Several months ago I had the pleasure of attending a rare big screen showing of the classic John Ford Western The Man who Shot Liberty Valance with a group of fellow film fanatics. It was a great event and I was enjoying myself immensely when part way through the film I was amazed to see one of my favorite ‘B’ movie actors, Paul Birch, rubbing shoulders with the great James Stewart. Later I was further thrilled to see the classic horror actor John Carradine in the film as well (he portrayed a boastful windbag politician). Both Birch and Carradine’s performances added so much to the enjoyment of this classic, that I began to wonder about supporting actors who added a lot to classic sci-fi films. These are the people who you’ll see in one film after another, and then you’ll snap your fingers trying to remember their names.
Often the supporting performances add color, depth and believability to a movie, but especially one with a fantastic theme. Though these actors only have a few scenes, these usually are the key to moving the plot and the audience’s expectations along. They are also the performances that fans sometimes remember more than the lead actors themselves! So let’s take a look at three 1950s actors who are remembered for performances in some classic ‘A’ and ‘B’ sci-fi films.
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Paul Birch (1912-1969)
Paul Birch, although mostly a TV actor, appeared in 50 films, ranging from low budget Roger Corman westerns such as Apache Woman to major Hollywood productions including 1955’s Rebel without a Cause. He was busy for more than two decades, appearing almost weekly either on TV or in the cinema. He was a stocky and affable actor and specialized as sheriffs, generals and other men of authority. He was particularly good at playing Ulysses S. Grant (our 18th president) and did so many times. But it was his performances in six sci-fi films that have earned Birch many of his long-time fans.
Birch’s first sci-fi role was that of Alonzo Hogue in George Pal’s 1953 production of War of the Worlds. Birch’s role is small but important, as he along with Bill Phipps and Jack Kruschen, are asked to guard the strange meteorite that has crashed in the California woodlands. It is Birch who prods both Phipps and Kruschen to come out from behind a truck and welcome the new visitors to Earth. He tells them that they will be famous, and he’s right – they’re the first victims of the Martian heat ray.
Birch became associated with Roger Corman later in the decade, and Corman gave him meaty roles in three of his most famous sci-fi productions, The Day the World Ended (1956), The Beast with a Million Eyes (1956) and Not of This Earth (1957). In the first, Birch plays Madison, a man who worked for the government during World War II and saw firsthand the destruction caused by America’s atomic bomb tests. He has been planning for TD (total destruction) day. The film begins with the nuclear destruction of America, and Birch welcomes five survivors into his home. Bickering begins between Madison and Tony (Mike Connors) over Madison’s pretty daughter (Lori Nelson). Birch turns to Rick (Richard Denning) for help. He bonds with Denning, and at the end of the film gives his approval for Denning and Nelson to be the new Adam and Eve and repopulate America.
Throughout the film, Birch acts mostly like a modern day shepherd, guiding his flock and supplying them with the tools that they will need to survive the horrors of the post atomic world. Birch‘s performance is measured and controlled.
In Not of this Earth, Birch had perhaps his best role as the alien Mr. Johnson. (For my review of Not of This Earth and The Beast with a Million Eyes, please see the April 2010 issue of Rogue Cinema). Birch acts calmly and totally in control of his situation. He seems puzzled by many of the conventions of earth people but doesn’t avoid contact with them. Instead, his view of earthlings seems to be totally clinical, as if his time on earth is merely another job that needs to be done for his people to survive. In one of the movie’s key scenes, Birch has an unusual conversation about death with nurse Beverly Garland:
Nadine Storey: You strike me as a very healthy man.
Mr. Johnson: I am pleased. Perhaps your treatments can prevent my predicted death.
Nadine Storey: For a man who thinks he’s going to die, you seem pretty casual about it.
Mr. Johnson: How can one not be casual? Death is not a remarkable thing.
Nadine Storey: But it’s not exactly something one looks forward to with great anticipation.
Mr. Johnson: That’s true. Nor without undue dread.
Birch shines throughout the film. His controlled speech and careful gait effectively give the impression of a true alien among us.
In addition to these famous roles, Birch had supporting roles in two more sci-fi films, 1957’s The 27th Day and 1958’s Queen of Outer Space. In the first, Birch has a colorless role as an army general, however, in the latter, Birch seems to be having fun in the role of Professor Konrad. He seems to recognize the campiness of this cheap space opera and plays the professor in broad strokes.
In a career that lasted over 20 years, Birch portrayed everything from aliens to US presidents, but for many of us boomers, he’ll always be remembered for his roles in these great (and not so great) sci-fi films.
