Saturday, July 3, 2010

Short People

I was thinking about Billy Barty a few days ago, so I looked up his filmography.  His first film was Mickey's Eleven.  Of course, I early version of the story of Ocean's Eleven, as the first thing through my mind. Maybe there was an early version and when Frank Sinatra got the script, he didn't like the name Mickey. WRONG!

Mickey's Eleven was a silent film made in 1927 starring a seven year old Mickey Rooney.  It was his 5th film, and he made a total of 322 films and TV appearances.  I counted 63 films in the Mickey McGuire series listed on IMDb.  Mickey's Eleven was not about a gang of children robbing all the casinos in Las Vegas, but little Mickey was in a football game in the short film. I will have to look for that one.  Amazon and Netflix don't list any DVDs in this series.  Come to think of it, there weren't many casinos in Las Vegas in 1927!

Billy Barty lived from 1924 to 2000 and appeared in 172 roles.  He made 36 of the Mickey McGuire series, so I guess short actors stuck together!  Barty was tapped whenever they needed a baby or child to act in a movie, rather than just look cute.

His part in Gold Diggers of 1933 shows what I mean.  He was nine years old in Gold Diggers, but he was dressed as a baby in a carriage who jumped out and evaded the police on roller skates.  He was 11 years old when he played a little baby in The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935.

His face had a permanent grimace.  His size (3' 9") and face made him perfect to play later roles as a kind of misfit in society who could was befriended by the hero of a movie or TV show.  In the fifties and sixties, you had to show viewing kids that just because someone looks strange they are not necessarily bad.

On TV he was a regular on "The Spike Jones Show" and appeared in several episodes of "Peter Gunn."  His sinister acting ability also showed in "Thriller" and "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour."

In 1978 he was a bible salesman in the comedy/mystery Foul Play with Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase.  He needed to come across as a possible villain to Hawn, but he turned out to be innocent.  The scene in the hospital with Goldie trying to apologize to Billy is a classic.

His career included many children's films, detective stories and fantasies, along with some musicals.  Despite his short stature, he was a tall bit actor.

Friday, July 2, 2010

More Charles Lane

Since I mentioned him yesterday, I started looking at his history in acting.  Charles Lane lived for 102 years, from 1905 to 2007.  He was an actor in film and later TV, for 75 of those years.

He started in 1931 acting in films as a desk clerk, salesman or reporter.  Usual fair for a new actor getting extra work or bit parts at $35 a day.  His face allowed him to create his dour character.  

Here is a quote from IMDb written by Gary Brumburgh that sums it up.  "Glimpsing even a bent smile from this unending sourpuss was extremely rare, unless one perhaps caught him in a moment of insidious glee after carrying out one of his many nefarious schemes. Certainly not a man's man on film or TV by any stretch, Lane was a character's character."  The full biography page can be seen here.

Lane was in four Busby Berkeley films, and
TEN Frank Capra films, including some of the best...Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can't Take it with You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Arsenic and Old Lace, It's a Wonderful Life, and State of the Union.

He must have acted with every big name in the movies, including four films with Jimmy Stewart, and many times with his good friend Lucille Ball.  He was also in three Blondie films with Penny Singleton.  Two are included in the set in the insert link at left.

I think he has made himself well known to baby boomers like me and even a younger crowd because of all of his television work.  It would be difficult to turn on a TV in the fifties and sixties and not see him on a sitcom somewhere!

And he kept on working.  In the seventies he was a regular on "The Beverly Hillbillies," "Bewitched" and "Soap."  And he appeared on other TV hits that decade, "The Rookies," "Rhoda" and "Maude."   In the eighties he was seen on Herman Wouk's "The Winds of War", and on "St. Elsewhere" and "LA Law."  He worked into the eighties and even into this millennium, but he slowed down a bit after he hit 90!

According to his bio page on IMDb he was a wonderful man in real life, and he remained married to his only wife, Ruth Covell, from 1931 until she died in 2002.  He was a class act all his life.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Busby Berkeley

Bit Actor Busby Berkeley was in three films.  Of course, they were really cameo roles for him, since he was also the choreographer for those films, Palmy Days (1931), Gold Diggers of 1933, and Footlight Parade (1933).

