Monday, April 16, 2007

Lafe McKee

Lafe McKee has the astonishing accomplishment of having appeared in 329 movies. He debuted as a film actor in 1912 with “All on Account of Checkers” and remained a working actor until 1948 when he appeared as an uncredited extra in “Belle Starr’s Daughter.”

As the title of his final film indicates, Mr. McKee’s career was spent for the most part in B-westerns. He played sheriffs and ministers, and various townspeople, including unnamed stagecoach passengers. In “The Lone Ranger” (1938), he was murdered.

Only rarely using his real name of Lafayette McKee, in the films he was called Pop or Dad, Colonel, Doc, Skipper, Reverend, or Prisoner Shot in Back. He was a working actor, not a star, and few stars had his endurance.

Mr. McKee was born in 1872, long before movies were even imagined, let alone made, which would have made him around 40 at his film debut. In 1934 he made “West of the Divide” with John Wayne, and in just that single year of 1934 appeared in 29 separate films. He was evidently as interchangeable on different sets as flats.

Most of us may remember McKee not for his western films or even his longevity, but for three films made by Frank Capra in which McKee had brief cameo parts. In “Meet John Doe” (1941) he is Mr. Delaney, the man who sells his furniture piece by piece to get through the Depression, whose wife kisses Gary Cooper’s hand in appreciation for giving them hope. McKee has no lines; he merely clings to his wife and smiles, nodding graciously to Cooper. He is a tall, thin man with white hair, merry eyes, and a full white mustache. His appearance is iconic, from another era, a 19th century rail splitter in a battle to keep his dignity in the cold and heartless 20th Century. This is why Capra used him, and used him again.

In “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” director Capra places McKee in another cameo moment as the Civil War Veteran who stands with his grandson at the Lincoln Memorial, while James Stewart, inspired by him as much as by Lincoln’s words etched in stone, looks on.

He is one of the disenfranchised farmers in “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” and while I’m not really sure about this, but I think McKee also has an uncredited part as an extra in Capra’s “Miracle Woman” (1931) sitting in the front row of the revival meeting congregation. There is a gentleman who looks like him, but I could be wrong. It was the kind of setting where he would be used, a decent American in a desperate situation.

His appearance was an American Everyman, from the generation before the Gary Cooper and James Stewart type of Everyman. Unlike them, he was not given snappy lines, or the girl. At that stage of his life, his courtly appearance substituted for dialogue. He is a symbol a bygone, simpler age.

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