Saturday, September 22, 2012

What a Character! Blogathon: Meet (Charles) McGraw

This post is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the What a Character! Blogathon that will be jointly hosted from September 22-24 by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema ClubA complete list of the participants and the “amazing characters” (to borrow a phrase from Sydney Greenstreet) which they’ve written about can be found here.

Regular readers of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear are probably familiar with some of the jokes I crack about my father (Ivan, Sr.), and how his discriminating television viewing habits have deteriorated in his twilight years.  He’s more apt to watch shows in which pawn shop owners and auto repossession companies acquire heroic status as opposed to a silly sitcom or an innovative drama.  He’s also a huge political and news junkie, and he tends to watch a lot of MSNBC because it’s a little more in line with his politics.

If I’m not writing something for the blog or engaged in a Radio Spirits project, I’ll sometimes wander out to the living room and plant myself in Count Comfy von Chair…then play with my mother’s laptop computer, reading news articles or skimming blogs as I go.  I’m usually half-listening to the programs my father watches on MSNBC, because regardless of one’s political stripe most of it really is a lot of noise…though I have been known to take a break and watch Rachel Maddow’s show or Up with Chris Hayes on weekends, two of the better political opinion programs.  But a couple of nights ago, I was engrossed with something on the computer while Dad was taking notes on what Ed Schultz was pontificating about:  Ed had as one of his guests Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, who’s engaged in a lively re-election race against Tea Party whacka-do and former State Treasurer Josh Mandel.

I don’t live in Ohio (flatlanders!) and don’t know either gentleman, but Mandel’s argument against turning Brown out seems to be that, according to his website, Brown “was ranked number one Most Liberal Senator two years in a row.”  But if I were an Ohio voter, I would not let that deter me from re-electing the Senator.  That, and if I close my eyes—Sherrod Brown sounds just like Charles McGraw.

Character actors have always been king (and queen) here at TDOY, and a list of my favorites would probably eat up more than my allowance of bandwidth here on the Internets.  But Charlie is in a class all by himself, and it’s all due to that distinctive voice.  Noir czar Eddie Muller once described McGraw’s vocal tones as if someone were being strangled.  In Charles McGraw, Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy, a 2007 biography written by another noir guru, Alan K. Rode, Rode relates an anecdote in which McGraw’s daughter Jill complained to her father that his raspy voice unsettled a lot of her friends and asked if he could do something about it.

“Without the voice, we’d be living in a two-room flat somewhere,” was his response.

Charlie had the versatility to play both leading men and villains, both heroes and heels.  Born in Des Moines, IA as “Charles Butters,” he changed his name to “McGraw” after leaving the New York stage (where he had worked for some time) to get into the picture business, landing an uncredited part in 20th Century Fox’s The Undying Monster (1942).  He paid his dues in small parts in ten additional films (among them Corvette K-225 and The Seventh Cross) before landing the role of one of two titular hit men (the other played by William Conrad) in the adaptation of the Ernest Hemingway short story classic, The Killers (1946).  McGraw then began to solidify his tough-guy reputation in film noirs and westerns like Brute Force (1947), T-Men (1947), The Gangster (1947), Blood on the Moon (1948), Reign of Terror (1949), Border Incident (1949) and Side Street (1950).  Even when he appeared in comedies like The Farmer’s Daughter (1947) or Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town (1950)—if you glimpsed Charlie, you knew he was there for menace sake.