Gold Diggers of 1933 is one of the best of the Berkeley films.  He didn't direct, but he was the choreographer.  I own the five DVD set of Berkeley films shown at left, with that one and other great movies.

A young Ginger Rogers has a good supporting part, in her 18th film.  She and Ruby Keeler bring a lot of beauty to this film, and Dick Powell's voice is wonderful in the Dubin and Warren tunes that I think are timeless.  But who else was in it?

At the very bottom of the list on IMDb sits Tammany Young.  The next year he was in It's a Gift with W. C. Fields as his store clerk Emmett, playing with Baby Leroy.  He died in 1936, but he started working in films in 1914 and had 126 roles.

Jane Wyman can be seen in her third movie role as one of the gold diggers.  This was 7 years before she married Ronald Reagan.  He was her third husband and she was only 33 when they married.

Sometimes I see a name and I need to write it down for further research.  This movie has a bit actor named Fred "Snowflake" Toones, who lived from 1906 to 1962 and appeared in 209 movies.  There has to be a story to his life.  It turns out he was in Way Out West in 1937 with Laurel and Hardy, his only film with the great comedy team.

Last, I can't skip Charles Lane and Billy Barty.  Both had long careers as bit actors.  Take a look at Lane's filmography here.

Busby Berkeley did his best to make the great depression a little brighter.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sheldon Leonard

There was a bit actor named Sheldon Leonard back in the forties who really became an important man in TV.  He was born in NY in 1907, and that NY accent and his gruff, good looks and wavy hair, made him a perfect choice to play a gangster or heavy. 

Of course, everyone remembers him as Nick the bartender in It's a Wonderful Life (1946).  He played the gangster type when George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) was in his fantasy sequence of never being born, and he was kindly as Mr. Martini's employee in the rest of the film.

He made a half dozen films, more or less, each year during the forties.  His characters were named Pretty Willie, Chink, Tito, Slip, Monk, Silky, Chuck, Smacksie, Mickey, Ace, Lucky, Blackie, Trigger, Swifty, and of course, Nick.  Get the picture?  The great thing was that he could play the gangster straight or with humor.

In 1955 he played Harry, the Horse in Guys and Dolls.  That was a good roll in a great movie, but by then he had found television.  He appeared in a few more films and did some voice overs, until 1992.  What he did well was producing and directing.

Just look at this list as producer:
  • The Danny Thomas Show
  • The Dick Van Dyke Show
  • The Andy Griffith Show
  • Gomer Pyle, USMC
  • I Spy
And he directed many of the episodes in those shows, plus some in "Lassie" and "The Real McCoys."

If he had just worked with Danny Thomas, Dick Van Dyke, Carl Reiner and Andy Griffith, he could have called his life fulfilled.  Sheldon left us in 1997 but his legacy will live on.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Last night was a quiet night so I decided to watch Laura from 1944.  It is a fairly quiet movie, and as detective mysteries go, it is one of the best.  Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney earned their pay for this one.  And the supporting roles with Clifton Webb and Vincent Price were perfect as well.

When I looked at the filmography of Clifton Webb, I was surprised to see so few films.  He is very well known, so each must have contributed to his reputation.  I remember him well from Cheaper by the Dozen in 1950 and Stars and Stripes Forever in 1952.  I want to look for Mister Scoutmaster from 1953, simply because I used to be one.

Webb lived from 1889 to 1966 and made only 27 films.  Laura was his first sound feature film, and he made one 10-minute sound short film in 1930.  Before that he appeared in small roles in five silent films from 1917 to 1925. 

Vinney Price appears miscast for his role as a playboy, but his demeanor worked extremely well, I thought.  What a mess his life was, always trying to hold on to his appearance of being wealthy, but he was really sponging off others.  I can see why the details of his story to the detective were always suspect in the movie.  In his mind, the truth could be flexible to meet his needs.

