Wednesday, March 7, 2012

10 More Fabulous Character Actors

Eric Blore (1887 - 1959)

The squinchy faced, oh-so terribly English Eric Blore appeared in over 80 Hollywood films, usually playing a butler or some variation thereof. He had the kind of face one would always remember and he made good use of it. I remember him most from the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films. He came across as a sweety with a devilish glint in his eye.

Blore, born in London, had an active career mostly in comedy, though he did play in several dramas as well.

To learn more about Eric Blore, please use this link.

Nigel Bruce (1895 - 1953)

Of course, Nigel Bruce will be remembered as Dr. Watson to Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes, until the end of time. But he did play other roles. He was in two of Alfred Hitchcock's most memorable films, SUSPICION and REBECCA. He also played the portly Prince of Wales in THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL with Leslie Howard.

Bruce was the son of an English Baron and oddly enough was born in Mexico. He served in WWI, receiving 11 bullet wounds in one leg for his trouble. A brave man and a terrific actor. He is immortalized on screen as Dr. John Watson.

To learn more about Nigel Bruce, please use this link.

James Robertson Justice (1907 - 1975)

The multi-lingual (he spoke as many as 20 languages) James Robertson Justice was born in South London and studied science in school. Early on he became a journalist for Reuters and from there went on to various and sundry jobs, including a stint as a hockey coach. He served in WWII and was wounded. 

It wasn't until 1944, that he began acting in films.

He was an imposing physical presence, helped along by his aggressive, booming voice - a voice with resonance. I remember him as the 'invalid' Crackenthorpe in MURDER SHE SAID with Margaret Rutherford to whom, in the film, he makes a hilarious proposal of marriage.

He also played the part of Little John in the 1952 film, THE STORY OF ROBIN HOOD AND HIS MERRIE MEN, in which Richard Todd played Robin Hood.

To learn more about James Robertson Justice, please use this link.

Robert Armstrong (1890 - 1973)

Speaking of immortality, when Robert Armstrong starred along with Fay Wray in the original KING KONG, I wonder if he realized that he'd forever be associated with not only KONG, but two other films featuring a gigantic ape: THE SON OF KONG and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. But life is funny that way, especially in the movie biz.

He did, though, work in over 150 films over his long career, usually playing a brash professional man. I loved him best in MIGHTY JOE YOUNG as the brash nightclub impresario who realizes the error of his ways. He helps Terry Moore and Ben Johnson break Mighty Joe out of jail and escape (in a truck) on a wild ride into the night where a burning orphanage is waiting.

To learn more about Robert Armstrong, please use this link.

Alice Pearce (1917 - 1966)

Alice Pearce was a rubbery faced character actress who is probably best known as the next door neighbor, Gladys, in BEWITCHED. A role cut short (she played it for about a year and a half) by Pearce's death from ovarian cancer at the age of 48. Though Sandra Gould took over the role and played if for years, it's Alice Pearce I always remember as Gladys.

I also loved her in ON THE TOWN where she played a girl on a blind date with Gene Kelly - he is pining after Vera-Ellen. Kelly brought Pearce (who'd played the same part in the Broadway production) over to the film. His scenes with Pearce are really rather sweet.

Needless to say, Alice Pearce died too young.

To learn more about Alice Pearce, please use this link.

C. Aubrey Smith (1863 - 1948)

Far as I'm concerned, C. Aubrey Smith was the standard by which all older British officers (on film) should be judged. He was perfection as that self-same officer of the old school - hale, hearty, principled, upright, uptight, stiff-upper-lipped, things strictly by the book. But he could also play a bemused and elderly father or grandfather type. Smith was always one of my favorite actors as I began to watch and appreciate him in the older films showing up on early television.

He was not only an actor, he was also a famed cricketer. Of course he was part of the British clique busy colonizing Hollywood in the 1930's and early 40's. He was intensely patriotic and critical of those English actors who did not immediately head for Britain to enlist during the war.

He appeared in many classic films, including THE PRISONER OF ZENDA, THE FOUR FEATHERS, DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, ANOTHER THIN MAN, TARZAN THE APE MAN (in which he played Jane's father) and many others. I remember him fondly in one of my favorite films, FIVE CAME BACK, where he played a professor forced to make a tragic decision in the end of the film.

To learn more about C. Aubrey Smith, please use this link.

Hillary Brooke (1914 - 1999)

Hillary Brooke was one of the more beautiful actresses of her day and yet that beauty never really made her star. I think it was because the camera picked up some essential coldness (which may not have even been apparent in reality).

Though she was born in Astoria, Queens, NY, she usually played British. She brought a sophisticated, aristocratic bearing to almost every role she played over her long career which included television. She had the duty of playing Lou Costellos' love interest (?!) on the old Abbott and Costello Show. She'd also played the comic foil to the duo in a couple of their films.

She was in several of Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes movies and I also remember her in MINISTRY OF FEAR with Ray Milland, as the sinister fortune teller. Hillary Brooke was always effective at radiating mystery.

To learn more about Hillary Brooke, please use this link.

Horace MacMahon(1906 - 1971)

If you needed to cast a cop, then Horace MacMahon was probably at the top of your list. He had the look and the gravelly voice to suit. He was always my idea of the perfect, work weary, seen-it-all NYC cop.

