Character actors are every bit as essential to a great film as the the top-billed stars. And a character actor can also make an otherwise mediocre film something that approaches watchable. I don't want to use the cliche that they are the "glue that holds a film together", but there would definitely be something missing if not for these wonderful people.
As a part of this weekend's What A Character! Blogathon, I'm going to talk about one of my favorites: Whit Bissell.
I won't go into great details about where Bissell is from, how many times he was married, and all of the regular biographical stuff. Those things are easily found on IMDB or that bastion of "accuracy", Wikipedia. No, I prefer to just talk about the work and the overall impression someone has left.
According to IMDB, Whit Bissell has 312 acting credits to his name, although many of those roles are actually uncredited, starting with 1940's The Sea Hawk, in which he plays a guard. In fact, most of his roles from 1940 through about 1956 or 1957 were uncredited. Imagine 16 years of not being included in the credits of something you worked so hard to accomplish!
I can't tell you with 100% certainty where it was that I first saw Bissell, but I'd like to think that it was 1954's Creature from the Black Lagoon. Whether I seek out one of his films or he just surprisingly shows up, Whit Bissell is someone that makes me happy whenever I see him.
Unless you think of someone like a Peter Lorre, Lee J. Cobb, or Agnes Moorehead, sometimes picking a favorite role from a character actor can be tricky. Some actors just show up for a few minutes and are gone in a flash in more of a bit part, and those like the previously mentioned play more substantial supporting roles. I've seen only a fraction of Bissell's film roles, but he seems to fit well in the former category, as he rarely lasts very long. In the case of something like Creature from the Black Lagoon, Bissell can be seen almost peering out from behind the rest of the cast, making only faces in reaction to the others, and speaking all of perhaps 10 lines.
He also shows up (uncredited once again) at the very beginning, and very end, of 1957's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as the doctor listening to Kevin McCarthy's tale of "pod people". He's a skeptic at the end of the story, until another patient's story reveals the truth behind McCarthy's, causing Bissell to ask for authorities to be warned. Again, a small role, but not unimportant.
In the Paul Newman and Patricia Neal vehicle, Hud, Bissell gets the unenviable task of informing Melvyn Douglas that he must cull his entire herd of cattle due to foot-and-mouth disease. He's on screen just long enough to get under Douglas's skin and *poof* he's gone.
And in yet another uncredited role, he plays a psychiatrist in the Navy, tasked with evaluating an out-of-character Humphrey Bogart's paranoid Lt. Commander Queeg in The Caine Mutiny (1954):
My favorite Bissell role, though, is as Senator Frederick Prentice in Seven Days in May, if for no other reason than because of a great exchange between Prentice and Colonel "Jiggs" Casey (Kirk Douglas) at a dinner party. Their conversation revolves around an arms treaty with the Soviet Union (it was a big bad thing for those of you too young to remember it). Senator Prentice is against the treaty, and he asks Casey, who is an assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, how he feels about it:
So, yeah, Prentice gets completely scorched, and he makes only two other small appearances at the beginning and end of the film, but it was this scene that really got me into who Whit Bissell was as an actor. Since then, he's been one of my favorites.
If you haven't seen any of the above films, but you still know you've seen Bissell somewhere, perhaps it was in that episode of Star Trek. You see, he was in perhaps the most famous episode of the original series: "The Trouble with Tribbles." Bissell plays the governor of a space station that is being aided by the Enterprise...and there are some little fuzzy creatures that make their appearance.
But what is it about Bissell? What makes him special? To be honest, there isn't really anything about him that sets him apart from the rest of the individuals being covered this weekend. He's not as boistrous or blustery as Cobb, he doesn't have the immediate recognizability of someone like Martin Balsam, and he doesn't have the creep factor of Peter Lorre. Perhaps it's his more soft-spoken nature that makes him so appealing. He's there, he's quiet, and he moves on.
His typical role is that of a scientist, military officer, or some such intellectual. And although most of his roles may be small, he can be like a precision strike: a few pointed comments, some erudition, perhaps a little humor or skepticism, and he's gone before you know it.
Note, too, that his presence clearly brings out some great things in the actors next to him. Kirk Douglas gets off a good rip, and Jose Ferrer is Tom Cruise's Daniel Kaffee cross-examining Christopher Guest about 40 years early. Each of those scenes is great at the expense of Bissell and his ability to toss the scene up to the big hitter. And in his giving to the bigger players on screen, he gives to us as viewers.
So the next time you watch an old TV show or movie, keep your eyes open for Whit Bissell (whether you're familiar with him or not), pay attention to him, and enjoy his subtlety. You won't be disappointed. Whether he's an antagonist, protagonist, or somewhere in between, Bissell is like a warm blanket to those of us who are fans. If you are participating in a #TCMParty sometime, you may even see this tweeted out by someone: "Whit Bissell...*drink*"; know that it is a tweet of love and a nod to one hell of a character.
Be sure to check out all of the other great entries for the What A Character! Blogathon, and give a huge thanks to Once Upon A Screen (@CitizenScreen), Outspoken & Freckled (@IrishJayhawk66), and Paula's Cinema Club (@Paula_Guthat) for hosting!d