Archive for character

On the Acerbic Mary Wickes

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2017 by travsd

Beloved character actor Mary Wickes (Mary Wickenhauser, 1910-1995) was born on June 13. The gawky, wise-cracking Wickes was ubiquitous on screens big and small for half a century, usually playing maids, nuns, nurses and other no-nonsense types on the periphery of the main action but just close enough to see what was going on and make an exasperated and cutting joke about it.

I almost certainly first knew her from her regular role on the Sid and Marty Krofft kid’s show Sigmund and the Sea Monsters (1973-1974). (Though she was also a regular on the sit com Doc around the same time too so it was probably both). Thus I was already a fan (without knowing it, perhaps) from about age eight. Wickes’ screen character aged extremely well. When she was young, because of her attitude and her crone-like drawl, she had always seemed older than she was. When she actually became older, she simply WAS.

Still, there was in evolution, if an incremental one. If you look at the photo at the top, when she was very young she was, if not pretty, at least pretty-adjacent. She was not in the Margaret Hamilton category as a type. Wickes was quite young when she began her career on Broadway. She is said to have been in the original production of Marc Connelly’s The Farmer Takes a Wife (1934), though, if she was, it was probably either as a walk-on or a replacement as she is not listed in the IBDB credits. She was in the original productions of two George S. Kaufman plays, Stage Door (1936) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939-1941). The 1942 film version of the latter was her big screen Hollywood debut.

She had been in at least one film prior to The Man Who Came To Dinner, however. As a sometime member of Orson Welles’ and John Houseman’s Mercury Theatre, she had appeared in Welles’ legendary Too Much Johnson (1938). She also acted in the Mercury’s stage production of Danton’s Death (1938) and on radio with Mercury Theatre on the Air.

From 1942 until her death she was almost constantly on movie screens; starting in 1948 it was also true of television. Notable films include Now, Voyager (1942), On Moonlight Bay (1951), By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953), The Actress (1953), White Christmas (1954), Cimarron (1960), The Music Man (1962), How to Murder Your Wife (1965), Postcards from the Edge (1990), and the Sister Act films (1992 and 1993). She also appears in comedies of Abbott and Costello, Ma and Pa Kettle, and Blondie. Lucille Ball LOVED her and used her in a dozen episodes of her various tv shows I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, and Here’s Lucy. She also appeared memorably on The Doris Day Show, Columbo, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, M*A*S*H and many other shows. Her last screen credit was a voice over in Disney’s animated The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996).

For more on show business history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold. For more on  film comedy, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 

Why I REALLY Love Roger Bowen

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Movies, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2017 by travsd

May 25 is the natal day of the late character actor Roger Bowen (1932-1996). Bowen is best known today for having played Lt. Col. Henry Blake in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970). I didn’t see that film until about a dozen years after it came out, when I was a teenager. I’d long known of its existence, and was a longtime fan of the tv series it spawned, but the original movie was kind of notorious for its racy language, adult situations, and gore — making it out of reach for most kids at the time. It wasn’t until the cable tv and home video era that I first got to see the movie — and loved it so much I watched it dozens of times with my buddies, easily.

The wild thing is, Bowen, who probably seems obscure to younger people today (at least compared to fellow cast members Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Robert Duvall and Tom Skeritt) was probably one of the better known faces when the film came out, and he was certainly well known to me when I first caught it in the early ’80s, although I didn’t know his name. Bowen’s was an exceedingly familiar face from television and movies as a character actor. He was ESPECIALLY popular in tv commercials, for products like Libbys Canned Goods, Chevrolet, Kingsford Charcoal, Bell Telephone etc etc etc.  With his horn-rimmed glasses and upper-class demeanor he specialized in squares and WASPS, businessmen, politicians and the like. He had bit roles in films like Petulia (1968) and Bullitt (1968), and he had guest shots on shows like Love American Style (1973) and The Paul Lynde Show (1973).

