By Glenn Lovell
During my last conversation with the ubiquitous William Schallert, who died a week ago at age 93, I kept thinking, “Man, oh, man, if this guy ever decided to shoot from the hip, ‘tell all’ in the parlance of the tabloids, he would unleash a serious shit storm in Hollywood.”
A list of Schallert’s directors — William Wyler, William Wellman, John Huston, Vincent Minnelli, Raoul Walsh, among them — reads like a Who’s Who of Legendary Filmmakers.
We talked about the Kirk Douglas cult classic “Lonely Are the Brave,” its arduous New Mexico locations. Schallert, who played an annoying, gum-snapping deputy opposite Walter Matthau’s sheriff, recalled the modern-day Western about a loner who refuses to be hogtied as being much ahead of its time, a project that, in his words, “oozed integrity.”
“Boy, talk about a current topic!” he enthused. “It was about illegal aliens, a lone hero trying to overcome technology, a cowboy who wouldn’t desert his horse. There are all sorts of things to love about that film.”
But it did not fare well at the box office. Schallert recalled an Orange County sneak preview where the Douglas vehicle was paired with a Hammer horror movie starring Christopher Lee. “The horror film was in vivid color, ours was in black and white. It was largely a teen-age audience. They loved the horror film and were bored with ‘Lonely Are the Brave.’ They didn’t boo it, they just didn’t get it.”
While nothing he hadn’t heard before, I told Schallert that he was an invaluable research tool and deserved his own as-told-to biography. (I had just written about John Sturges in “Escape Artist.”) He shrugged off the notion. He doubted he could add much to the discourse.
Typical Schallert — humble, low-key, self-effacing. Qualities that come through in many of his supporting performances.
I salted away the idea of calling him and again pitching that biography. But as these things have a way of doing, it kept being put off … and put off.
And now it’s too late.
Not surprisingly, the obits played up Schallert’s sizable TV work and union activism (he championed residual pay as SAG president). To hear AP tell it, the most important thing the lanky, ever-in-demand utility actor did in his almost 70 years before the camera: the father/uncle in “The Patty Duke Show” (1963-’66).
Barely mentioned were his performances in such classics as “The Reckless Moment” (Max Ophuls), “The Red Badge of Courage” (John Huston), and “Singin’ in the Rain” (Gene Kelly-Stanley Donen).
He also had bit parts in three Don Siegel films, including the gritty docudrama “Riot in Cell Block 11,” Wyler’s “Friendly Persuasion,” Wellman’s “The High and the Mighty,” Minnelli’s “Some Came Running,” and Sturges’s OK Corral reunion “Hour of the Gun.”
Fans of fantasy and sci-fi have always had a particular fondness for the actor. He appeared in such genre staples as “Mighty Joe Young,” “The Man from Planet X,” “The Monolith Monster,” “Them!,” “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” “Gremlins,” and “Colossus: The Forbid Project.” In the latter, about a renegade supercomputer, he plays the Director of the CIA who, when he realizes he’s about to be nuked, flashes momentary dread and then, as he lights a cigarette, what-the-hell acceptance.
His best roles? I’d have to go with what he described as his “bone-headed deputy” in “Lonely Are the Brave” and, opposite Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier, his ameliorable Georgia mayor in the Oscar-winning “In the Heat of the Night.”
“Walter (Matthau) and I made a good team on ‘Lonely Are the Brave,’ ” he said. “We were able to make amusing and ironic comments about what was going on.”