Kenneth Tobey – Classic Sci-Fi’s Man of Action – By Philip Smolen

My love of monster movies constantly got me in trouble In Catholic school. One day, in fourth grade, wicked Sister Evalda (that was her real name, though it should have been EVILDA) asked every kid in our class who they most admired in this world. Now, I should have known that this was a set up. It was all a ruse to see who would suck up to her and say “Sister so and so,” or “Father so and so,” or mention some other great Catholic (JFK was a safe bet). It was also to see which of us had already been corrupted by television and movies (oh, oh). So up and down the rows she went. If kids happened to mention a TV star or a rock group as their favorite (God forbid you said The Beatles), she was ready to pounce and tell them how weak their choice was, how they had “cobwebs in their brain,” and that in 20 years “no one would remember this person (or band).” I was still young and stupid (and hadn’t learned how to fool the nuns – yet) because when Sister Evalda got to me, I proudly stood up and said that I most admired actor Kenneth Tobey. I can still hear the laughter that erupted from my classmates (and I can still feel the embarrassment). And the look that Evalda gave me was as if I had just cut a huge fart right in front of her. They had no idea who I was talking about.

I was just being honest. To me, Kenneth Tobey was just so cool. I mean he was in so many great sci-fi movies I watched on TV. He did fight some splendid monsters, like the carrot monster from “The Thing from Another World” (1951), the Rhedosaurus from “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” (1953), and the giant octopus from “It Came from Beneath the Sea” (1955). To a nine-year-old, Tobey had just about the best résumé of any actor out there.

Tobey had a unique career. As a young man, while preparing for a law degree, he tried his hand at acting at the University of California. He enjoyed it so much that he then moved to New York and studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse (some of his fellow students included Tony Randall and Eli Wallach). Tobey then moved on to off-Broadway and Broadway roles during the 1940s. In the latter part of the decade, he made his way to Hollywood and started working in film. He first gained recognition in the small role of “Red” in Howard Hawks’ “I was a Male War Bride” (1949). Hawks enjoyed working with the likable Tobey and promised to star him in a future role. When Tobey saw that Hawks was casting for “The Thing from Another World,” he approached the great director. Hawks remembered Tobey and cast him on the spot. So as the decade of the 1950s dawned, Tobey found himself in one of the screen’s great sci-fi classics.

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Calling Captain Hendry

While it’s true that a lot of actors could have played the role of Captain Pat Hendry in “The Thing,” it’s doubtful if their performance would be remembered as fondly by sci-fi fans. Ken Tobey just made the role his own. His performance is sincere, funny, and engaging. He plays Hendry as a man who’s just getting by in his military career. He’s reached the rank of Captain, and he’s not in any hurry to raise his profile. He’s always been a lady’s man. And out of the blue, he’s thrust into a very dangerous situation. Once there, his true leadership skills emerge, and he’s determined to make sure that everyone (soldier and civilian alike) survive their encounter with the ferocious carrot alien.

One of the great character traits that Tobey’s performance accentuates (from Charles Lederer’s screenplay) is Hendry’s playfulness. He throws sarcastic barbs at his crew when they tease him about his interest in Nikki (Margaret Sheridan). Throughout the film, he constantly jabs with Scotty (Douglas Spencer) over Scotty’s need to get the story of the alien to the outside world. But his best verbal sparring is with Nikki. She likes him, and Pat likes her (a lot), so he had come on very strong on his previous visit to the outpost. This has made Nikki a little hesitant about getting too involved with him. In order to put her mind at ease Hendry lets Nikki tie him up and ply him with drinks (a great scene). Nikki lets her guard down and tells Pat how she really feels about him. Towards the end of the scene, Hendry reveals that he has untied himself, all to Nikki’s consternation. He stands up, grabs her and it seems as if he’s going to seduce Nikki, but instead all he does is give her a good long kiss and say goodnight. He likes her too much to cheapen their relationship. Tobey is terrific here. He embodies Hendry’s frustration (and honor) perfectly. In these scenes, his performance is playful and genuine.

