Monday, December 21, 2009
Always on the lookout for a new approach to writing about one of my favorite subjects in classic movies—character actors and actresses—I recently came up with one that combines my love of character performers with another of my loves: the television series I Love Lucy. I first started watching the show as a child during summer vacations. Every morning at 9 a.m. I would be plunked in front of the TV set to watch Lucy come up with another outlandish scheme that involved Ethel, Ricky, and Fred. Over the years I've seen all of the Lucy episodes, some many times.
When Lucy went to Hollywood during seasons 4 and 5 of the show, each week she featured a big-name guest star like William Holden or John Wayne who played straight man to Lucy for the privilege of plugging his or her latest movie to Lucy's huge TV audience. But before this Lucy often used relatively familiar character actors and actresses not as guest stars but in their well-known capacity as character performers. One thing I began to notice as I rewatched I Love Lucy after becoming more familiar with American movies from the 1930s-1960s was how often these former studio character actors appeared in episodes of the show and how much they contributed to it.
There are several reasons for this. The 1950s were the decade in which these people were transitioning from working for the movie studios, then in decline, to working in television. Most of the established studio character performers had second careers in which they became regular fixtures of the Westerns, mysteries, anthology series, and sitcoms that were the staple programming of television in that decade. Lucy was well known as one of the great social networkers of Hollywood. She had been in the movies for twenty years before getting her own TV series, working her way up from bit parts, often uncredited, to supporting roles at RKO and finally landing a contract at the most prestigious studio in Hollywood, MGM—the culmination of years of unflagging ambition and patient hard work. During those years Lucy had worked with many of the character actors who appeared in her show, and it's likely that she personally knew most of them. Lucy and Desi owned Desilu, which produced not only her own show but many of the TV series of the 1950s—everything from sitcoms like December Bride to adventure series like Whirlybirds. Many of the character actors who worked on I Love Lucy also worked in other Desilu series and later appeared in the two Lucille Ball series that followed I Love Lucy.
I've chosen fifteen character actors and actresses whom I recall from episodes of I Love Lucy, many of them episodes from the years before Lucy Ricardo went to Hollywood. A few of these I've written on in a more general way in previous posts (I've provided links to those posts), so I'll deal with them first.
•Edward Everett Horton. He appeared in season 1 in the episode "Lucy Plays Cupid" as Mr. Ritter, the grocer Lucy tries to fix up with her elderly neighbor (a hilarious Bea Benadaret, actually Lucy's first choice for Ethel Mertz, here playing a character much older than she really was). The only problem is that Mr. Ritter mistakenly believes Lucy is hitting on him for herself and wants to leave Ricky and elope with him, forcing Lucy to get up to various shenanigans to disabuse him of this notion. The comfortable rapport between these two consummate professionals was quite apparent in the many scenes they had together. Lucy had previously appeared in three movies with Edward Everett Horton, the first of which was the Astaire-Rogers musical Top Hat (1935), in which Lucy played, uncredited, a clerk in a florist's shop. Click here for more about Edward Everett Horton.
•Elizabeth Patterson. The first episode she appeared in was "The Marriage License" in season 1. In this episode Lucy believes that an error in her marriage license means that she and Ricky aren't legally married, and she and Ricky return to the justice of the peace who married them to get remarried. Elizabeth Patterson plays the wife of the justice of the peace. The two actresses had never appeared together before, but Lucy must have liked her work because she later gave her a semi-regular role as the Ricardos' neighbor Mrs. Trumbull, and she appeared as that character in ten episodes between 1952-1956. Click here for more about Elizabeth Patterson.
•Elsa Lanchester. In season 6 of the series, Elsa Lanchester plays the bossy woman who drives Lucy and Ethel to Florida after Lucy loses their train tickets in the episode "Off to Florida." After finding an axe in the trunk of the car, the pair become convinced that Lanchester is the notorious axe murderess who has just escaped from prison. Lanchester had never worked with Lucy before but did later appear in an episode of Here's Lucy. Click here for more about Elsa Lanchester.
•Strother Martin. In the same episode Elsa Lanchester appeared in, Strother Martin plays the waiter/cook at a greasy spoon where the women stop on their way to Florida. When Martin appeared in that 1956 episode, he had played small parts in movies like Kiss Me Deadly (1955) but would become really established as a recognizable character actor later, especially in Westerns like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and The Wild Bunch (1969). Perhaps his best-known film role is as the Captain of the chain gang in Cool Hand Luke (1967).
