Friday, 6 July 2012

William Schallert

Bill Schallert turns 90 today. He’s been one of Hollywood’s busiest character actors for decades, playing easy-going, warm guys in comedies and conscienceless, nasty ones in dramas. But he almost never became a ubiquitous face in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s because of real-life conscienceless, nasty people.

Schallert is a favourite with many TV audiences in many genres but he wasn’t a favourite with the American Legion in the Blacklist Era. In the early ‘50s, he signed a petition protesting the bullies on the House Un-American Activities Committee coldly destroying the lives of the Hollywood Ten through fear-mongering. Schallert told EqualityOnTrial that the Legion therefore considered him a “red” and threatened MGM with picketing every film he was credited in, even though he was only a day-player.

I once tried to get into a picture called “The Egyptian” where I would play a significant role, and I had contact with a guy who said he’d make a call for me to see if they would test me. And I remember sitting in his office and he mentioned me, and then he stopped and turned to me and says ‘I’m sorry. They say you’re not employable.’...That was like being shot. Apparently that only applied in the case of a couple of the studios and it only applied if I was trying to get a large part.

Fortunately, Schallert continued with stage work and as the red-baiting died, he found more and more work on television. As a regular weekly character, too. He went from four seasons on “Dobie Gillis” into three seasons on “The Patty Duke Show.” He almost had a couple of other series at the same time. His live action/animated comedy “Philbert” never aired, and a sitcom version of “Archie” didn’t ring up a sale. Pilots of both were made.

In honour of Bill’s birthday, let’s give you a couple of newspaper clippings about him. First, a feature piece from the Milwaukee Sentinel of January 3, 1960. Oddly, there’s no mention of Dobie Gillis, unless Schallert thinks of Mr. Pomfitt as “acidulous.”

William Schallert. . .
He Acts His Age—at Last!
“THIS IS MY first time around as a law officer,” says William Schallert, who plays Police Lt. Manny Harris on the Philip Marlowe series (8:30 p.m. Tuesday, WISN-TV).
“I’ve been the victim and the murderer many times but never a police lieutenant. This is more fun,” he declares. “I don’t get eliminated in the first episode and I’ve got a steady job. That’s pretty important when you have a wife and three children.”
Older Roles
For Schallert, 34, the role affords another change of pace. He is playing his own age. An actor since 1947, he has been cast innumerable times in parts which ranged from 50 to 90 years of age. The first time he stepped on-stage as a student at UCLA in 1942, Schallert played Corbaccio, the 85-year-old miser in “Volpone.” “That’s probably what got me started in the oldsters’ direction,” he said, “but it wasn’t too hard to take when I wound up some years later playing the Rev. Davidson opposite June Havoc in ‘Rain’ and Sir Peter Teazle with Marie Windsor in ‘School for Scandal.’”
Started in Stock
A native son of a native son of Los Angeles (Edwin Schallert, the respected, recently-retired drama editor of the Los Angeles Times), young Schallert was graduated from UCLA in 1946. He started acting in the Los Angeles Circle Theater and subsequently appeared in West Coast stock companies and the national company of “The Cocktail Party.” Then he spent a year in England on a Fulbright fellowship to study directing and theater management at the Old Vic, Stratford, and at various repertory theaters throughout the country.
According to Schallert, who is currently seen in the movies “Pillow Talk,” “The Gallant Hours” and “Some Came Running,” this is the heyday of the character actor. “The variety of television parts available is fantastic,” he says. “In the past year, for instance, I have appeared as: An old feuding hillbilly; a vicious prosecuting attorney; an intelligent psychiatrist; a submarine commander; a blind ex-tennis player; a priest; a bartender; a hard-bitten Civil War major; an acidulous high-school teacher; a bowerty bum and now Police Lt. Manny Harris.”
Likes TV
Schallert has a few words for the actors who lament the good old days of stock or vaudeville.
“Television is really better in every way except one,” he said. “First, you are better paid. Working conditions and hours are much improved. You have more time to prepare for your part so you can do a better job and you have the advantage of seeing what you have done. The only lack is the live audience. This is why actors return to the stage as often as possible. It’s like getting a blood transfusion.
Regarding his family and his career, Schallert, who has been married for 10 years, said: “Unlike many actors, I have never worked at anything else even when things were very rough financially. I hated to get distracted . . . Fortunately my wife, Lia Waggner, is an actress, so she went along with the idea . . . And our three boys, aged 9, 7 and 5, had to go along . . . whether they liked it or not.

And here’s un an unbylined interview picked up by the Sandusky Register for its edition of October 28, 1963.

