Wednesday, 21 June 2017

He Wants to Be a Ne'er-Do-Well

The chances were pretty good, at one time, you could watch reruns of an old TV show featuring character actor Jesse White, then when the commercial came on, Jesse White would be there, too.

He kind of had two careers. He played con-men and other fast-talkers in the black-and-white sitcom days, and then spent years raking in plenty of cash on TV spots as the Lonely Magtag Repairman. Oh, White did other things; he was part of a great voice cast in the Linus the Lionhearted cartoons, and added his voice to Stan Freberg’s enjoyable record album “History of the United States.” It seems he was continually in demand. He played dramatic roles, too, as Twilight Zone fans will remember.

White’s biggest break may have been in the play “Harvey,” which appeared on Broadway soon after the end of World War Two. White repeated his role in the 1950 film version with Jimmy Stewart. TV aplenty followed, including two series opposite Ann Sothern (before she was a car).

Here are a couple of newspaper pieces with White in his pre-Maytag days. The first was in one of the Atlanta papers on May 20, 1960 but isn’t bylined and could be a handout from his publicity people. It’s about the same old thing—character actors are recognisable but the average fan has no idea who they are.
Cursed with Dishonest Mug, Moans TV’s Jesse White
The face of Jesse White will never inspire confidence in a stranger. It just looks “dishonest.”
White, who has the role of Oscar Pudney, the small-time con artist in The Ann Sothern Show on Ch. 5, has as honest a heart as anyone you could name. But that face . . . It bothers him.
“Everywhere I go,” says White, “I get suspicious looks . . . from the police and from the man in the street. Almost everyone has seen me in movies or on television and they remember my face – but not where they saw it.
“Not everyone assumes that I’m a crook, though. I was eating in a restaurant in Beverly Hills recently when I noticed a woman and her daughter staring at me all through the meal. When they finished they came up to my table and asked me if I’d mind settling an argument they’d had.
“The older woman said she was sure she knew me.
“ ‘Didn’t you,’ she asked, ‘used to deliver meat to us on Beverly Drive.’
“I told her yes.”
The police in Beverly Hills, he says, might be expected to recognize actors when they see them.
“But every once in a while they get a new man on the force,” White notes, “and first thing you know he’s spotted me and thinks he’s seen my face on a ‘wanted’ poster. I have to be very careful always to have identification on me.”
Once, he reports, he was actually hauled in – in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he now owns an apartment house.
“The officer wanted to book me for vagrancy or something while they checked my fingerprints. Fortunately I was able to find an old clipping with my picture on it to prove I wasn’t all 10 of the top public enemies.”
The face, though, has some virtues, White says.
“One way or another I find the face is in demand,” he reports. “For a long time I just played comedy parts – comic cops or comic gangsters, mostly, sometimes a bum or a con artist. Only in the last few years have I played any series ‘heavies’ or villains.
“I like those parts. Comedy is fun, and it pays well, but there’s something satisfying about playing a real mean character. Even my daughter tells me I should be a villain more and not a clown so often. But they also want to see me in a role where I get to kiss the girl. I tell them their mother won’t let me.”
This story is from the pre-Maytag days as well, January 12, 1967, courtesy of the Los Angeles Times syndicate. White talks about typecasting and expects to take a regular role for security reasons when the right one came around. I suspect he didn’t realise it would be a series of TV commercials.
‘Good’ Heavy Jessie White [sic] Regular Without a Series

Times Staff Writer
The face of Jesse White is undoubtedly well-known to millions of television viewers, even if some of them do not know his name. Jesse is a veteran of countless plays, movies and television programs. And while watching him perform in a TV program, chances are you have also seen him in one of the commercials, ranging from the man-in-the-elevator for Chung King chow mein a few years back, to the more recent “Sanapa Noma” wine blurbs for Italian Swiss Colony.
TV Agent
But to millions, Jesse White is still Cagey Calhoun, the fast-talking agent from Private Secretary, the Ann Sothern series that was flourishing on CBS about a decade ago.
“They say there is no audience attachment unless you are in a regular series, but it isn’t so,” said Jesse. “I was in only every third or fourth Private Secretary show, but it had a good reaction. It was amazing the impact of that first show, after doing 15 Broadway plays and 43 movies.”
It was the part of a lovable scoundrel and Jesse played him as a heavy, but with a heart. “You can’t hate him,” said Jesse, but he’d certainly like to forget him.
“It’s an image that I have been trying to dissipate, but they won’t let you,” he lamented. “They think of me with a cigar. I’m the fast-talking type; the Damon Runyon kind of guy you want to bring home to the warden. Producers get a bug about actors – if you play telephone poles, that’s all you’ll ever play. “But I’d say I’ve licked that problem about 60%,” he added. “Thank God there are producers who will let you do something off the beaten path.”
The luxury of variety has included heavy roles as robbers and murderers.
“That’s the kind of part my kids like,” Jesse chuckled. “Every time I get another show they say, ‘Oh, Daddy, I hope it’s not one of those funny parts!’ The gorier it is the better they like it.”
Jesse complements his acting assignments with commercials (“for the last few years they have been one-third to one-half of my gross income”) and TV game and panel shows. Game shows, said Jesse, “are fun; you can be yourself. I’m sorry I didn’t do it a long time ago.”
With all of these things going for Jesse, a series would seem to be the last thing on his mind.
“Let’s say I do just as well now as I would in a series,” Jesse commented. “What I’m doing is rewarding, but we’re talking about building up an estate, and the only way you can do it is with a series.
“And, besides, the way the business seems to be slanting, this is the only answer for an actor who’s been through the mill. It looks to me like the only way.
Still Looking
“I’m sure that one will come along and for some security reason, I’ll take it,” he continued. “I’d like to do a sympathetic role, the sort of thing that Hoss (Dan Blocker) is doing on Bonanza, or Bill Demarest in My Three Sons.
“I want something where I can be myself and have fun with it. You know, sort of the ne’er-do-well Uncle Louie.”
Of course, a series has certain drawbacks in spite of its rewards. For Jesse, it would be a curtailment of his freedom.
“My wife, the kids and I like to travel. I prefer to keep it loose.
“And in a series you have to be in every episode. If they don’t need you in every one, you’re not the top banana. At this point, I feel I have to be the top banana.”
White donned the Maytag uniform for more than 20 years but continued to make movies at the same time. He was pretty much retired when he died of a heart attack a few days after he turned 80 in 1997.


  1. Pretty much a house hold name to my generation. The Maytag Man came later. I had heard there was little love lost between he and Henry Morgan in the stage production of " The Odd Couple ". I suppose some personalities just clash. I know there are plenty of roles he played that were sympathetic( Twilight Zone), or against type, but thanks to typecasting, if it was comedy or drama, I usually saw him cast as an " Operator " of sorts.. Even in " Jonny Quest.

  2. When he wasn't playing a con-man Jesse got to play Danny Thomas agent (same difference?) in the early seasons of "Make Room for Daddy". This one is probably one of the earliest examples of the "A Very Special Episode" genre of sitcoms, as Jesse explains to Danny and Margaret that their houseguest's family was killed by the Nazis in World War II. (Unlike future "Very Special Episodes" they don't really commit to the drama here, despite the dramatic turning point.)

  3. He, like Denver Pyle, was a Perry Mason triple threat: in separate episodes played red herring, victim and murderer.