•Charles Lane. Often considered the quintessential character actor who most classic movie fans instantly recognize but not many can actually name, Lane (1905-2007) appeared in an incredible 350 movies and television shows, including four episodes of I Love Lucy. My favorite is the one from season 5 called "Staten Island Ferry," in which Lucy and Fred fall asleep on the Staten Island Ferry after taking too many seasick pills in preparation for their ocean voyage to Europe and barely make it to the passport office in time to get their passports. Lane plays the officious passport clerk who refuses to keep the office open late for them. He had appeared with Lucy in seven movies in the 1930s and 1940s and later would appear in six episodes of subsequent Lucy series.
•Jack Albertson. The only Oscar winner among this group (best supporting actor for 1968's The Subject Was Roses). Albertson has more than 160 movies (look for him as the mail sorter at the very beginning of Miracle on 34th Street) and TV series in his résumé, everything from The Twilight Zone and Dr. Kildare to Bonanza, but dozens of sitcoms, many produced by Desilu. He was a regular in 88 episodes of the Freddie Prinze series Chico and the Man (1974-1978). In season 5 of I Love Lucy in the episode "Bon Voyage" he plays the helicopter dispatcher who saves the day when Lucy misses the boat to Europe and has to be airlifted to it. I've always wondered if this episode used stock footage of helicopters from the Desilu series Whirlybirds.
•Charles Winninger. This veteran character actor played Fred's former vaudeville partner Barney Kurtz in the episode "Mertz and Kurtz" in season 4. Highlights of the episode include Lucy pretending to be the Mertz's maid to impress Barney and as a finale an elaborate old-time vaudeville show with Winninger and the entire cast performing at Ricky's night club. Lucy had worked with Winninger in one movie in the 1940s. His most famous role was as Cap'n Andy ("HAPPY New Year!") in the original Broadway production and 1936 movie version of Show Boat. He also had memorable parts in Destry Rides Again (1939) and as the tipsy Dr. Downer who misdiagnoses Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard) in Nothing Sacred (1937).
•Allen Jenkins. With his aquiline features, nasal voice, and Brooklyn accent, he appeared in nearly 150 movies and TV shows, sometimes as a menacing hoodlum, more often as a slightly dim comic cop or gangster. He played both of these many times as a Warner Bros. contract player in the 1930s but worked in all genres, even Westerns and musicals. One of his most memorable roles was as a sinister thug named Hunk, gangster Humphrey Bogart's crony in Dead End (1937). In the early 1940s he played George Sanders's comic sidekick "Goldy" Locke in the Falcon series. He and Lucy were both in the RKO picture Five Came Back (1939). He appeared in three episodes of Lucy in seasons 1-3, each time playing a policeman with whom Lucy has a run-in.
•Ellen Corby. Later famous as Grandma Walton on the TV series The Waltons in the 1970s (she won three Emmys and one Golden Globe for the series), Ellen Corby played in more than 200 films—everything from Laurel and Hardy movies to classics like It's a Wonderful Life, Shane, and Vertigo, often uncredited—and TV shows. She received an Oscar nomination as best supporting actress for I Remember Mama (1948) and won the Golden Globe for that performance. She had worked with Lucy in two films in the 1940s. In season 6 she played Lucy's former high school drama coach in an episode called "Lucy Meets Orson Welles" in which Lucy unwittingly becomes Welles's assistant in a magic show. She later appeared in two 1962 episodes of The Lucy Show.
•Will Wright. A familiar face with over 200 acting credits, Will Wright had appeared with Lucy and William Holden in Miss Grant Takes Richmond (1949). Probably his best-known role was as the house detective in the Alan Ladd-Veronica Lake film noir The Blue Dahlia (1946). He was in two episodes of Lucy. The one I especially remember is "Tennessee Bound" from season 4. On their way to California, the Ricardos and Mertzes make a detour to visit their old friend Tennessee Ernie Ford and are caught in a speed trap in a small town and thrown in jail. It turns out that what the sheriff (Wright) really wants is an audition with Ricky for his chubby, petite twin daughters Teensy and Weensy, who end up performing "Ricochet Romance" for Ricky before Tennessee Ernie shows up to rescue them. After Lucy et al. finally reach California, she slips in a plug for the actor's Beverly Hills ice cream parlor—located across the street from Lucy's onetime home studio, RKO, which Desilu bought in 1957—when in one episode bored Lucy says to Ethel something like, "Let's go to Will Wright's ice cream parlor and try the other 30 flavors."