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Douglas Spencer (1910 – 1960)
It isn’t easy establishing a career when you look like another well known actor, but that coincidence is what led to a 21 year acting stint for Douglas Spencer. Spencer had an uncanny resemblance to superstar Ray Milland which led to him acting as Milland’s stand in for many years. Tall and lean, Spencer specialized in everyman type supporting roles and appeared in westerns, dramas, and comedies. Spencer began his career in films in 1939 and worked exclusively there until the early burgeoning days of TV. After that, the small screen became his canvas, and he appeared in dozens of shows until his untimely death in 1960. Throughout his career, Spencer acted in only two sci-fi movies, but they were both classics.
His first classic role was that of Ned “Scotty” Scott, the reporter in Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World (1951). It was a great opportunity for Spencer and he turned in a lively performance. Hawks uses Scotty as the everyman. His reactions represent the reactions of the film’s audience. When he explores the crash site of the alien spaceship, he’s as excited as a schoolboy. When the scientists gather around the alien’s mangled arm and bombard each other with fact after fact about the creature, it’s Scotty who stops the proceedings by repeatedly asking Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) questions about the alien visitor. His questions let the audience digest all the facts about the carrot creature and what dangers it represents. This makes the monster all the more horrible in our eyes.
Another great aspect of Scotty is that even though he’s not a military man, he has to be as brave as all of the others at the outpost. This is best exemplified by some typical snappy dialogue (provided by screenwriter Charles Lederer) from the climax of the film:
Captain Hendry: Wait a minute Scotty. You won’t need any boots. When it comes, you go back with the others. You don’t belong out here.
Scotty: I didn’t belong at El Alamein, Bougainville or Okinawa, I was just kibitzing. I also write a very good obit, obituary to you. Just ignore me please.
Scotty does stay with Captain Hendry, and although he passes out after the Thing is roasted, he recovers to deliver the film’s final chilling message to the world:
Scotty: And now before giving you the details of the battle, I bring you a warning. Every one of you listening to my voice. Tell the world. Tell this to everybody wherever they are. Watch the skies. Everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!
It’s one of the best final lines from any American sci-fi film ever made and it still has the power to cause goose bumps 59 years later. The role of Ned Scott is one of the great ones in sci-fi films, and Spencer gave the role all the strength and believability it needed.
Spencer’s next role in a sci-fi film was that of the Metaluna Monitor in Universal’s This Island Earth (1955), but here the role of the Monitor is colorless and flat. Spencer is given only a few lines, and they are clichéd and poorly written. Jeff Morrow’s Exeter is given the sympathetic alien role, so Spencer doesn’t have much to do except look angry and dismissively at his human cargo (Rex Reason and Faith Domergue). He’s killed after only a couple of scenes, and his character isn’t given the opportunity to shine as he was in The Thing from Another World.
Spencer appeared in one more sci-fi story, and it would be his last. In 1961 Spencer appeared as a Martian in The Twilight Zone’s “Mr. Dingle the Strong.” In the show Spencer appears as half of a two-headed Martian who gives a local Earth loser (Burgess Meredith) incredible strength. The role is a small one for Spencer, and he’s buried under a lot of make-up. It’s a fun part, but unfortunately, it isn’t really memorable. Sadly, Spencer died shortly after he completed filming this episode.
Though he had only a few roles in fantastic films, Spencer will forever be remembered by generations of film fans as one of the genre’s most beloved characters from an adored classic.
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William Schallert (1922 – )
If there ever was an everyman of fantastic films, it’s the likable William Schallert. It seems like he was always playing a policeman, a technician, an ambulance attendant or some other comforting authority figure in his more than 50 year film and TV career. He specialized in playing fathers and will always be remembered as Patty Duke’s father from The Patty Duke Show. In fact, he’s been acting so long that directors who watched him when they were growing up now cast him in their films.
Schallert’s first fantastic role was a bit part as a gas station attendant in Merrian C. Cooper’s Mighty Joe Young (1949). He followed that up with a meatier role as the greedy Dr. Mears in The Man from Planet X (1951). Here he tries to learn all the secrets of the alien visitor and succeeds in turning him against human kind. At the film’s climax, while under the alien’s control, he speaks of the visitor’s plans for the future of our world:
Dr. Mears: He’s establishing a wireless directional beam to his planet. At midnight, when his planet is at its closest approach to earth, an invasion will be launched.
Lawrence: Why? Why?
Dr. Mears: He comes from a planet that’s dying. It’s turning to ice. If his people do not escape from his planet before it swings back along its route in space, they will be doomed.
It’s a great role for Schallert and one of the few times he’s portrayed an evil character in a fantastic film.