I was thrilled when I get to meet and work with his ex-wife and step-son, who operated a small theatre company in New York, a few years ago. I was most effusive in my enthusiasm for Bowen’s work, as I am wont to do. Everything clicked into place when I learned that he was from my home state of Rhode Island. His accent is my accent exactly — it’s rare to hear the “R” pronounced in films as Bowen pronounces it. And doesn’t he seem like a product of the region? It doesn’t take hard work to picture him on a golf course or yacht club in Newport or something. It turns out I am distantly related to him, though my people are definitely the ones who’d be clipping his people’s hedges.

Bowen went to Brown and then went onto graduate work at the University of Chicago, which is where and how he got involved with the Compass Players, which became Second City. He had that excellent comedy training, employed to excellent effect in broader movies like Tunnel Vision (1976) and First Family (1980).

Bowen had also written for his college humor magazine. He went on to write and publish nine novels, which I am most curious to read.  His last credit is a small bit part in Even Cowgirls get the Blues (1993), although he had a bigger speaking part in What About Bob? (1991). He was only 63 when he died of a heart attack in 1996. His death came one day after Mclean Stevenson’s — almost as though God were trying to get rid the world of everyone who had ever played Henry Blake.

Arthur Pat West: Pudgy Little Character

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2017 by travsd

April 19 is the birthday of Arthur Pat West (1888-1944).

Today West is best remembered among vaudeville fans for his 1929 Vitaphone short Ship Ahoy, in which the stout little man comes out in a sailor suit, does a rather rude comedy monologue and sings a couple of funny songs while pretending to play the guitar.

Originally from Paducah, Kentucky, West (sometimes billed just as Arthur or Pat) had been in a team called Arthur and Lucille West with his wife Lucille Harmon. In the ’20s, he was cast in a number of Broadway shows: the Fanchon and Marco musical revue Sun-Kist (1921), The Ziegfeld Follies of 1923Paradise Alley (1924), and Captain Jinks (1925-1926) with Joe E. Brown. 

After Ship Ahoy, West performed in at least one other Vitaphone Gates of Happiness (1930) and remained in Hollywood where he worked as an (often uncredited) bit player for the rest of his life. Initially, he was in Columbia comedy shorts and B movies, but he worked constantly and in the late ’30s through the ’40s he wound up in numerous classics, usually playing a bartender, waiter or similar kind of character. You can see him in Bringing Up Baby (1938), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Babes in Arms (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), The Great McGinty (1940), The Bank Dick (1940), Sullivan’s Travels (1940), Ball of Fire (1941), The Outlaw (1943), To Have and Have Not (1944), and Road to Utopia (1945), among dozens of other pictures. Keep an eye out for him!

To find out more about vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film please see my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Bob Hastings: From Christmasland to Character Man

Posted in Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2017 by travsd

Well, here’s a wonderful surprise: familiar character actor Bob Hastings (1925-2014) had an old school show biz background as a kiddie performer.

First: you recognize him, right? The first place I can be sure I saw him was in The Poseidon Adventure (1972). He has a small but memorable and highly visible part as the master of ceremonies of the New Year’s Party — he’s the guy who leads the count-down to midnight.

But he also played Lt. Carpenter on McHale’s Navy (1962-1966), which I watched in re-runs as a kid.

And he was also Kelsey the bartender, a recurring role, on All in the Family (1971-1976). These were pretty much his peak visibility years. He was also in several films during these years, like Disney’s The Boatniks (1970) and the Don Knotts movies The Love God (1969) and How to Frame a Figg (1971).

So I totally know who that guy is!  But then he turns up in a 1938 Vitaphone musical short called Toyland Casino as 13 year old Bobby Hastings in rustic highland clothes and sings “In the Gloaming”!

Hastings had started out on NBC children’s radio program Coast to Coast on a Bus with such fellow stars as Ann Blyth, Walter Tetley, and Jackie Kelk. After bomber service in World War II, he returned to radio, and perhaps his greatest stardom in the part of Archie in the radio version of Archie comics, which ran from 1945 to 1953.

Publicity still: Hastings as Archie

One of his first recurring tv roles was on Sgt. Bilko, establishing a recurring theme in his career: his characters were frequently in uniform. After the 1980s, most of his acting gigs were voice-overs for animated cartoon series. For example he voiced Batman’s Commissioner Gordon in the 1990s:

Bob Hastings passed away just a couple of years ago! Today is his birthday.

