Character Actors - Tuesdays & Thursdays in April
Note: Prior to his passing in March, Robert Osborne completed his April column for TCM's Now Playing Guide, which we present here in his memory:
Long overdue, we admit, is our big treat for this month on TCM: a 32-film mini-marathon salute to many of the great character actors who, for so many years, made movie-going such a delight. Many a film has limped along, enjoyable but less than awesome, until a door opens and in saunters Eve Arden--looking chic but somewhat bored, and soon saying something brittle, wise and very funny. The minute Eve appeared, the entire audience in a movie theatre would give a happy sigh--from that moment on you were guaranteed a good time. So would the first (and second and third) appearance of S.Z. Sakall--with his chubby cheeks that everyone wanted to tweek while the Hungarian-born actor would chatter on, whatever he was saying was basically indecipherable.
Most of the character actors we're honoring this month were actually "stars" rather than unknown entities. Most received billing on the films they were in, often in a type size that equaled many of the stars they supported. On Broadway they might play the lead in a play, pulling in big crowds in the process, but only rarely were they given a leading part in a motion picture--those names including many of our honorees this month such as Edward Everett Horton, William Bendix, Zasu Pitts, Frank Morgan and Billie Burke; and Academy Award® winners such as Fay Bainter, Thomas Mitchell, Barry Fitzgerald and threetime Supporting Actor Oscar® winner Walter Brennan. And do expect the unexpected: we'll be bringing you the great Marjorie Main not in her most famous role as Ma Kettle, but instead in a genuine supporting role in The Long, Long Trailer with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. If your favorite character star isn't among this month's list, it's simply because there are so many who deserve recognition.
For me, personally, I have for years had particularly warm feelings for this rare and talented entity know as a "character star." It was a character star who was responsible for me initially going to California and being able to start working there. Her name was Jane Darwell, an Oscar® winner as Best Supporting Actress for her work as Henry Fonda's mother in John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath. Miss Darwell and I did a play together in Seattle after which she encouraged me to go to California where she could introduce me to some agents (a necessity in those days, the 1960s), which she did, becoming my mentor, friend and, unexpectedly, my landlord (for two years I rented a guest house she and her family had built in the back of her San Fernando Valley property). From there, I was also able to witness first hand how tough it was for character stars like Jane Darwell to survive once Hollywood's "studio system" had collapsed and the TV era in Hollywood took over. Character stars like her were no longer put under contract to studios; they were, in fact, lucky to get one good role a year in a film and only an occasional day of work on a TV episode. Few had enough money to keep afloat in that change of dynamics. But that, as they say, is another story...and one that we'll explore at another time.
Meanwhile, do come join us Tuesdays and Thursdays throughout April for some of the best comics, actors and spellbinders we've ever had the pleasure of bringing you in a single month.
by Robert Osborne