nest include I Married a Woman (1958) with George Gobel and Diana Dors, Shirley Clarke’s 1961 film of The Living Theatre’s The Connection, Fantastic Voyage (1966), Pigeons a.k.a. The Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon Kicker (1971), The Hot Rock (1972), For Pete’s Sake (1974) and Death Wish (1974). I am a particular fan of his work in Elaine May’s A New Leaf (1971). Redfield strongly resembled Mike Nichols (in just about every conceivable way), and in A New Leaf, May employs him in a very Nichols-esque role as a dry, unperturbable lawyer who must explain to supercilious millionaire Walter Matthau that he has spent all his money. He does it just like Nichols; it plays like a Nichols and May sketch. (Ironically I saw it long before I was ever exposed to the TV work or record albums of Nichols and May, who broke up before I was born).

In addition to The Odd Couple episode, towards the end of his life, Redfield made numerous appearances on The Bob Newhart Show and Maude. His last movie, released posthumously, was Mr. Billion (1977) with Terence Hill, Jackie Gleason, Valerie Perrin, Slim Pickens, Chill Wills, Dick Miller, and R.G. Armstrong.

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