To find out more about vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

The Many Roles of Melvin Allan, I Mean, Allan Melvin

Posted in Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of tv character actor and voice-over artist Allan Melvin (1923-2008). Don’t shout out just yet where you know him from — the odds are quite good that you know him from more than you are remembering where you know him from.

After attending Columbia University and fighting in World War Two, Melvin won first place on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts (he was skilled at impressions, among other things.) His break was a role in the original Broadway production of Stalag 17 (1951-1952), which lead to his getting cast as Henshaw on Sgt. Bilko (1955-1959) with Phil Silvers:

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Then he was the voice of Sgt. Snorkle on the short-lived 1963 Beetle Bailey cartoon show (and wrote two episodes!):

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He provided the voice of Magilla Gorilla on various Hanna-Barbera cartoon shows from 1963 through 1994. Can you match the voice with the visage?

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Then he found himself back on another service comedy, as a semi-regular on Gomer Pyle USMC (1964-1969), playing Charlie Hacker, Sgt. Carter’s rival:

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In 1969 he provided the voice of Drooper (the lion) on The Banana Splits:

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Next he was Sam the Butcher on The Brady Bunch (1969-1974), which I’ll just bet is his best known character nowadays:

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And also he was Barney Hefner on All in the Family (1971-1979) and Archie Bunker’s Place (1979-1983).

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This must be some kind of record for being a series regular, right? (I ask rhetorically, I’m uninterested in learning the factual truth about who the record holder might be). And we haven’t even gotten to all the shows on which he (or his voice) did frequent guest shots (The Flintstones, The Andy Griffith Show, Love American Style), and dozens more. And all the tv commercials.

He just had the perfect face and voice — “ordinary” is what they used to call it, but that’s wrong, because actually his persona was far more memorable than so many so-called “leading man” types.  If you’re bland and forgettable, isn’t that ordinary? Anyway, you know his face and voice. You should know his name: Melvin Allan — I mean, Allan Melvin.

Percy Helton: Creepy Character/ Former Child Star

Posted in Broadway, Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Movies, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2017 by travsd

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Ubiquitous Hollywood character actor Percy Helton (Percy Alfred Michel, 1894-1971) was born on this day. We’ll get get into his movies anon, but few people probably know how charmed his career was in its early years.

Helton’s career began at the age of two in the vaudeville act of his father, British-born Alf Helton (real name William Alfred Michel). By age 12 he was on Broadway, appearing in Julie BonBon. He was in the original production of David Belasco’s The Return of Peter Grimm (1911) and the original production of George M. Cohan’s The Miracle Man (1914). And he was to be a familiar face on Broadway stages through 1942. Here is a clip I found from his theatre days:

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Meanwhile in 1915 he began appearing in films. His first movie sounds too good to be true: In The Fairy and the Waif (1915), directed by Marie Hubert Frohman (wife of Gustave Frohman), he played the Waif to a Fairy played by Mary Miles Minter (later a chief suspect in the William Desmond Taylor murder). He appeared in another 5 silent movies through 1925 and then doesn’t return to Hollywood films until 1936, and THAT’S when he becomes the Percy Helton we all know and…”love”, I guess?

The leap, the important difference, was that now he was middle aged. He was a small guy. In fact he was playing children’s parts well past childhood. For example, in The Return of Peter Grimm, when he played “Little Willem”, he was 17 years old. And so he was a juvenile for as long as he could get away with it. But when he reached middle age, he became something of a grotesque, almost freakish in appearance. Short and rotund and yet stooped, nearly hunchbacked, he would have been a good person to play Marshall P. Wilder. Then that face: the venal, leering eyes, a Nixonian nose, and a toothy, drooling gash of a mouth. He was balding, and such hair as he possessed always seemed too long and unkempt.  And he had a high-pitched, scratchy voice not unlike that of the equally ubiquitous John Fiedler.

