Wednesday, December 28

In Character

The character actor is usually the person in the movie that is incredibly needed to pull the whole affair together; he or she is the one you just know you know but you don't know the name, you know?  You often wouldn't even recognize the name if you heard it.  But you do recognize the face or sometimes the voice or a mannerism.  If a long-faced character actor at the beginning of his career did the fussy butler with impeccable speech and manners, you can rest assured it would become de rigueur for the chap.

Very young I was aware of some character actors, certainly more so than other kids my age.  There was a wonderful annual movie magazine called Who's Who in Hollywood that had hundreds of thumbnail pictures of actors, including many character actors, and that is how I initially learned their names.  It became apparent that I saw them a lot more than a big-name actor and I realized that was because they spent less time on a film than the big-name actor.  So the character actor could go on to one film after another.  He could do three or four films in the time that a bigger star would do just one.  That hasn't changed.

The magazine showcased more of the well-known character actor.  Even in character actors there is a hierarchy.  Some character actors are just big-name actors in training.  Some big-name stars are always basically character actors, too... not a bad thing at all.  So in these pages we may not do the top wrung of famous character actors, the ones who went on to the bigtime (Borgnine, Steiger, Malden to mention three), but maybe just a wrung down.  One wrung. 


Lyle Bettger

Who is he?  Do you recognize the face?   He's one of the best there ever was.  His specialty was playing the villain and almost always the suave, well-dressed one.  I loved his face... born for the screen... so menacing and steely-eyed.  As a youngin' I sat in that dark theater and my eyes bugged out when Lyle Bettger put it into high gear.  He scared the... um, he scared me.  I first discovered him in his most famous film role, that of Klaus, the jealous elephant handler in The Greatest Show on Earth (mentioned gushingly in the first post so we will tighten the lip here).  His role was every bit as important as the other bigger names and he was onscreen almost as much.  He was certainly central to the final act of the story.  He menaced Barbara Stanwyck (not an easy task) in two films:  No Man of Her Own and a favorite of mine, All I Desire.  He was Audie Murphy's nasty nemesis in two films, as well:  Drums Across the River and Destry.  I loved him as Joanne Dru's spurned husband and Tony Curtis' rival in Forbidden and as an evil Nazi in The Sea Chase.  He was also very fine in a rare sympathetic role as Anne Baxter's husband in Carnival Story.  The role required that one questioned whether he was a good guy or not and nobody could have done more justice to a part like that than Bettger.  I did not know that we both lived on Maui until I ran into him at an open-air market one day.  I wanted to chat with him but instead was entertained listening to him chat with the owner whom he seemed to know.  I hoped I'd run into him again but never did.  He died in California in 2003 at age 88.


Dean Jagger

It's very possible you may know his name,  He was on the top of the pile on the second wrung of that ladder. He won an Oscar supporting Gregory Peck in 12 O'Clock High.  What Jagger served up best was the true gentleman.  He could speak his mind and often did, but he never yelled (his eyes squinted when he was annoyed) and his characters offered solace, exuded kindness, showed wisdom.  He did occasionally stray from his usual offerings, playing the bad guy, but check out that gentleman thing in White Christmas (his final scenes are so touching), Elmer Gantry (as Jean Simmons' kind but tough majordomo), Parrish (glorious as Diane McBain's patient father and I've always remembered the character's name, Sala Post), King Creole (as Elvis Presley's down-on-his-luck pharmacist father), Bad Day at Black Rock (in a cast of superb character actors all) and as Audrey Hepburn's father in The Nun's Story.  After the early 70s, Jagger turned mainly to television which he had already done plenty of anyway.  He was 87 when he died in Santa Monica, CA in 1991.

Tommy Noonan


Less well-known than the above gents Noonan was still someone to be reckoned with on the second wrung of the ladder.  Despite the above picture, I remember him mostly in horn-rimmed glasses.  He was the stepbrother of the more famous actor John Ireland and for a few years he partnered in comedy clubs and did a few movies with Peter Marshall, later of Hollywood Squares hosting fame.  But he hit it big in two films and for those films, both with a mega following, he will always maintain his position on the ladder.  The first and the grandest was as Marilyn Monroe's wealthy buffoon boyfriend in the wildly popular Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  When she kissed him, it was like novocaine was in her lipstick (I think Jane Russell said something like that) and he looked goofy and dizzy and the music crescendoed.  Nobody could have done it better.  Then he had an unusual dramatic part as Judy Garland's piano-playing fellow trouper in the exquisite A Star is Born.  Next came another good role for him, and another of those departures, as the geeky stalker of Virginia Leith in Violent Saturday.  He was quite effective and back to buffoonery in How to Be Very, Very Popular with Betty Grable and with Jane Powell in The Girl Most Likely.  His later films were less than stellar (Jayne Mansfield and Mamie Van Doren were two of his busty, blonde costars... hmmm, were they trying to repeat some history?) but he was always good in them.  He died young, at 46, in 1968 in California.

NEXT POST:  War Horse


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