One of McGraw's more obscure tough-guy showcases, Roses are Red (1947)...which also features bits by James Arness, Jeff Chandler, Joe Sawyer and Charles Lane.
Charlie’s turn as escaped convict Arnold “Red” Kruger in the 1949 R-K-O B-pic The Threat is one of my favorite early McGraw showcases; he plays a convicted killer who tries to make good on his vow of revenge against the detective (Michael O’Shea) and D.A. (Frank Conroy) who put him away by kidnapping them and holding them as hostages out in a desert shack as he waits for his mode of escape to arrive.  He made a memorable impression both in this film and another R-K-O noir released the following year, Armored Car Robbery (1950)—this time on the right side of the law as supercop Jim Cordell, who investigates the titular heist that’s been executed by master thief Dave Purvis (William Tallman).  A twenty-minute hard-boiled egg (at one point McGraw’s character tells the widow of his croaked partner, “Tough break, Marsha”), McGraw’s Cordell doggedly pursues Tallman’s Purvis in an economical sixty-seven minutes that ends with a climax predating that of The Killing (1956) by a few years.

Charlie and Adele Jergens in Armored Car Robbery (1950)

Charlie confronts his drinking buddy Robert Mitchum in His Kind of Woman (1951).

By this point in his career, Charlie was working steady at R-K-O—he appeared as “Thompson” (and also narrates the film) in one of my favorite cult pictures, His Kind of Woman (1951), and was the star of the neglected noir classic Roadblock (1951), in which he played an insurance investigator who turns crooked after getting involved with an ice queen (Joan Dixon) who needs a sugar daddy.  Both of these films (as well as Robbery) provided a dress rehearsal for what remains McGraw’s best-known showcase: 1952’s The Narrow Margin.  As incorruptible cop Walter Brown, McGraw must escort gangster’s widow Marie Windsor to L.A. by train, in order for her to testify before a grand jury.  Complicating matters are several hit men hired by the mob to make certain Windsor doesn’t get there.  A superb example of the film noir genre, Margin has been called by many fans and critics one of the best B-movies ever made, and I heartily concur.

A trade ad for McGraw's syndicated TV venture The Adventures of the Falcon (1954-55).

Charlie as a sheriff in The Man in the Net (1958).

Throughout the 1950s, Charles McGraw continued to appear in a wide variety of films like Loophole (1954; a favorite of mine featuring Charlie as a Les Miserables' Javert-like cop), The Bridges of Toko-Ri (1954), Away All Boats (1956), Joe Butterfly (1957), Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957) and Saddle the Wind (1958).  He also makes a worthy adversary as the no-nonsense state policeman who wrangles with sheriff Theodore Bikel on the best methods to track down escaped convicts Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones (1958).  McGraw was indeed a recognizable film face, but he also started to branch out into television, notably as the star of a syndicated detective drama (based the radio series which changed Leslie Charteris’ sleuth’s name from Gay Stanhope Falcon to Michael Waring), The Adventures of the Falcon (1954-55).  After starring on that program, McGraw was then cast in the part Humphrey Bogart made famous in the TV adaptation of Casablanca, one of three programs of the wheel series Warner Brothers Presents (the other two being Kings’ Row and Cheyenne).  That particular series lasted only ten episodes, owing to its being rotated every third week.  McGraw also made guest appearances on such 50s shows as Mr. and Mrs. North, Conflict, Johnny Staccato and Hotel de Paree.

The start of the 1960s handed Charlie one of his best-remembered parts as the slavemaster Marcellus who trains Kirk Douglas’ Spartacus to be a gladiator (and meets his demise drowning in a vat of chunky beef soup)   His film appearances also included the 1960 remake of Cimarron, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963)—in which he plays fisherman Sebastian Sholes.  (McGraw enjoyed working on that film, but had no expectations of being asked to work with the Master of Suspense again after cracking an ill-advised “fat” joke in the director’s presence.)  Though his appearances on the big screen were quite as numerous as they had been in the 1940s/1950s, Charlie made the most of small screen showcases guesting on the likes of such favorites as The Untouchables, Dr. Kildare, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Wild Wild West.  He instituted a feature film “comeback” in 1967 with a small but memorable part as Robert Blake’s unforgiving father in In Cold Blood; this led to roles in other films like Hang ‘em High (1968; as an uncharacteristically cowardly sheriff) and Tell Them Willie Boy is Here (1969).