TV Is Not Bill Schallert’s Only Talent; There’s More
There is a man of many talents starring alongside of Patty Duke in ABC-TV’s new comedy, “The Patty Duke Show.” His name is William Schallert and he is seen regularly as the constantly bedeviled father of Patty, Martin Lane.
Bill, along with being recognized as a “solid pro” by those inside the acting profession, is a serious composer, a professional singer, a concert pianist, directs, produces, has lectured on theatre at Oxford University and was a fighter pilot during World War II.
“I guess you might say I’ve never been afraid to take a chance," says Bill when queried about his full life. “But then if I didn't have the right attitude how could I be a freelancer in this uncertain business?”
Bill has been following the road of the free-lance artist since 1951. His credits include featured roles in most of television’s outstanding dramatic programs; co-starring roles in ABC-TV’s “Philip Marlowe,” and “Dobie Gillis;” featured roles in motion pictures and a long list of credits on the legitimate stage.
“When I started UCLA I thought I wanted to be a composer,” Schallert recalls, “but after a bit I suddenly had a sneaking suspicion that I wasn’t really cut out for it. Then I took a crack at singing and playing the piano. They were all fun, but my first role in a campus production of “Volpone” made up my mind for me."
Choosing acting as his profession did not stop Schallert from graduating from UCLA with a B.A.; composing music for a number of professional stage productions; singing professionally with the Roger Wagner Chorale; folk-singing or playing the piano seriously, as he still does when he has the chance.
“At the beginning of my acting career I always felt more comfortable hiding behind elaborate characterizations,” Bill went on. "I did so many old men that I got into the bad habit of clutching at my clothes and pulling my mouth down. I must say it was nice when I finally came complete circle and started playing roles calling for men my own age.
“I’m delighted with my role in the series. It not only gave me a chance to come East, but to work in comedy. Ever since I was a kid I have enjoyed making people laugh. And working with Patty is a ball. She's so charming and such a fine comedienne. Sometimes during a take it's all I can do to keep from laughing on camera."
Schallert, according to Patty, is also no slouch at breaking people up, on or off camera.
“There’s also one more hidden benefit in the role that I’ve refrained from mentioning,” concluded a smiling Schallert. “With four boys at home, it’s quite a treat being father to a daughter. Never know when the extra experience will come in handy.”

Bill Schallert is still working today. He landed a role on “True Blood” and appeared in the mini-series “Bag of Bones.” Read this story from the Los Angeles Times marking his birthday last year.

What’s my favourite Schallert role? Probably as the voice of Milton the Toaster, who sold ‘Pop Tarts’ in the ‘70s. His most interesting may be in the “Philbert” pilot, produced by Warner Bros. Television. ABC picked it up in February 1962 and Variety reported that month that ad agencies had already pencilled it in for broadcast that fall on Sunday nights at 7. But something happened. Schallert explained to the L.A. Times on April 5, 1966:
I did come close to a lead one, though. This was a pilot I made for a series called Filbert [sic]. I played a cartoonist whose little character comes to life and sort of takes over guiding my destinies. The people who created that great
animation for ‘The Pink Panther’ were behind the idea.
However, when they figured production costs would be $75,000 per episode, they decided a top name was needed to assure success. So they gave up the project. For me, it was a hard pill to swallow.
Warners got some use out of it, releasing it to theatres about April 1963 as a featurette. You can watch part of it below and wish a happy birthday to a fine actor.

My thanks to Mark Kausler for getting me the Philbert story.


  1. David H. DePatie would have been in charge of the animation department when "Philbert" was made. He told me that he tried to get the WB Animation Department to enter the world of television animation in the wake of Hanna-Barbera's success, but Jack Warner and co. was dead-set against that. He never understood it, since one of the first things he did when he got the job was to sell "The Bugs Bunny Show" for television.

  2. Happy Birthday, Mr.Pop Up TOaster (my favorite role of his..).:)

    Have you eaten any Pop Tarts lately?:)Steve

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. "In The Heat Of The Night" (1967) had William as Mayor Schubert of Sparta, Mississippi. Though lean, and unassuming to a casual observer, William projected the character's power well. You could sense the bigotry in Schubert's heart, but he was bright and well able to see that times were changing. When a captain of industry who would have improved the town's economy was murdered and the most capable investigator (Sidney Poitier) was black, Schubert pressed the sheriff (Rod Steiger) to retain said black as a detective instead of a colored vagrant.

    Another cast member was Larry D. Mann (voice of Blue Racer and Crazylegs Crane, then Big Boss in a series of commercials starting in 1981) as an uncouth councilman. Mann's big 9-0 will come in December.