They used to be called “character actors” Those wonderfully interesting men and women who were in countless of your favourite films but who never became huge house-hold names.
My Mum and Dad educated me very early on as to the importance of these actors. They were the backbone of the movies we watched and although they supported the big “stars”, they often stole every scene they were in. We still love to watch old movies and pick out the faces that we know and love.
Here’s a little bit about some of my favourites… How many do you remember?
William Demarest (1892-1983)
I loved William Demarest. I first saw him the The Jolson Story (1946). I know just about all of his lines and wallow in the pleasure I get from watching him. He always played the curmudgeon with a good heart and was tremendously likable in all his roles. In this film he was Steve Martin, Al Jolson’s mentor and manager who was crucial to the story and a most thoroughly likable man.
I also spotted him recently in a Shirley Temple film Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938) in a small but vital role as her stepfather who, although exploiting her terribly, had a heart of gold. These memorable “character” roles that he reprised in over 140 films over a long and successful career made him a very well-known face in film even if you didn’t know his name…
Of course in later years on TV he was Uncle Charley O’Casey in My Three Sons which is probably what he is best remembered for these days…
Una O’Connor (1880-1959)
This lovely Irish actress was in over forty major films and is best remembered by me as the deaf housekeeper Janet McKenzie in Witness For the Prosecution (1957). She stole every scene she was in and is still a pleasure to watch. Another memorable role was the lady’s maid Bess in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) where she ferociously protected Olivia de Havillands’ Maid Marion throughout the movie…
Ward Bond (1903-1960)
Ward Bond was one of my all-time favourites. He made over 200 movies and two dozen of those were with John Wayne. I adored him in Rio Bravo (1959) but it was his turn as Reverend Captain Clayton in The Searchers (1956) that stood out the most. He was a man’s man – big and burly and tough with a glint in his eye and he always stood out in all the films he appeared in. He also appeared memorably in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and even had a role in Gone With The Wind (1939) amongst many other big films of the golden years of film.
In his latter years of course, he starred on TV as Major Seth Adams in Wagon Train (1957-1965) until his death at only 57 in 1960…
Eve Arden (1908-1990)
I thought Eve Arden was the most striking looking woman and never more so than in Stage Door (1937) with Katharine Hepburn. She wore a white cat draped around her neck for most of her scenes and effortlessly stole every one of them… Eve Arden had a fabulous drawl and was memorable in so many films including Ziegfeld Girl (1941)and even had a tiny cameo alongside Jane Powell in Singing In The Rain (1952
Eve Arden also starred in her own TV show Our Miss Brooks (1952-1956) and in her later years was very much beloved in Grease (1977) and Grease 2 (1982) as Principal McGee!
Elisha Cooke Jnr.
Elisha Cook Jnr. (1903-1995)
I first saw Elisha Cook Jnr. in The Maltese Falcon (1941) which was his most famous role. His character, the pathetic Wilmer, was a key player in the film and was typical of the roles Elisha Cooke Jnr. would go on to play for the rest of his life. He was superb in The Big Sleep (1946) as the doomed Harry Jones and very memorable in Shane as an aggressive ex soldier.
He always played villains and weaklings and had such an expressive face he was noticed in just about everything he acted in… Apparently he was a passionate fisherman in real life and lived in the High Sierra, only coming down to Hollywood to do a movie, then would disappear back up to his cabin until the next summons…
Spring Byington (1886-1971)
Spring Byington was the ultimate mother figure in nearly every film she made starting with the best mother of all – Marmee March in Little Women (1933). This set the tone for all future performances – a quiet, gentle motherly figure that added a warmth to every movie she appeared in. She was also the mother in You Can’t Take it With You (1938) and went on to play in dozens of films and TV over her long career.
In her later years she appeared as Daisy Cooper, the loving housekeeper in the TV show Laramie (1961-1973) and had small roles in Denis the Menace, the Flying Nun and I Dream of Jeannie in the 1960’s…
Henry Silva (1928- )
Henry Silva was typecast all his acting life as a heavy or villain because of his intense looks. I found him thrilling to watch and loved him in the original Ocean’s 11 (1960) as one of the casino robbers. He was also a successful gangster in the title role of Johnny Cool (1963).
My all time favourite role though was as the cold-blooded murderer Durrell in The Secret Invasion (1964). The camera lingering on his face when he realised he had accidentally smothered a crying child he was holding while hiding from a German patrol was so moving and powerful – I never forgot that scene…
He has popped up over the years in various movies in cameos and on TV. Still going strong at 85!
Thelma Ritter (1902-1969)
Thelma Ritter was Birdie in All About Eve (1950) and that role defined her for many years as the sarcastic housekeeper, nurse, best friend or aunt for most of her movie career. She was memorable as Clancy in With A Song In My Heart (1952) and as James Stewart’s’ nurse Stella in Rear Window (1954).
She also appeared in films as diverse a Pillow Talk (1959) and The Misfits (1961). I loved her smart aleck persona and always enjoyed watching her on TV in her later career…
Jerome Cowan (1987-1972)
I loved this actor. Jerome Cowan was in over a hundred quality movies in his career but the most famous one was The Maltese Falcon (1941). He played the doomed Miles Archer, business partner of Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade, in the best private eye film ever made. He also starred as the unfortunate district attorney trying to prosecute Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street (1947).