Throughout his career, Charles McGraw had a reputation as a complete professional…but he also was known for having a fierce pull in the bottle; like his fellow R-K-O star and drinking buddy Robert Mitchum, with whom Charlie worked in five films, including One Minute to Zero (1952) and The Wonderful Country (1959), McGraw was considered a “man’s man”—a pal to stuntmen, bartenders and other colorful types.   He was still punching a time clock by the 1970s, working his magic in films like Chandler (1971), A Boy and His Dog (1975; Charlie plays “The Preacher”), the original The Killer Inside Me (1976) and his final film, Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977).  He also continued to make the rounds on TV; he was in the 1972 TV pilot for ultimately became The Night Stalker, as well as guest appearances on such shows as The Name of the Game, The Mod Squad, Ironside, Nichols and Mission: Impossible (he also had a regular gig on Henry Fonda’s sitcom-drama, The Smith Family).  But the actor’s alcoholism gradually whittled away his work ethic and took a toll on his private life; wife Freda (to whom he had been married for nearly thirty years) had divorced him, and he wound up estranged from his daughter Jill (who had never been that close to him anyway).  The actor died on July 30, 1980 in a tragic accident when he fell through the glass door of his shower and, tearing an artery in his arm, bled to death.  He was 66 years old.

His craggy looks, granite features and sandpaper voice made him one of Hollywood’s most memorable tough-guy heavies…but the man’s amazing acting talent allowed him to demonstrate that he could extend his range beyond character acting as a leading man in films like Armored Car Robbery, Roadblock and, of course, The Narrow Margin.  Any time I come across Charlie in an old movie or TV rerun, I know I’m going to be pleased with his performance regardless of whether the whole presentation stinks to high heaven (he’s great in the mediocre all-star comedy The Busy Body [1967]…even managing to get more laughs than Richard Pryor).  So if you ever hear me describe something as “the sixty-five cent special…cheap…flashy…strictly poison under the gravy”…chances are I’ve spent some time with one of my favorite actors—of whom you can definitely say “What a character!”


Anonymous said...

Wow, I had no idea McGraw was in "Spartacus"! When I watch that again, I'll have to pay attention to him. I also had no idea he was in "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad World" (though, to be fair, there are so many people in that movie - including William Demarest, whom I'm writing about - it's easy to lose track of everybody) or "The Birds". I did like him in "The Killers", "Brute Force", "T-Men", "His Kind of Woman", and, of course, "The Killers". He definitely was a great character actor, and this was a pleasure to read.

Kristina said...

great post on a great actor; he was just the most solid looking guy, carved out of granite. Have seen pretty much all his noirs, and love that you point out those lesser known ones as well as Narrow Margin, all so good. Thanks!

Caftan Woman said...

Great article on the Great McGraw. I saw him play a rather milquetoast character on "Ironside" when I was a kid and just couldn't believe it was the tough guy I knew so well.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

From Our Lady of Great Caftan:

I saw him play a rather milquetoast character on "Ironside" when I was a kid and just couldn't believe it was the tough guy I knew so well.

I have not seen this episode, though a friend of mine told me about it (using practically the same description that you provided). I have a sneaking suspicion that the series is going to end up in Me-TV's rotation one of these days, so I'll be on the lookout for it.

Citizen Screen said...

A post that, like its subject, has granite features and a sandpaper voice. Um...I know that probably makes no sense but I wanted to say that I actually used that somewhere. GREAT! Wonderful post on a great actor - I've seen most of the films and some of the shows you make note of in your post yet never remember his name. BUT, oh, an unforgettable physical presence McGraw had.

Really enjoyed reading this - MUST get to your site more often because it's spectacular. As a nostalgia fan it gives me palpitations.

Thanks so much for taking part in the blogathon.


Vienna said...

Thank you so much for fine tribute to one of my favorites. I can watch ARMORED CAR ROBBERY time and time again, it's perfect.
I've read the good biography too and was so shocked when I learned how Charles died.
One of these actors who just dominated any scene he was in