•Eduardo Ciannelli. Born in southern Italy, he trained as a doctor before turning to acting. With more than 150 acting roles to his credit, he specialized in ethnic, especially Italian, roles, often of unsavory characters. He and Lucy (unbilled) appeared together in Winterset (1936). Two of his most memorable roles were as the sadistic mob boss in the Bette Davis movie Marked Woman (1937), a character supposedly based on the gangster Lucky Luciano, and as the fanatical leader of the Thuggees in Gunga Din (1939). In the 1950s he divided his work between Italy and the US. He appeared in season 6 of Lucy in the episode "Visitor from Italy" playing Mr. Martinelli, the owner of the pizza parlor where Lucy substitutes as a pizza chef and performs one of her most memorable bits of slapstick trying to perfect the art of tossing pizza crust in the air.
•Hans Conried. His eccentric manner and speech made him instantly identifiable. Probably best remembered as the mad piano teacher in The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (1953), he was credited with more than 200 roles dating from 1938, including The Big Street (1942) with Lucy and Henry Fonda. He had a continuing role as Uncle Tonoose in Danny Thomas's Desilu-produced sitcom Make Room for Daddy. He actually appeared in two episodes of Lucy, but the one I vividly recall is the one from season 2 called "Lucy Hires an English Tutor." Filmed while Lucy was pregnant, the premise is that Lucy wants her baby to speak English perfectly, so she hires a pernickety speech tutor (Conried) to coach her. The rub is that the fussy academic actually wants to be in show business and only took the job as a way to get an audition with Ricky.
•Mary Wickes. The gawky, buck-toothed actress worked in movies and TV for sixty years, from 1935 to 1995, and is probably best remembered for one of her earliest parts, as the nurse tormented by Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1941). She was in the season 1 episode "The Ballet" as the demanding French ballet instructor Madame Lamand, whose class Lucy attends when she wants to get a part as a ballerina in Ricky's show. The episode gave Lucy another opportunity to indulge her penchant for physical comedy. Wickes had never worked with Lucy before this, but the two must have gotten along well because she later appeared in seven episodes of The Lucy Show and nine episodes of Here's Lucy.
•Olin Howland. He was in more than 200 movies and TV shows between 1918 and 1959, the majority of his movie roles so small they were uncredited, often playing hicks or bumpkins. I saw him not long ago in Nothing Sacred (1937) as the laconic railroad station agent, the first person Fredric March meets in the small New England town where he has gone to interview Hazel Flagg. In season 4 of Lucy he plays George Skinner, the owner of the isolated motel/cafe in Ohio where the Ricardos and Mertzes are forced to spend their first night on the way to California in the episode "First Stop." The way he switches hats as he switches roles from desk clerk to cook and back again is hilarious. Of course, their room turns out to be miserably uncomfortable, with lumpy mattresses and trains thundering past just feet from the window every couple of minutes. Yet Skinner behaves as though his establishment is the Hilton as he shamelessly overcharges his hapless guests for everything.
•Madge Blake. The petite actress with the mellifluous voice was 50 years old when she appeared in her first movie, playing Spencer Tracy's mother in Adam's Rib (1949). Probably her most famous role was as the chatty gossip columnist Dora Bailey, who emcees the movie premiere Gene Kelly and Jean Hagen attend in Singin' in the Rain (1952). On TV she played Aunt Harriet in 88 episodes of Batman and had continuing roles in The Jack Benny Program, Leave It to Beaver, and The Real McCoys. She appeared in two Lucy episodes, the one I recall more vividly being the season 3 episode "Ricky Loses His Temper." That's just what he does when Lucy develops an obsession with buying hats. The result is one of those bets that so often formed the premise of an episode: Ricky bets Lucy he can avoid losing his temper longer than she can resist buying another hat. Lucy, however, doesn't take into account the persuasive sales technique of kindly hat store owner Madge Blake, who maneuvers her into buying a new hat on the sly, confident that Ricky will lose his temper before he finds out about her illicit purchase.