He continued to work for low budget sci-fi producers with small roles in films like Captive Women (1952), Port Sinister (1953), Tobor the Great (1954) and Gog (1954). His first minor role in a major sci-fi film was as the ambulance attendant in Them (1954). In this brief scene Schallert is easy going and comforting as he talks with star James Whitmore about taking care of the little lost girl (Sandy Descher) Whitmore found wandering in the desert.
He continued to act in the growing medium of TV and went on to work on dozens of shows during the decade. Schallert’s next sci-fi appearance was in one of Jack Arnold’s classics, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). Here he plays Dr. Arthur Bramson, physician to Scott Carey (Grant Williams), the film’s title character. It’s Schallert job to explain to his unfortunate patient his unique condition. He does this in a typical caring Schallert manner:
Dr. Bramson: (gently) Well it’s the last of them, Mr. Carey.
Louise Carey: This has been a long week Dr. Bramson.
Scott Carey: I must have worn out your machine.
Dr. Bramson: I needed two full sets of pictures spaced several days apart. I had to compare them before I – before I could be sure.
Louise Carey: Sure of what doctor? What is it?
Scott Carey: Relax Doctor. You can’t tell me anything I haven’t imagined.
Dr. Bramson: (soothingly) You are getting smaller. I, I don’t profess to understand it, Mr. Carey. There’s no medical precedent for what’s happening to you. I simply know that you’re getting smaller. The X-rays prove it beyond any doubt.
Schallert has only a few scenes in the film, but these scenes add a touch of pathos to William’s predicament, as the audience can see that Bramson is upset about his patient’s condition.
Schallert stuck mainly to TV after 1957 (including portraying Nils Baris the pompous politician in Star Trek’s “The Trouble with Tribbles”), but in 1983 director Joe Dante began to cast him in his films including The Twilight Zone Movie (1983) Gremlins (1984), Innerspace (1987) and Matinee (1993). In fact in Matinee, Dante has his tongue planted firmly in cheek by casting Schallert as a caring physician (a la The Incredible Shrinking Man) in the film within a film (MANT!).
Now a spry 88 years young, Schallert continues to act and win new fans for himself. There’s seems to be no limit for this sensitive and capable actor who has now appeared in over 300 films and TV shows.
Though we’ve briefly discussed the sci-fi careers of Birch, Spencer and Schallert, we’ve hardly touched the surface of other actors and actresses who’ve also been embraced for their fantastic film roles. In a future piece we’ll look at other veteran character actors like Morris Ankrum, Russell Johnson, Allison Hayes, and Robert Nichols. Like a lot of folks, I grew up watching these icons on both the large and small screens. They have a special space in my heart, and they keep me young every time I see them onscreen.
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The Fantastic Films of Paul Birch
1) War of the Worlds (Alonzo Hogue) – Paramount (1953)
2) The Day the World Ended (Madison) – American Releasing Corp. (1956)
3) The Beast with a Million Eyes (Allan Kelly) – American Releasing Corp. (1956)
4) Not of This Earth (Mr. Johnson) – Allied Artists (1957)
5) The 27th Day (General) – Columbia (1957)
6) Queen of Outer Space (Professor Konrad) – Allied Artists (1958)
The Fantastic Films of Douglas Spencer
1) The Thing from Another World (Ned Scott) – RKO (1951)
2) This Island Earth (Metaluna Monitor) – Universal (1955)
3) The Twilight Zone – “Mr. Dingle the Strong” (Martian) [Season 2]) (1963)
The Fantastic Films of William Schallert
1) Mighty Joe Young (gas station attendant) – RKO (1949)
2) The Man from Planet X (Dr. Mears) – United Artists (1951)
3) Captive Women (Carver) – RKO (1952)
4) Port Sinister (Collins) – RKO (1953)
5) Gog (Engle) – United Artists (1954)
6) Them (ambulance attendant) – Warner Brothers (1954)
7) Tobor the Great (Johnston) – Republic Pictures (1954)
8) The Incredible Shrinking Man – Universal International (1957)
9) The Monolith Monsters (weatherman[uncredited]) – Universal International (1957)
10) Twilight Zone The Movie (Father) – Warner Brothers (1983)
11) Gremlins (Father Bartlett) – Warner Brothers (1984)
12) Innerspace (Dr. Greenbush) – Warner Brothers (1987)
13) Matinee (Dr. Grabow) – Universal (1993)
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The Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0083280. Accessed April 28th, 2010.
The Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0817930. Accessed April 29th, 2010.
The Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0769974. Accessed April 30th, 2010.
Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies (Two Volume Set). Jefferson, North Carolina:
McFarland and Company Inc, 1982 and 1986.
Zicree, Marc Scott. The Twilight Zone Companion. Second Edition. Beverly Hills, California: Silman-James Press. 1992.