Saturday, September 17, 2011

In praise of lesser men and women

I was watching an episode of "Have Gun Will Travel," late 1950's western starring Richard Boone. As with a lot of vintage TV shows and movies, part of the fun is seeing Famous stars back in their salad days as extras or members of the supporting cast.

In this particular episode the guest star was John Abbott, a character actor I had seen many times before. Character actors don't seem to get much attention with the general public. After all, they're never the stars of the show, and often just have a scene or two. And they basically play the same part over and over.

John Abbott was such an actor, usually appearing as an urbane villain or eccentric intellectual, always speaking with a cultured British accent. In the episode "Shot by Request," he plays a scholar who, for self-preservation, learns to handle a gun and ends up earning a reputation as a gunfighter (so this was one of those eccentric intellectual roles).

On a whim, I decided to look him up to see what other films I had seen him in. And what I got was a little surprising. Because this person who I had never really thought much about had a long and distinguished career beyond his typecast roles.

John Abbott (1905-1996) was a well-respected Shakespearean actor before coming to the United States in the 1940's and started working in films. He was as cultured in real life as he appeared on screen -- in addition to working with some of the greatest classical actors of his day (such as Laurence Olivier), Abbott served with the British Embassy in Moscow when the Second World War broke out.

He worked extensively on stage (and was to have originated the lead role in "Harvey"), and actually had a play written in verse for him -- by Tennessee Williams. And he also taught the art of acting to a rising generation of future stars (and character actors). And he also did voice over work, appearing as the wolf in Disney's "The Jungle Book."

It was an impressive career.

And that got me thinking:

John Abbott was but one of many actors who appear fleetingly in films, TV shows and stage dramas that never reach "stardom."

How many others are there whose creative lives were far richer than their stereotyped roles might suggest?

I'll be paying even more attention than ever to those "other" actors!

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