Monday, April 9

More Character Actors

The title says it all.  We are continuing our series (is that what it is?) on character actors.  We want to bring as many into the light as we can.  You will recognize their faces but may not know their names.  Oh yes, he is... um... um... I know that face.  He was in that one movie... um... oh, what was it called?  Well, we're gonna clear up some of that for you.  About the only things these three gentlemen have in common is that they all have double L's in their last names, none of them ever had a starring role to my knowledge, they have all sadly passed away and they were actors of such distinction that I find them irreplaceable.

S. Z. Sakall, the roly-poly Hungarian actor, is perhaps best-known for a rare dramatic role as the head waiter in 1942's character actor-laden Casablanca and he held his own with the best of them.  He did occasionally do dramas but was much more famous for his comedic roles and for supporting roles in musicals.  If there was a blonde who sang and/or danced, Sakall was in her films.  At Warner Bros. he appeared with Virginia Mayo and in several Doris Day films.  He moved over to Fox and was the father to Betty Grable and June Haver in the delightful The Dolly Sisters (1945).

He had done much work in his native country before coming to America but it is here that he made a name for himself.  He played fathers and uncles and impresarios with such affection that he earned the nickname "Cuddles," a name that at various times even appearing in the credits of his films.  Any costar could up and squeeze those jowls while telling him how cute he was.  Part of his schtick was being easily flustered and a little difficult to understand.  He always brought a smile to one's face.  He was an asset to every film in which he appeared.

Some of those films include Ball of Fire, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Christmas in Connecticut, Romance on the High Seas, In the Good Old Summertime and Tea for Two, all in the 1940s and 1950s.  Sakall died of a heart attack in California in 1955 at age 72.

John Williams was a tall, stately Brit who lived most of his life in America while never quite losing that upper-crust British demeanor.  He was suave and rather quiet when he needed to be.  He was often a cop or detective or maybe an insurance investigator but often men in authority.  His sly manner was such that it was obvious he knew something that he was keeping to himself, at least for the time being. Hitchcock used him twice in two films with Grace Kelly, 1954's Dial M for Murder (in a role he had played on the stage) and 1955's To Catch a Thief as the cop and insurance investigator, respectively.  He was again a cop and used most effectively in 1957's all-star Island in the Sun.  His wily shenangians were amusing and clever as the cop trying to unnerve James Mason.

He was charming as Audrey Hepburn's father in 1954's Sabrina, back in the law profession as Charles Laughton's cohort in 1957's Witness for the Prosecution and as a police inspector trying to save Doris Day from Rex Harrision in 1960s Midnight Lace.

Toward the end of his career, like many others, he turned to television and was as effective in that medium as he had been in films.  He died in California at at 80 in 1983.  Current actor James  (Babe, L.A. Confidential) Cromwell has always reminded me a great deal of John Williams.

Chill Wills was about as American as one could find in character actors.  He had an aw-shucks manner that required an audience to look and see whether he was chewing on a piece of straw.  Out of that mouth came a voice that sounded like it might hurt to shove out words.  He played the genial everyman to perfection.  I don't think he ever got the girl or had a woman around him because he was usually a loner.  While there was a sameness to most of his characters, no one could have played them better.

His roles are too numerous to detail here but a mention of some of his films should ring a bell.  In the 1940s he was in Meet Me in St. Louis, Leave Her to Heaven, The Harvey Girls and The Yearling.  In the 1950s he became more famous for the voice of Francis the Talking Mule in a series of corny comedies.  He was also in Rio Grande (one of many westerns he made with John Wayne) and Giant.  In the 1960s he appeared in The Alamo, Where the Boys Are, McLintock, The Cardinal and The Rounders.

He is the only one of the three gentlemen mentioned here to garner an Oscar nomination.  That was for The Alamo.  Along with it he also gained some notoriety.  He trumpeted his own nomination so fiercely in the trade papers and just about anywhere else he could get an audience that Hollywood seemingly turned its snooty back on him.

Chill Wills died in California in 1978 at age 76.

NEXT POSTING:  Tarnished Golden Boy

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