In his early career he played thugs and mostly bad guys, but later he came into his own as the Lieutenant in the play, DETECTIVE STORY. He went on to play the part in the film as well, alongside Kirk Douglas and Eleanor Parker.

He also starred in the television show, NAKED CITY, as Lieutenant Mike Parker. But he also showed up in many films as the cop, usually in fedora and tweed overcoat. He had the best New Yorkese kind of accent, though he was born in Norwalk, Connecticut. He did go to school at Fordham and he was a newspaper reporter (among many other jobs), so maybe that accounts for the Runyon-esque talk and walk.

To learn more about Horace MacMahon, please use this link.

Erik Rhodes (1906 - 1990)

Erik Rhodes enhanced any film he was ever in and he usually made more of the part he was playing simply by being unafraid to be ridiculous. He is one of my all time favorite actors and I always remember smiling when he showed up on the screen - he just had that effect on me.

In his first film, THE GAY DIVORCEE (1934), he repeated the role he'd played on Broadway, that of Rudolfo Tonetti, an absurdly transparent and very Italian divorce 'correspondent'. His job is to be found in Ginger Rogers' hotel room by her husband - the only action for divorce in those prehistoric times.

There is a famous sequence on the steps of the seaside hotel where Tonetti is given the secret pass word he is to use so that Ginger Rogers will recognize him. The actual words are (I think) "Fate is the fool's name for chance." You can only imagine what Tonetti makes of it. (My favorite: "Fate is foolish, give me a chance.") It is hilarious. Tonetti is part fool, part serious working man (with a union!) and part romantic being duped by his own wife. By the end of the film you adore him as much as you do Fred Astaire.

Rhodes also went on to play in TOP HAT, another Astaire and Rogers film. He played a fashion designer with designs on his model, Ginger Rogers. Hilarity ensues when they all show up in Venice and everyone mistakes everyone else for someone else.

After his work in Army Intelligence during WWII, Erik Rhodes went back to Broadway and later, television work beckoned. Despite his European appearance and manner, Rhodes was born in Oklahoma (when it was known as 'Indian Territory') and died there in 1990, of pneumonia.

To learn more about Erik Rhodes, please use this link.

I've just realized that this is the second time I've written about Rhodes in my continuing series on great character actors. Sorry about that if you noticed. If you didn't notice then pretend you're not reading this.

P.S. If you check google for info on Erik Rhodes, be careful. It seems that there's a porn star with the same name and some of the pix that show up are rather offensive.


  1. Hello Yvette:
    There is quite a British feel to your list of favourites today!

    Nigel Bruce is the one who stole our hearts and can never in our view be surpassed as Watson. Just the right balance of sanguine wit and stiff British upper lip!!!

  2. Good list. I'm happy to see Robert Armstrong on it. He's always been one of my favorites.

  3. I love C. Aubrey Smith, though until today, I'm not sure I really knew his name. Wonderful post.

  4. Oh, Nigel was such an endearing man. Such a good and underrated actor. I love him too, Jane and Lance.

  5. Mike: I always thought he should have been the hero in KING KONG, not that insipid Bruce Bennett. Know what I mean?

  6. Ryan: C. Aubrey Smith was a staple in some movies during that era. I love him myself.

  7. Oppps, showing my age, I remember most of them. Some were better than the Stars.
    Horace and Armstrong were great.


  8. Hi, Yvette - Your comments about Hillary Brooke are interesting, for it certainly does seem that the camera casts people as warm or cool. I read a fascinating article in Esquire years ago by a photographer who had done shots of many celebrities. He said that of all the stars he'd photographed, only Marilyn Monroe and Robert Redford had skin that actually seemed to glow under the lights.

  9. Such a great list! How cool is it that Erik Rhodes and I graduated from the same university? I had no idea he lived in Oklahoma City, which is where I grew up.

  10. If you see him on film, Lauren, you could never guess he was from Oklahoma. Though I can imagine him singing the song in an Italian accent. :) I love the man.

    Same university, eons apart. :)

  11. Yvette, as you may have noticed, I'm a sucker for memorable character actors, especially those who hail from NYC, my hometown, so I was especially pleased to see NAKED CITY's Horace McMahon among your latest list, since he went to college at my alma mater Fordham University! Nigel Bruce and Hilary Brooke made sense, having been in a SHERLOCK HOLMES thriller or two, as well as Robert Armstrong. I was sorry to hear that Alice Pearce, BEWITCHED's first Gladys Kravitz, died young of ovarian cancer. Perhaps she'd still be alive and stealing scenes today if they'd had better cancer treatment back in the 1960s. In any case, thanks for sharing the backgrounds of these memorable actors!

  12. Oh, Horace is one of my faves, Dorian. Love that New Yawk face!! I mean, who wouldn't? :)

    I even liked Hillary. Remember her in JANE EYRE? She played the woman Rochester threw over for Jane. Ah, bliss. :)

    You've very welcome, Dorian. I'm always pleased when you take the time to leave a comment or two.

  13. Great list Yvette. No surprises I have not heard of many of these people but I know of the films that they were in.

    Character actors - the unsung heroes of cinema :)


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