So, who is the greatest Bit Actor of the horror genre? A good question, and of course, it is open to debate. I will put forward the name Dwight Frye (1899 - 1943), a veteran actor of over 60 titles. Let's take a look.
Frye's first screen appearance was in the Reginald Denny (1891 - 1967) comedy, The Night Bird (1928), which was his only silent film. In 1930 his first talkie was The Doorway to Hell starring Lew Ayres (1908 - 1996). Ayres went on to play Doctor James Kildare in the film series, with Lionel Barrymore as Dr. Gillespie. Also look for James Cagney in Doorway, which was Cagney's second film.
In 1931 Frye would take a role that set him up for a life in film that was forever typecast. As Renfield in Dracula (1931) he created a deranged characterization that he could not escape. In 1931 he was also in The Maltese Falcon starring Ricardo Cortez (1900 - 1977) and another famous horror film, Frankenstein, where he played Fritz, another deranged person. In The Maltese Falcon he was Wilmer Cook. Since Wilmer was a sadistic bad guy, he was in character there as well.
Frye is fascinated with bats again in The Vampire Bat (1933) starring Lionel Atwill (1885 - 1946) who is famous as Prof. Moriarty to Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes. Also look for Fay Wray and Melvyn Douglas in that one.
There are a few detective stories in this era, but Dwight's next big horror flick is The Invisible Man (1933) starring Claude Rains (1889 - 1967). That was Rains' first sound film and it certainly helped him become a star. Frye works for a third time with director James Whale (1889 - 1957) in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), this time as Karl.
In The Crime of Doctor Crespi (1935) Frye plays a doctor. Probably not a mad one. The mad one is played by Erich von Stroheim (1885 - 1957). And the next year we see Dwight in a lighter film, Tough Guy, with Jackie Cooper and Rin-Tin-Tin Jr.
Things weren't going well for Frye at this point. He takes roles where he is uncredited as an extra, or parts where he played a makeup artist or "man on telephone." The stars he worked with included James Cagney, Slim Summerville, Andy Devine and others.
In The Shadow (1937) Frye is a hunchback once again, this time in the circus, and accused of murder. This one stars Rita Hayworth. He works with Hayworth again in Who Killed Gail Preston? (1938). One reviewer called it a 'murder-musical.' This time Hayworth is the victim.
IMDb has Frye unconfirmed as a villager in Son of Frankenstein (1939). Some one was probably watching it in HD and thought he recognized the hump. Or maybe he was eating flies. Who knows. If you see him, please let me know. That year we see Frye in his last work with James Whale, The Man in the Iron Mask.
I have written about an acquaintance of mine, Henry Brandon (1912 - 1990), in a previous post. Henry starred in a serial called The Drums of Fu Manchu (1940), and he worked with Dwight in episode 5.
There were a few war movies, as everyone was expected to make, and in 1941 he worked with Lew Ayres again in The People vs. Dr. Kildare. Nothing spectacular for a horror Bit Actor. So let's end this with the rest of his good stuff.
The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) starring Lon Chaney Jr., Cedric Hardwicke and Bela Lugosi.
Dead Men Walk (1943) with George Zucco, another Rathbone/Holmes foe.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) again with Lugosi and Chaney Jr.
And in his finale, a change of pace comedy, Dangerous Blondes (1943), where he was uncredited.
Before he passed away Dwight was cast to play a substantial role in Wilson (1944), but he died of a heart attack before filming started. His role was taken by Reginald Sheffield (1901 - 1957).
In the career of one Bit Actor, I have given you a complete month of horror titles. Now go rent or buy some of them and start planning your Halloween party! And make sure you find Dwight Frye in as many of them as you can.