Friday, January 31

Still More Character Actors

It's been awhile since we've done a posting on character actors and I think it's high time we correct that.  How about another trip down memory lane to connect those oh-so-familiar faces with names and a bit of bio?  The three gentlemen in the center ring today, Edgar Buchanan, Elisha Cook Jr. and John McIntire, I first came across in westerns.  All worked plenty in other genres but all filled a saddle in many a film.  They worked a great deal.    Buchanan was in 90 films, Cook was in 98 films and McIntire did 63.  On top of this was a very great deal of television, including TV movies.  Two of them were regulars in one or more TV series.  Let's get to know them a little better:

Edgar Buchanan was born in 1903 in Missouri but early in life his family moved to Oregon.  He followed in his father's footsteps and became a dentist as did Buchanan's only wife.  In the 1930s the two set up a dental practice in Southern California.  He had long flirted with the idea of acting and joined the famed Pasadena Playhouse.  At age 36 he appeared in his first movie.  He turned the dental practice over to his wife and never drilled another tooth.

I was aware of him as early as I was aware of any actor because he was a mainstay in westerns.  Some of his parts were big, some were small but that craggy voice and slippery demeanor were such that you couldn't take your eyes off him in a scene, which he usually handily stole from the leading performers.  He made six films with Randolph Scott and 11 with Glenn Ford.  If there was a spot for Buchanan in a Ford picture, he got the part.  He was usually a good guy, a buddy or confidante of the hero, but Buchanan was a wonderful villain.

Buchanan costarred with Ford and William Holden in both Texas and The Man from Colorado.  In both films he played a doctor while the lead actors were friends who wound up on opposite sides of the law.  He claims Texas was his favorite role.  He would work with each of the other two gentlemen highlighted here... with Elisha Cook Jr. in Shane and with John McIntire in Red Canyon.  Other films lucky enough to have this actor in the cast were Penny Serenade, Cheaper by the Dozen, Destry, Human Desire, Cimarron and Ride the High Country

Like the majority of character actors, television would become a mainstay and he is likely more famous with the public for playing the same character, Uncle Joe, in three series:  Petticoat Junction, Green Acres and Beverly Hillbillies.  He would also have a regular role in four other series.

The loveable actor died in 1979 in Palm Desert, California, from a stroke.

Elisha Cook Jr. populated many a western and many a film noir.  Like most character actors, he had a gimmick, a schtick that is so recognizable and so marketable that producers and directors would think of him right off.  You looking for a weasel?  A cowardly little hood?  Someone who gets spooked easily and often?  Looking for a desk clerk at a seedy hotel?  Looking for someone who might be the first on a list of murder suspects?  Looking for a thug whom the hero can overpower and slap the truth out of?  Looking for someone who knows how to die on screen as well as anybody?  Let's get Elisha Cook Jr.

The diminutive, baby-faced thespian was born in San Francisco in 1903, the son of an actor.  He attended St. Albans College and the Chicago Academy of Dramatic Arts and was on the stage in stock, vaudeville and Broadway by the time he was 14.  He was a stage manager at 17.  By the time he was 33, he moved back to California to try his luck in films.  For some time he played hapless types in youth-oriented films.   

His big break came in 1941 when John Huston hired him as Sidney Greenstreet's maniacal henchman, Wilmer, in The Maltese Falcon and a new career direction was born.  He would forever be thought of as a film noir sleazeball, perhaps the finest there ever was.  His scenes with Bogart were electric, both actors establishing a persona with which they would be forever linked.  Equally memorable was the smarmy desk clerk in I Wake Up Screaming.  In Phantom Lady he tried to entice Ella Raines with a sexual drum solo that is very memorable.  He was one of several creeps to meet a grisly end in another Bogart noir, The Big Sleep.

Another large part as a killer and another memorable death scene came in the excellent but little-seen Born to Kill (1947) and a rather large part as the bank-robbing, hen-pecked husband of Marie Windsor in The Killing (1956). Sandwiched between those films were roles as a good guy brother to Marilyn Monroe in Don't Bother to Knock and memorable roles in three westerns.  First and foremost was Shane as a foolishly cocky farmer who is shot down like a dog by villain Jack Palance.  He was a crooked businessman in Thunder Over the Plains with Randolph Scott and as an annoying townsman in Drum Beat, a pretty decent Alan Ladd western.

Of course television became his bread and butter when the film roles were not as plentiful but Cook worked into his 80s.  Late in life he became a hermit, living without communication in the California desert.  Without an agent, if someone wanted him for a movie part, it required a burro and grit to locate him.  He died of a stroke in 1991 in Big Pine, California.

I don't know that John McIntire had any better parts than either of the other two gents but he certainly had bigger roles and probably should have had more substantial billing in his career.  He was rarely a bad guy and in most of his parts, whether in westerns or modern-day stories, he was a stalwart, honorable type, which may be partly why he often played a cop, attorney or judge.

Born in 1907, he was one of my favorite western character actors and he seemed to come about it naturally growing up as the son of a lawyer in Montana where he palled around with real-life cowboys.  A graduate of USC, he first ventured into radio (he had a great voice) and then into stage work and finally the movies.

Like all actors of the time, he did film noir, starting in the late 40s with James Stewart's Call Northside 777, with Richard Widmark in The Street with No Name, with Ann Sothern in Shadow on the Wall and with Sterling Hayden in the superb The Asphalt Jungle.  He made a series of wonderful B westerns in the 50s, mostly at Universal, including Mississippi Gambler, Horizons West, The Lawless Breed, The President's Lady, The Spoilers, Backlash and War Arrow.

He would work well with Burt Lancaster... as the latter's pursuer in Apache, as his brother in The Kentuckian and as part of a skeptical town council in Elmer Gantry.  He was most fortunate to have been in three Anthony Mann-directed westerns... Winchester 73, The Far Country and The Tin Star.  He was a stern father to Laurence Harvey in Summer and Smoke and a brave one to Elvis Presely in one of the singer's better films, Flaming Star.  McIntire was a rather stunned sheriff in Psycho , a feisty stagecoach driver in Rough Night in Jericho and a crusty judge in Rooster Cogburn.

He would not so much wind up in television when his movie career waned... rather he always worked in both all along.  In television he had leading roles in five series... Naked City, The Americans, Wagon Train, The Virginian and Shirley.  Appearing with him in a fair amount of projects was his wife, Jeanette Nolan.  John McIntire passed away in 1991 from emphysema and cancer in Pasadena, California.

Review of Labor Day

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