Tobey’s acting choice also deepens another great character trait in Hendry – his determination. Once the alien threat has been revealed (in the wonderful scene where scientist Dr. Voorhees [Paul Frees] staggers back from the greenhouse and reveals the carnage that happened there), Hendry is galvanized into action. Tobey allows the viewer to see that Hendry has witnessed death before (during World War II) and that it sickens him. He seems to be one of the few people at the base that realizes the dangerous situation everyone is in. He spends the rest of the film trying to keep everyone out of harm’s way. He takes the lead, and his crew fall right in step behind them. He directs all the attempts to find and destroy the creature, and is in the forefront of every battle.

But perhaps Tobey does his best job in the scenes showing Hendry’s common sense. After the alien ship is destroyed, Hendry doesn’t allow the base scientists to remove the alien from the block of ice for fear of damaging the body. Tobey’s Hendry is unwavering, resisting all of the scientist’s logical reasons for examining the body. He delivers his lines in a way that a parent might answer a petulant child. Then, once the alien’s true intentions are revealed, Tobey lets Hendry’s reactions reveal how level-headed he is. The scene that highlights this perfectly is when Hendry and his crew quietly approach the greenhouse door. When Hendry opens up the door, the Thing is standing there menacingly. It strikes at Hendry who does what any logically-minded man would do – he slams the door shut. There is no hesitation. Tobey looks totally shocked, but determined, and slams the door as if his life depends on it (which, of course, it does). When Scotty complains that he couldn’t get a picture, Hendry sarcastically asks him if he wants Hendry to open the door again. Tobey’s timing and rhythm are perfect. It’s a great light ending for such an intense scene. It’s no wonder that the “The Thing from Another World” is acknowledged as a classic. Kenneth Tobey’s endearing performance is just one reason why.

Battling Beasts

Tobey’s next sci-fi call to action was in the Ray Harryhausen monster film “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” (1953). Once again he plays a staunch military man (Colonel Jack Evans) who has to dispatch a thawed-out dinosaur that’s destroying New York. Tobey is the second lead in the film (Paul Christian is the hero scientist). The screenplay, by Lou Morheim and Fred Freiberger, is not as good as Charles Lederer’s for “The Thing from Another World”. It doesn’t allow Tobey any room to stretch out, so he is forced to play it straight. But Tobey does manage to add some color to his character. Early in the film he acts very concerned when Christian and fellow scientist Ross Elliot turn up missing after the atomic bomb test. Later (in probably his best scene), Tobey tries to convince fellow military man Donald Woods about the existence of the monster. It’s a wonderful scene, because even as Tobey tries to tell Woods, you can see that he’s still having trouble believing it himself. Later, once the monster has made Manhattan his new home, Tobey calmly and coolly directs the troops under him. He has them use different types of weapons, in a vain attempt to kill the monster. Unfortunately, Tobey has nothing to do but look concerned for the last act of the film, as Christian and a young Lee Van Cleef attempt to destroy the Beast with a radioactive isotope. But Tobey’s there staring grimly as the mission unfolds. While the film does not present an opportunity to shine, Tobey brings a calming and reassuring presence to his role as Colonel Evans.

Two years later Tobey was once again cast as a military man in another early Ray Harryhausen monster fest – “It Came from Beneath the Sea” (1955). This time he’s Pete Mathews, a tough and salty nuclear sub commander, who is the first person to encounter Harryhausen’s giant cephalopod. Tobey’s role is more clichéd than in “The Beat from 20,000 Fathoms.” The screenplay by George Worthing Yates is strictly following a formula, so Tobey has no latitude and has to say his lines with a straight face. The screenplay is so clunky that it doesn’t allow Tobey and his beautiful co-star Faith Domergue to generate any romantic sparks (unlike the great chemistry that’s evident between Tobey and Margaret Sheridan in “The Thing from Another World”). But Tobey takes his man of action role to heart, and he’s there throughout the film, dutifully trying to rid the world of yet another atomic monstrosity.

