Family & Companions
His stooped posture, desiccated appearance, and frog-like speaking voice made William Hickey a natural to play weirdoes in Hollywood films - a résumé that belied his distinguished career in theatre. Developing a taste for performing as a child at the Henry Street Settlement on Manhattan's Lower East Side, Hickey began teaching acting after World War II and joined the staff of Uta Hagen and Herbert Berghof's acclaimed HB Studio in Greenwich Village in 1957. Better known as an acting coach than as an actor, Hickey guided the likes of Steve McQueen and Barbra Streisand while playing bits in such films as "The Boston Strangler" (1968), "Little Big Man" (1970), and "Mikey and Nicky" (1976). John Huston had cast him in a small role in "Wise Blood" (1979) but called the 57-year-old actor back to play an octogenarian Mafia don in "Prizzi's Honor" (1985), which earned Hickey an Oscar nomination and a measure of popular appeal. For horror movie fans, he was unforgettable as the "Puppetmaster" (1989), as the millionaire who hires a hitman to kill his cat in "Tales from the Darkside: The Movie" (1990), and as the voice of the mad Dr. Finkelstein in Tim Burton's stop-motion fantasia "The Nightmare Before Christmas" (1993). Diagnosed with emphysema, Hickey continued to work exhaustively in films and television. He was teaching up to two weeks before his death in July 1997, showing his commitment to the craft that had changed his life and enabled him to make a living.
William Edward Hickey was born in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, NY on Sept. 19, 1927. The second child and only son of Edward and Nora Hickey, he manifested a gift for performing at an early age. With the encouragement of both parents, Hickey began acting as a child and appeared on the radio for the first time at age nine. An interest in theatre drew him to the Henry Street Settlement, a community center on Manhattan's Lower East Side. A magnet for aimless youths during the Great Depression, the Settlement had been the first home of the esteemed acting school The Neighborhood Playhouse and after his high school graduation, Hickey found work teaching theatre to children. An important early stage credit for the young actor was in an off-Broadway revival of Irwin Shaw's anti-war drama "Bury the Dead." Equally crucial was his association with actors Uta Hagen and Herbert Berghof, with whom he began to study his craft in their Greenwich Village-based HB Studio. In 1950, Hickey made his Broadway debut in the ensemble of the Theatre Guild's revival of Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan," starring Hagen.
Hickey began teaching at HB Studios in 1957, the year he made his television and feature film debuts. The actor's emaciated, almost cadaverous appearance made him a natural for playing unsavory types, among them the dope pusher Apples in "A Hatful of Rain" (1957), starring Don Murray as a heroin-addicted Korean war vet, and as one of the legion of lowlifes encountered by Beverly Garland's policewoman heroine in the syndicated "Decoy" (1957), the first American TV series based around the exploits of a female cop. Hickey popped up as a G.I. in the military comedy "Operation Mad Ball" (1957), starring Jack Lemmon and Ernie Kovacs, but his decision to remain based in Manhattan kept him out of Hollywood features for several years. He filled the interim with additional stage work, with teaching, and with roles on such New York-based series as "Studio One" (CBS, 1948-1958), "The DuPont Show of the Month" (CBS, 1957-1961) and "The Phil Silvers Show" (CBS, 1955-59), appearing on the latter as the draft-age son of a Detroit industrialist who gets the worst of Sgt. Bilko's Do-It-Yourself Basic Training Kit.
Little more than an extra in Jack Garfein's independent feature "Something Wild" (1961), Hickey made a proper return to films in Richard Wilson's Western "Invitation to a Gunfighter" (1964), filmed on the Universal backlot. The prematurely graying actor was given little screen time as one of three crippled Civil War veterans who serve as a Greek chorus for this tale of a returning Confederate soldier (George Segal) forced to take on a remorseless hired gun (Yul Brynner). Fairly invisible in his initial screen outings, Hickey's visibility improved as he hit middle age and he became a reliable weirdo for Hollywood films. He was a comic drunk in Mel Brooks' "The Producers" (1968) and gave murderous Tony Curtis a run for his money as a sexual deviant in Richard Fleischer's "The Boston Strangler" (1968). He played it straight as the historian who interviews Dustin Hoffman in the wraparound scenes of Arthur Penn's "Little Big Man" (1970) but was back to walking the wild side as Rod Steiger's Nagasaki-haunted buddy in the Kurt Vonnegut adaptation "Happy Birthday, Wanda June" (1971). The film was poorly received by critics and moviegoers alike and its failure drove Hickey back into theatre work.
