In praise of character actors

Hoagy Carmichael / Press photo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Being a huge fan of Turner Classic Movies, I spent many an hour in front of the TV set happily binge-watching picture after picture while sheltering in place during the 2021 Covid outbreak. 

Familiar black and white classics, like Casablanca, flashed across the screen. A host of B pictures did, as well—including several episodes of the popular 1940s Falcon comedy detective series. 

Because I’d seen several of these pictures before, I began focusing not so much on the stars, but rather on those often unsung heroes of the movies—the actors playing the supporting roles—the character actors. A great many of these individuals made their living this way, often repeating the same role in picture after picture.

James Gleason and Edward Brophy are two of my favorites. Bald, thin and craggy voiced, Gleason was frequently cast as a cop. Brophy, who was short and chubby, with dark eyes and thinning hair, fit into a gangster role, or that of a second banana funny man.

Gleason and Brophy each appeared in a different Falcon episode. 

The Falcon was a debonair, womanizing playboy-detective, played sometimes by George Sanders and sometimes by handsome British actor Tom Conway. He invariably winds up investigating a murder and just as invariably beats the cops at their own game by solving it.

In A Date With The Falcon, Gleason, plays the inevitable Irish police lieutenant. He provides the necessary comic contrast to the suave, snooty Saunders’s Falcon.

Edward Brophy hilariously portrayed the Conway Falcon’s sidekick-valet, “Goldie” Locke in The Falcon in San Francisco. With his high-pitched raucous voice, always rolling his eyes, he made the perfect foil for the sexy handsome Conroy, stealing every scene he was in.

Sadly, both Brophy and Gleason were not cast together in a Falcon episode. How funny that would have been!

But it was not always the familiar character actor—the one who made a living that way—who took on a secondary role. If the part called for a specific talent, a first rate actor often was cast.

American jazz icon Peggy Lee played Rose, a washed up alcoholic singer with Pete Kelly’s band In Pete Kelly’s Blues. Set during the Depression Era, Rose is abused by her politician-boyfriend. She goes insane and is hospitalized in an institution. The film, starring Jack Webb as bandleader Pete Kelly, largely disappeared. But Peggy Lee’s emotionally moving performance of this tragic woman gained an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress. 

Beloved comedian Jimmy Durante portrayed a theatrical character called Banjo in the uproariously funny comedy, The Man Who Came to Dinner. 

From his early days in vaudeville, Durante created an eccentric comic routine, singing in his gravelly voice and joking about his prominent nose, the “Schnozzola.” Durante also wrote a bevy of zany songs that were strictly his to perform. “Inka Dinka Doo,” anyone?

Monty Woolley brilliantly plays the title role in The Man Who Came to Dinner—an irascible wheelchair-bound celebrity, Sheridan Whiteside, who wreaks havoc on a Midwestern family. Durante, who comes in near the end of the picture gave forth with his familiar shtick. It fit in perfectly at that point, offsetting the acerbic Whiteside. In a movie as inherently hilarious as this one, Durante’s performance was simply the icing on the cake.

And much to my delight, I spied Hoagy Carmichael playing an old upright piano in the swingy catchy way that only he can play in one of the first scenes in the 1948 drama, Night Song.

Carmichael was a composer of great renown in the 1940s. He wrote the music for many popular songs, “Stardust” being the best known. We old timers also fondly recall “Ole Buttermilk Sky,” “In the Still of the Night,” and the smooth and wonderful “Georgia on my Mind.”

In Night Song, Carmichael was appropriately cast in the role of a bandleader-entertainer. Lead actress Merle Oberon portrays a wealthy socialite trying to play patron saint to a war-scarred blind pianist, actor Dana Andrews. I found the story dreary, and Andrews’ acting listless; I thought of cancelling it and moving on the next movie.  But Carmichael played the piano and sang in his odd twangy voice. He projected the necessary energy to keep the mawkish plot moving and pulled it out of the doldrums.

He also wrote the movie’s novelty tune about a black widow spider, with its funny lyrics: “Who killed ‘er? Who killed the black widder?” 

And, since I’ve made much mention of Hoagy Carmichael’s music, I’d simply be remiss if I didn’t plug another of his quirky, jivey songs:

I’m A Cranky Old Yank in a Clanky Old Tank on the streets of Yokahama with my Honolulu Mama Doin’ those Beat-o, Beat-o, Flat on my Seat—o Hirohito Blues.” 

The Guinness Book of Records credits this ditty from 1942 as having the longest wartime song title.

Avid TCM viewer that I am, I’m hoping it might someday turn up in another Hoagy Carmichael film!

Carol Hall lives in Woodbury. She’s a longtime freelance writer, a University of Minnesota graduate and a former Northwest Airlines stewardess.