Tobey had one more sci-fi credit during the 1950s; that of small town sheriff Buck Donley in 1957’s “The Vampire.” The film is an earnest attempt to tell a tale about a traditional gothic monster that’s been created through modern science. The film stars John Beal as a small town doctor who is called in to examine a dying local researcher. The man gives Beal special pills that he was working on. Later on, while experiencing a migraine, Beal is accidentally given these pills by his young daughter. They turn him into a grotesque, scaly monster who craves blood. The pills also turn out to be addictive, and every time Beal takes them, he reverts to the snarling vampire. Tobey plays Buck in an easygoing and casual manner. He’s perplexed by the rising body count and doesn’t think that there’s a vampire running around. It’s only at the end, when Beal is after his own nurse (Coleen Gray), that Tobey realizes the true danger everyone’s in. His physical confrontation with the vampire is brief but thrilling. Sadly, the role of Buck would be Tobey’s last fantastic film part for almost 25 years.

TV and then a Renaissance

As the 1950s segued into the 1960s, Tobey’s film roles grew fewer and fewer, and he mostly guest-starred on popular TV shows of the era, including “Gunsmoke,” “Lawman,” and “Perry Mason.” He even had his own TV series, the action show “The Whirlybirds” which ran from 1957-1963. In the 1970s, Tobey continued to be a guest performer on network TV, but his film roles were meager. He did contribute his acting talents to the cult classics “Billy Jack” (1970), “Walking Tall” (1973), “Dirty Mary and Crazy Larry” (1974), and “Baby Blue Marine” (1976). His one substantial movie role during the decade was that of Admiral William “Bull” Halsey in 1977’s “MacArthur.”

But a funny thing happened as the 1980s began. Tobey began to find himself in greater and greater demand. Some of the sci-fi loving kids, who grew up admiring his roles in the 1950s, became directors themselves, and started casting him in small parts in their new films. Director Joe Dante was Tobey’s greatest supporter and cast him in four films. Perhaps Tobey’s funniest part in a Joe Dante film is his brief cameo in 1987’s “Innerspace.” In this wild spoof of 1966’s “Fantastic Voyage,” Martin Short portrays hypochondriac Jack Putter. He is accidentally injected with a syringe that contains a miniature submarine and its pilot (Dennis Quaid). Quaid argues continually with Short for most of the film. When Short goes to a public bathroom to relieve himself, he continues to argue with Quaid while standing at the urinal. A befuddled Tobey emerges from one of the stalls and sees Short arguing with (what Tobey thinks) are his private parts. As he leaves the bathroom, Tobey turns to Short and says “Now son, it’s ok to play with it, but don’t talk to it.” It’s a line that never fails to get the hysterical laughter that it deserves.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Tobey also had small roles in such major films as “Airplane” (1980) [where he was cast as bewildered air traffic controller], “Honey I Blew up the Kid” (1992), and the thriller “Single White Female” (1992). Tobey was always grateful that his appearances in classic sci-fi led to a colorful career when he was a senior citizen.

Kenneth Tobey died at the age of 85 in 2002. While his career was varied, I will always remember him for the wonderful characters he played in some classic sci-fi films from the 1950s. And if Sister Evalda was still around, I’d be sure to let her know that Tobey’s star shines brighter today than it did the day I spoke about him in 4th grade. He remains one of my favorite stars of 1950s sci-fi.

NOTE: For a wonderful interview with Kenneth Tobey, readers are encouraged to seek out Tom Weaver’s book Attack of the Monster Movie Makers from McFarland Press. It’s great.

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The Fantastic Films of Kenneth Tobey

1. “The Thing from Another World” (1951) – Captain Pat Hendry
2. “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) – Colonel Jack Evans
3. “ It Came from Beneath the Sea” (1955) – Commander Pete Matthews
4. “The Vampire” (1957) – Sheriff Buck Donnelly
5. “The Howling” (1981) – Older Cop
6. “Strange Invaders” (1983) – Arthur Newman
7. “Gremlins” (1984) – Gas Station Attendant
8. “The Lost Empire” (1985) – Captain Hendry
9. “Innerspace” (1987) – Man in Restroom
10. “Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) – Projectionist
11. “The Naked Monster” (2005) – The film contains clips of Kenneth Tobey from “The Thing from Another World”

 

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Selected References

The Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0864851. Accessed February 23rd, 2011.
Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties (The 21st Century Edition). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 2010.
Weaver, Tom. Attack of the Monster Movie Makers. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 1994.