Wednesday 3 May 2023

Give a Whit

How’s this for a cast—Cesar Romero, Sid Melton, Acquanetta, Whit Bissell and Hugh Beaumont?

They don’t make movies like them any more, do they?

But they did. This is part of the cast of the 1951 classic Lost Continent.

Whit Bissell seems to have been in every science fiction film ever made. Of course you know he appeared on the science fiction TV show The Time Tunnel. I’ve lost track of the other places I spotted him over the years. Someone, somewhere, I thought, must have interviewed him.

Well, the correct answer is “yes.” As a treat for all you Whit Bissell fans out there, I’m going to post a couple. This is from the Durham Morning Herald of Jan. 27, 1952.

In New York
‘Vastly Greater Opportunities'
NEW YORK — Whit Bissell, a successful actor in theater, films and television who had his dramatic start with the University of North Carolina Playmakers, has ample reason for saying that New York offers vastly greater opportunities for his profession than Hollywood.
He was speaking of this city's control of television and its proximity to the training ground of the Summer theaters— and of what these two factors meant to beginning actors.
But he might also have been referring to New York as the mecca of seasoned character actors such as himself.
Bissell forsook Hollywood — for the moment at least — and came to New York in November 1951. Since then he has been in six video productions — or as many as was physically possible, rehearsal schedules being what they are. Bissell's first New York television assignment was in the soap opera "The Egg and I” in a role which is quiescent for the moment but which will be written into the script again.
Works Christmas
He was next in "Crime Syndicated," then in “Television Playhouse." He rehearsed all Christmas afternoon for "The Web," which went on the air the night after Christmas. Then followed a lead in "Out There," a science fiction drama, and another in “Studio One,” in which he was directed by former Carolina Playmaker Paul Nickell.
Recently Bissell has been in Florida shooting outdoor scenes for a drama on "The Big Story." The action Is supposed to take place In Niagara Falls, N. Y., but the producers of the program, in search of sunshine and a pack of bloodhounds to be used in the search for a killer, chose Tampa. The program will be presented Feb. 22.
Bissell came to television with a solid background in the movies, and, before that, considerable experience on the stage. He went to Hollywood shortly before his wartime service, was in "Destination Tokyo," and returned there after the war for good roles in such movies as "He Walked by Night,” "Brute Force," "Anna Lucasta,” "The Great Missouri Raid," and others.
Pictures Coming
Upcoming for release are M-G-M's "The Sellout," which stars Walter Pidgeon and John Hodiak, and Paramount's "Red Mountain,” which has Alan Ladd in it.
While still in private school in Connecticut, Bissell decided he wanted to be an actor. It was a sort of law of nature at his school that its students enrolled at Yale, Harvard or Princeton, and Bissell seemed headed toward Yale.
But the late Prof. George Pierce Baker, the eminent professor of dramatic art. told him that he should wait until his graduate study days before turning to his chosen field.
Bissell's impatience with such waiting dovetailed nicely with a report which his father, the late Dr. Dougal Bissell, brought him.
Dr. Bissell, a native of Charleston, S. C., and one of its most prominent citizens, who had migrated to New York eventually to become surgeon emeritus of the Woman’s Hospital, happened to stop off in Chapel Hill during a visit in the South.
No Waiting
Friends introduced him to Prof. Frederick H. Koch, who was doing great things with the famous Carolina Playmakers. The father reported to the son that Chapel Hill was a good place to go—and there'd be no waiting four years before he'd have opportunity to paint a piece of scenery or act a few lines.
Bissell enrolled at the University—and has the highest of praise for the grounding that it gave him in the theater. He was graduated in 1932 and was accepted for special training In Eva LeGallienne's Civic Repertory Theater. His first Broadway performance was in the "Hamlet" production which had John Gielgud as its star. Others included "Room Service" on tour, "As You Like It," "The American Way " and "Two on an Island.”
He met Adrienne Marden, who had a lead in “The Woman.” They were soon wed and started out their married life as the juvenile and ingenue leads in "The American Way." They now have two children, Kathy, seven years old, and Victoria, three.
Bissell hasn't decided whether he will make New York his home. He wants to see if television is going to take the trek to Hollywood that radio did.

Television moved to Hollywood and so did Bissell. This gave him a chance to appear in I Was a Teenage Werewolf, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (with Phyllis Coates) and The Amazing Colossal Man (all 1957). His TV career was diverse, with guest shots on Peter Gunn, The Outer Limits and Petticoat Junction.

He also ran afoul of right-wing zealots. Bissell was one of dozens and dozens of actors who signed an ad in the Hollywood Reporter in 1947 denouncing the treatment of actor Larry Parks by a Committee in Washington, D.C. investigating Communists. (Among the other names were Jim Backus, Henry Morgan, Alan Reed and Howard Duff).

Bissell retired to the Motion Picture and Television Fund’s Country House and Hospital. Michael Arkush of the Los Angeles Times wrote a feature story on some of the people living there, including Bissell. This was published on Aug. 16, 1991 and was syndicated.

At 81, the face isn't familiar anymore. He plays all his scenes in slow motion these days. Without cameras.
Whit Bissell may be in retirement, but his five decades as an actor live on in celluloid. And in memories.
"I always wanted to be a character actor," said Bissell, who fulfilled his lifetime ambition in films such as "The Desperate Hours" (1955), "Gunfight at the OK Corral" (1957), "Creature From the Black Lagoon" (1954) and "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962). Many younger fans remember him best for his two-year stint as the general in the science-fiction television series "The Time Tunnel" (1966-67).
Going back in time still comes naturally to him. The scene is 1946. The war is over, but Bissell has a new battle—unemployment. Low on money and confidence, he is bailed out by his friend, veteran actor Fredric March, who won an Academy Award for "The Best Years of Our Lives."
It made Bissell's year too.
"He asked me if I could use any money," Bissell recalled. "And then he went into his den and handed me a $1,000 check. I damn near fainted. It was such a great gesture that I knew I could make it."
And he did. Bissell didn't conquer Hollywood; he survived it, which may be even more impressive. That includes blacklisting.
"For six months, I couldn't get a job," said Bissell, who was identified as a communist. "I was in a blind alley, and I didn't know what they were saying."
In 1954, Bissell bounced back in "The Caine Mutiny," working with Humphrey Bogart. He didn't retire until 1989. He developed tight friendships with some of Hollywood's elite, including John Gielgud and Bette Davis.
Bissell is still hard on himself.
"I'm not complaining, but I didn't stretch myself as an actor," said Bissell, who often played the mild-mannered authority figure. "I got stereotyped." (Ironically, though, perhaps his best-known movie role remains the mad psychiatrist who turns young Michael Landon into a beast in the 1957 cult favorite, "I Was a Teenage Werewolf.")
These days, Bissell is comfortable at the Woodland Hills facility. His health has dramatically improved since he became a resident two years ago. But something is missing.
"I'd like to have another good part," he said. "If anyone offered me a part tomorrow, I'd jump at it."

Bissell rested in retirement a few more years. He died in 1996. No doubt his cult films will live on, because they don’t make movies like them any more.


  1. Bissell did so much. Appeared in most genres. Dependable, familiar face. Solid actor. But, his Science Fiction films alone will keep his legacy alive for loyal many fans.

  2. "Rock climbing."

  3. Seems like he's the guy in The Magnificent Seven that won't bury the Native American.