Jerome Cowan always seemed to played lawyers, detectives and business managers and was often seen to great effect wearing a dinner suit. He was very suave in films like Shall We Dance (1937) with Fred Astaire and Mr. Skeffington (1944) with Bette Davis. Later on in his career he was successful in television in shows like Daniel Boon, The Munsters and The Real McCoys in the 1960’s…
Mary Astor (1906-1987)
Mary Astor had a long and illustrious career as a supporting player before she became the standard mother figure in many of her later movies. Early on she was the classic femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and the selfish concert pianist Sandra Kovak in The Great Lie (1941) with Bette Davis… Her career declined after a scandal in her life and she went on to play parts she detested but lucky for us survive to be enjoyed today…
I love her performance as Anna Smith, the loving, patient mother in Meet me in St Louis (1944). She was so elegant and a joy to watch. She also played the other ultimate mother, Marmee March in the June Allyson version of Little Women (1949) and was wonderful in the role that had previously been owned by Spring Byington…
Edward Everett Horton
Edward Everett Horton (1886-1970)
Edward Everett Horton appeared in many of the Fred and Ginger movies in the 30’s. He was always the same character – nervous, pompous and flustered. He was also the “sissy” which was code for a gay man in those days of early film. His films included the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers masterpieces The Gay Divorcee (1934, Top hat (1935) and Shall We Dance (1937)
He appeared in dozens of movies over his long career and I loved to watch him. He was the master of the “double take” and his timing was perfect. His last roles included the befuddled Hekawi medicine man Roaring Chicken in F Troop (1965) and Chief Screaming Chicken in Batman (1966)…
Celeste Holm (1917-2012)
Celeste Holm was an elegant addition to so many films over her long career. My absolute favourite is her role as the tranquil natured and very patient Karen in All About Eve (1950). She held her own with the feisty Bette Davis and was one of the few that could draw your eyes away from Bette on film…
She also played opposite Frank Sinatra in High Society (1956) as photographer Liz Imbrie in another role in which she portrayed a sensible, down to earth character. Celeste continued acting until her death at the age of 95 and her most memorable recent role was Mrs. Holden in Three Men and a Baby (1987). She could also be seen on television in show such as Love Boat, Cheers and Magnum P.I…
Mike Mazurki (1907-1990)
At 6 foot 5 inches tall ex professional wrestler Mike Mazurki was cast as the heavy his entire career. His well-known face graced many films the most famous of which was Murder, My Sweet (1944).
He is best known though for his television work in the 60’s which included Daniel Boone, Gilligan’s Island, I Dream of Jeannie, Bonanza, Gunsmoke and Perry Mason. He played the lovable goon or hapless gangster in most of those shows.
From 1966-67 he starred as Clon in a TV show about cavemen called It’s About Time which I loved as a child!
Mary Wickes (1910-1995)
I loved watching Mary Wickes. Her deadpan delivery and long gangly body made her perfect as the comic character in dozens of films over a very long and distinguished career.
I first saw her in Now Voyager (1942) as the nurse who memorably took on Bette Davis’ awful mother. She also appeared in the Doris Day films On Moonlight Bay (1951) and By The Light of The Silvery Moon (1953). Mary was in White Christmas (1954) and always played a variation of the same no-nonsense character. On TV she was often on I Love Lucy in the 50’s and 60’s. She made appearances in M.A.S.H and Murder, She Wrote…
Amongst her last roles were the very funny Sister Mary Lazarus in Sister Act (1992) and Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993) which endeared her to a whole new generation of fans…
S. Z. (Cuddles) Sakall
S. Z. Sakall (1883-1955)
S.Z. (Cuddles) Sakall was a lovely actor who throughout his career became typecast as the standard lovable European uncle or the confused shopkeeper or bar tender with an eye for the ladies…
His most famous role was as Carl the barman in Casablanca (1942) with Humphrey Bogart. He then went to have a long career basically playing the same befuddled character as he did in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and The Dolly Sisters (1945)
Cuddles was also in a lovely Judy Garland/Van Johnston movie called In The Good Old Summertime (1949) which was a musical remake of The Shop Around The Corner (1940).
Gladys Cooper (188-1971)
Who can forget Gladys Cooper as Bette Davis’ manipulative mother Mrs. Henry Vale in Now Voyager (1942). She was pure evil and stood out in a fabulous film as the great character actress she truly was…
She also played nice outgoing people as well – Beatrice Lacy in Rebecca (1940) and the delightfully dotty Mrs Higgins in My Fair Lady (1964) where she was Henry Higgins mother…
She was back to menacing in The Secret Garden (1949) as Mrs Medlock. I still try to catch any film that has Gladys Cooper in it – you’re never quite sure which one you will get – the good or the bad…
Franklin Pangborn (1889-1958)
Franklin Pangborn specialised in playing the prissy, fussy, officious figure in hundreds of films. He was so enjoyable to watch and usually played the desk clerk in the hotel in movies starring everyone from W.C. Fields to Fred Astaire to Bette Davis… He was also considered a gay icon in his day and occasionally could be seen swapping what was considered some fairly risqué banter at the time… Some of his memorable roles were in Flying Down To Trio (1933), Shop Around The Corner (1938) and Now Voyager (1942). I always enjoy a movie all the more if Mr. Pangborn is in it!
There are so many more people I could add to this list but where do I stop!
I hope you enjoyed my reminiscences about my favourite character actors – their flickering images bring them back to life so we can enjoy them over and over again for generations to come…