Richard Carlson Profile
Carlson made his Broadway debut in 1937, in Now You've Done It, written by Harvey playwright Mary Coyle Chase. He would return to the Great White Way five more times over the next two years, appearing alongside Ethel Barrymore in Sidney Howard's The Ghost of Yankee Doodle and Mazo de la Roche's Whiteoaks. Carlson's professional relationship with Howard won him a meeting with David O. Selznick in Hollywood, which resulted in a contract as an actor-writer-director. Meanwhile, Carlson's original play Western Waters was given a brief Broadway staging at the Hudson Theatre, with Van Heflin in the lead role. Sporting a Highlands brogue and matching tartan kilt, Carlson made his feature film debut as Janet Gaynor's Scottish beau in the Richard Wallace comedy The Young in Heart (1938). With his collegiate good looks, Carlson was well-suited for his romantic leading man assignments in Beyond Tomorrow and The Howards of Virginia (both 1940) - typecasting he turned on its head as the surprise villain of the Bob Hope comedy The Ghost Breakers (1940).
Carlson won a straight man part in the Abbott and Costello comedy Hold That Ghost (1941) but his big break came with playing Teresa Wright's newsman inamorata in The Little Foxes (1941), a role not found in Lillian Hellman's original stage play but created by fiat of producer Samuel Goldwyn to provide a sympathetic male figure to contrast with star Bette Davis' amoral anti-heroine. Through the decade, Carlson was paired as a first or second male lead with several notable leading ladies, among them Margaret Sullavan in Back Street (1941), White Cargo (1942) with Hedy Lamarr, and Presenting Lily Mars (1943) with Judy Garland. Carlson served with the United States Navy during World War II but found upon at the time of his discharge that acting jobs were few and far between. Pushing forty, Carlson was edged out of his earlier stock-in-trade and began to play more mature characters, such as the sardonic shamus hero of Budd Boetticher's Behind Locked Doors (1948), who has himself declared mentally unfit in order to expose a murder conspiracy within a lunatic asylum.
Carlson enjoyed a return to prominence with third billing in the safari adventure King Solomon's Mines (1950), which starred Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr and included a working vacation in Nairobi. The actor took a stab at screwball comedy in A Millionaire for Christy (1951), holding his own alongside leads Fred MacMurray and Eleanor Parker, and traveled to England to play the detective hero of Whispering Smith Hits London (1952). Carlson was the brainy hero of Curt Siodmak's The Magnetic Monster (1953), a low budget sci-fi romp. Written and directed by Curt Siodmak, the film's principal production value came via footage pilfered from the German language Gold (1934). Though The Magnetic Monster was no more than a quick paycheck for Carlson, the film would point him toward a comeback as the star of a string of science fiction programmers for Universal-International. The first of these was Jack Arnold's 3D It Came from Outer Space (1953), with the now fortyish Carlson playing an astronomer who almost single handedly forestalls an invasion by extraterrestrials who duplicate the inhabitants of a small desert town. The role would serve as a template for Carlson's further excursions into the genre.
At a time when Carlson might have expected his roles to go to younger men he remained in demand as a thinking man's man of action. His next assignment was the Allied Artists release The Maze (1953), another 3D sci-fi adventure directed by William Cameron Menzies and featuring Carlson as a Yank called to his ancestral Scottish home to deal with an horrific family secret. Carlson took the lead in Universal-International's Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), putting himself between leggy marine biologist Julie Adams and an amphibian missing link known as The Gill-Man. Designed by Disney animator Milicent Patrick, the Creature was Universal's most original monster creation since Frankenstein (1931) and Carlson proved an athletic and compassionate hero. Though the film spawned two sequels, Carlson was conspicuous in his absence, having landed the lead role as a globetrotting government agent in the weekly television series I Led 3 Lives (1953-1956). Between seasons, Carlson made his debut as a director with Riders to the Stars (1954), a pre-Space Age tale of deep space travel produced by Ivan Tors and written by Curt Siodmak.
Over the next ten years, Carlson divided his time between acting and directing, helming low budget programmers and episodes of The Loretta Young Show and The Detectives. As a jobbing actor, he brought gravitas to Bert I. Gordon's Tormented (1960), playing a profit killer hagged by a vengeful ghost. Carlson returned to genre storytelling periodically, heading a 1962 episode of the horror omnibus Thriller and in a 1964 episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea while playing "Mr. Fiction Writer" in three educational shorts directed by Frank Capra for the Bell Laboratory Science Series. Carlson was an academic red herring in George Pal's think tank murder mystery The Power (1968) and Jim O'Connolly's Valley of the Gwangi (1969), a cowboys v. dinosaur romp enlivened by the stop motion effects of Ray Harryhausen. His final feature film found him cast as a Catholic bishop in the Elvis Presley vehicle Change of Habit (1969). Retired to a home in the San Fernando Valley, only a few miles from the studios in which he had once plied his trade, Richard Carlson succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage on November 24, 1977.
by Richard Harland Smith