Having contributed an unbilled cameo to Elaine May's black comedy "A New Leaf" (1971), Hickey had more lines in the role of gangster Sanford Meisner's partner in May's downbeat drama "Mikey and Nicky" (1976), starring Peter Falk as a syndicate man assigned to kill childhood friend John Cassavetes. He was a dodgy locksmith in the all-star horror extravaganza "The Sentinel" (1977), and a pathetic drunk gussied up by con man Ned Beatty to play a sidewalk evangelist in John Huston's "Wise Blood" (1979). By this time celebrated more for his teaching - his roster of former students included Steve McQueen and Barbra Streisand - Hickey's film career was negligible until Huston hired him to play a decrepit Mafia don in "Prizzi's Honor" (1985), opposite Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner. Not yet 60 years old, the actor shaded his octogenarian kingpin with a deft feathering of infantilism and menace that was both comical and deeply disturbing. Hickey received an Oscar nomination for his performance, after which he enjoyed an uptake in the volume of film offers - though the quality of many of these productions often left something to be desired.
Though his screen time amounted to mere seconds, Hickey was amusing as a sardonic Coney Island sideshow barker in "Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins" (1985), and was memorable as a 14th Century Franciscan monk who betrays an appreciation for female beauty in the murder mystery "The Name of the Rose" (1986). Through the ensuing years, Hickey worked with the top tier of Hollywood talent, supporting Clint Eastwood in "Pink Cadillac" (1989), Al Pacino in "Sea of Love" (1989), Chevy Chase in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" (1989), and Steve Martin in "My Blue Heaven" (1990). He also set aside time in his work schedule for the more down-market likes of "One Crazy Summer" (1986), starring a pre-stardom John Cusack and Demi Moore, the killer marionettes programmer "Puppetmaster" (1989), and the George Romero omnibus "Tales from the Darkside: The Movie" (1990), as an aged millionaire who hires a hitman to murder his cat. On the small screen, Hickey was nominated for an Emmy for an episode of HBO's "Tales from the Crypt" (1989-1996) and enjoyed semi-regular status on the short-lived "Baby Talk" (ABC, 1991-92).
For producer Tim Burton and director Henry Selick, Hickey gave the loan of his distinctive croaking voice to the character of Dr. Finkelstein in the stop-motion "The Nightmare Before Christmas" (1993). Confined to a motorized wheelchair and holding court from a Gothic tower, Finkelstein was a coy melding of Drs. Frankenstein and Strangelove, a character cocktail clearly relished by the actor. A lifelong smoker, Hickey had by this time developed emphysema, which slowed his pace but hardly his workload. In addition to appearing in the recurring role of doddering retiree Carlton Blanchard on the airport sitcom "Wings" (NBC, 1990-97), Hickey turned up in "Major Payne" (1995), "The Jerky Boys" (1995), and "Forget Paris" (1995), with Billy Crystal and Debra Winger. His final film role was in Gore Verbinski's "Mousehunt" (1997), as an aged string factory magnate whose death sets the slapstick comedy in hyperbolic motion. Hickey continued to teach acting up to two weeks before his death from emphysema and bronchitis on June 29, 1997. He was 69 years old.
by Richard Harland Smith
Cast (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Began acting career on radio at the age of nine (date approximate)
Acted off-Broadway at age 20 in the play, "Bury the Dead"; studied acting with Uta Hagen and Herbert Berghof at their HB Studios (date approximate)
Broadway debut, "Saint Joan"; production starred Uta Hagen, with Hickey as an extra
Worked as assistant stage manager and actor in "Tovarich" on Broadway
Film debut, "A Hatful of Rain"
Began teaching acting at the Herbert Berghof Studio in New York
First TV special, played the Artful Dodger in "Oliver Twist" ("Dupont Show of the Month")
Stage directing debut, "All You Need Is One Good Break" at the Phoenicia Playhouse, Phoenicia NY
Returned to feature films after a decade to act in Mel Brooks' fondly remembered satire, "The Producers"
Last film for six years, John Huston's "Wise Blood"
Acted in an off-Broadway revival of the Moliere play, "Don Juan", directed by Richard Foreman
Succeeded Philip Pleasants in the role of Ralph Waldo Emerson in the off-Broadway play, "Romance Language"
Began acting regularly on TV with a role in his first TV-movie, "Izzy and Moe"
Returned to features to act a breakthrough role in another John Huston film, "Prizzi's Honor"; received an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor
Acted the role of Dr. Einstein on Broadway in the revival of the 1940s Joseph Kesselring farce, "Arsenic and Old Lace"
Final features, "Twisted" and "Mousehunt" (released posthumously)