There were at least 37 uncredited players in Laura.  My favorite was Bessie, Laura's maid, played by Dorothy Adams (1900 - 1988).  She had a great accent for a maid in New York.  She played in four episodes of "Dragnet" on TV and she would fit in there very well.  Adams was a character actress making a good living in 146 roles, none of them important, from 1931 until 1975.  Why do we remember Clifton Webb and not Dorothy Adams?

Lane Chandler (1899 - 1972) was another character actor who made hundreds of films.  He was one of the detectives in Laura.  You will recognize him as a sheriff or a marshal or a cowboy in a lot of movie and TV roles, including "Have Gun, Will Travel", "Maverick" and "Cheyenne."

What you remember most about Laura is the song, which was written for the movie.  I, of course, in my warped way, remember best the version of Laura recorded by Spike Jones and his City Slickers!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Pat Morita

With the release of the new Karate Kid movie this month, I was thinking about the original series with Noriyuki Pat Morita.  Morita was born in 1932 and died in 2005.  He started out as a stand up comic, and in 1967 he was cast in Thoroughly Modern Millie to start his acting career. 

He continued always working.  IMDb shows 166 roles to his credit, although looking over the list, it's not a very distinguished resume.  I remember him playing on TV in "M*A*S*H" in 1972 and 1973.  Just two episodes, but I remember them.  He played a Korean officer, but he had a New Jersey accent.  You could really see his comedy background show through.

His accent was really American, since he was born in California.  He had to work on the Japanese accent for the Karate Kid movies.  He was interred with his parents during the second world war.  My guess is that it was that memory that inspired the story in The Next Karate Kid, with a young Hilary Swank.

He also narrated a documentary in 1997 called Beyond Barbed Wire about how we treated Japanese/Americans during the war.  He appeared in another movie about Japanese.Americans in 1980 called Hito Hata: Raise the Banner.  I wonder if these roles were because he wanted to tell the story, or if he just happened to be a great actor of Asian descent.

I haven't seen everything he has done, but I am not sure he was put to best use in "Sanford and Son" playing a character named Ah Chew, and I won't ask you to go out and watch all four of his Karate movies, they weren't all that good.  The first one had a story, then Ralph Macchio started getting too old to play a kid.  But these were his biggest hits, and he was nominated for an Oscar for the first one. 

I am sure he was well respected in Hollywood as a "Bit Actor, First Class," and you can find his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Winchester '73

One of my favorite westerns is Winchester '73 from 1950 starring Jimmy Stewart.  (Come to think of it, I have a lot of favorite westerns.)  It was a breakout role for Stewart.  He wanted to do something other than the tall, fair-minded, honest bloke he usually played.  He was the good guy in Winchester '73, but there was a fine line separating good and bad in this movie.

According to IMDb, Stewart would receive $200,000 for his salary, but the studio couldn't afford it.  He made a deal to take a portion of the profits, and took home about $600,000.  This was the first such deal after the silent era ended, and is now the way most big stars get paid.

On to the good stuff.  In what truly stands out as miscasting, the small part of the Native American chief, Young Bull, was played by Rock Hudson.  I'm sorry, but he doesn't look like an Indian!  Nonetheless, the part could be considered a bit part in that he had little screen time, but it was important so that the story of this famous rifle could be followed.

Will Geer played Wyatt Earp in the beginning of the film at the sharpshooting contest.  He said that he thought he was miscast in the role.  That may be.  Geer was 48 years old when the film was made, and I thought he looked older than that.  The story takes place in 1876, when Wyatt Earp would have been 28 years old.  But Geer played the part well.  He had an air of authority about him, which I am sure Earp also possessed.  Much later, Geer became Grandpa on TV in "The Waltons."

We also find Tony Curtis in a bit part.  This was three years before he played Harry Houdini.  And another great character actor, John Douchette (1921 - 1994), had a small part.  He had about 286 roles in film and TV and he has one of those faces you never forget.  He was great as General Truscott in Patton (1970), and played in four westerns with Stewart, this one, Broken Arrow the same year, Carbine Williams in 1952, and The Far Country in 1954.

I guess the weekend is the best time for a good western!