For such a unique and strange character, Helton’s uses in film ensembles appeared to be limitless. Who knew there would be so much need for seedy, nasty, cowardly little creeps in movies? Here’s something interesting: the first place I truly sat up and took note of him was in a screening at a film festival of the noir classic Kiss Me Deadly (1955). When detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) gets fed up with Helton’s infuriating lack of cooperation, he slaps his face and crushes his fingers in a desk drawer until he complies. It’s a shocking, appalling scene, perhaps all the more so because a) it’s being done to this familiar person; and b) he pretty much deserves it.  But what I find especially interesting is, when I look at his credits, I had easily seen him in two dozen other movies prior to this. This one shocked me into taking note of who he was, so that I would always note him ever after.

He was especially sought after for westerns, usually as bank tellers, train conductors, hotel clerks, and that sort of thing. There’s no point in listing them — it’s dozens. Same with noir: he’s always, like, a pawn broker, or the manager of a fleabag hotel or something. He plays the drunken Santa who gets fired in Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Jerry Lewis seemed to be a special fan: Helton appears in My Friend Irma (1949), The Stooge (1951), Sacred Stiff (1953), The Big Mouth (1967), and Lewis’s TV show. He also appears with Groucho Marx in A Girl in Every Port (1952), with Abbott and Costello in Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer Boris Karloff (1949) and numerous Bowery Boys comedies. Really, he was in pretty much everything. Cyrano de Bergerac (1950), A Star is Born (1954) White Christmas (1954) 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) Jailhouse Rock (1957), The Music Man (1962), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). He’s even in the Monkees’ movie Head (1968). It’s worth a peek at his IMDB page, it’s quite impressive.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold

Of Flim-Flam and Falstaff: Fields as Fictional Character

Posted in BUNKUM, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , on November 4, 2016 by travsd

 

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Over the past few decades the public has come to have a vague, simplistic and inaccurate image of the formerly-universally-beloved W.C. Fields — an image I call “the bobble-head on the bar” — a red cheeked and red-nosed inebriate leaning on a lamp-post, an American Silenus.

As far as I’m concerned, booze was the least imaginative and most uninteresting part of his act. The Fields I fell in love with is quite different — I think of him as the archetypal vaudevillian, with a steamer trunk crammed full of Dickens and Shakespeare, stickered on the outside with his far-flung ports of call: Berlin, Singapore, Sydney, Johannesburg, San Francisco. And then, in a manner that is one part P.T. Barnum and one part Mark Twain, he exaggerates his adventures, the places he’s been, the people he’s known, the superhuman deeds he has committed. “Why are you called ‘Honest John’?” he is asked…and out comes a long, rambling, impossible story that never actually answers the question. Like Falstaff (to whom critics often compared his character), he is not just a drunkard, but the drunkard as storyteller, a frightened little man who needs the steady diet of Dutch courage to transform himself into a make-believe super hero. He embodies the magic and tradition of American humbug. The irony of course is he spins his yarns off his REAL experiences. In an era when few human beings had traveled more than ten miles from their front door, he had lived a life of adventure, crossed seas and continents many times, had played to crowned heads in world capitals. It provided the raw material, but then he would transform that material into something miraculous, in much the same way as he would hold large numbers of balls, clubs or cigar boxes aloft in his early days as a vaudeville juggler.

But, like Falstaff, he seesaws betwixt bluster and deflation. He boasts of impossible skills and exploits but in every day life his character can scarcely accomplish anything. If not under the thumb of a controlling wife, his character is constantly on the run from creditors, the sheriff, process servers, the landlady. He is a physical coward. His ill-gotten gains are never gotten through the heroic methods of the highwayman, but through sneakery and subterfuge. He is a liar and cheat, not a pirate. He likes pretty women, but only as most men do – furtively, ineffectively, pathetically. He’s not a bold skirt chaser or a Lothario – more a guy who can’t resist a second look out the corner of his eye.

This double nature, this measurable difference between his real and presented self is both a rich mine of humor and a source of layers of complexity. There are always at least two “Fieldses” going on at any one time — again, just like juggling. This is what makes him three dimensional and eternal, and worthy of contemplation, an attribute which can’t be said to adhere to just any comedian. Helping re-educate the public about the genius of Fields is  my main mission in putting on Fields Fest this Fall, the 70th anniversary of his passing.

We’ll be blogging about comedian W.C. Fields all through November and December as part of our tribute to the comedian called Fields Fest. For a full list upcoming live Fields Fest events go here. 

 

 

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