During her appearance on the “Dick Cavett Show” November 18, 1971, Bette Davis reflected on the great loss to the world of theatre and film with the death only the previous evening of Gladys Cooper. The remarkable Gladys Cooper had played Davis’ mother in “Now, Voyager” (1944).
Perhaps some of you saw the rerun of this, one of Cavett’s iconic interviews, over the weekend on TCM. Miss Davis also mourned as a great loss to films Walter Huston, who had died some twenty years previously. She made the observation, as so many of old movie buffs have since, that the character actors were a mainstay of the industry, and that with their loss films would never be the same. She got that right.
It’s interesting that she made this remark nearly 40 years ago, when the studio system was still a fresh memory if no longer an influence in the 1970s film industry, and when the greats of the golden age were retiring, grasping at TV show guest spots and regional dinner theatre, or dying in stages. These days film blogs note with alarming frequency the deaths of celebrities of decades past, but when Bette Davis perched herself on the set of Dick Cavett’s talk show with her cigarettes, the era between then and now was only just being delineated. Most of them weren’t dead yet, but they sure weren’t fighting off film offers. Yet in the 1930s and 1940s, elderly actors were seen in many films. They were character actors. They had spent a lifetime moving from the role of Juliet to the role of Juliet’s nurse, and the earned every penny and end credit, if the accolades were few.
Miss Davis also made the intriguing remark that Huston’s death was a big loss in part because filmmakers would no longer create parts for someone like Huston because Huston was gone. There would be no more (paraphrasing here) “write me a Walter Huston type, or get me a Walter Huston type”, because future generations who have no idea who Walter Huston was, or what his type was supposed to be, or why it might be a great addition to a film.
Is the dearth of character parts and favorite character actors in this movie era of blockbuster stardom, where the only character parts seem to be voiceover roles in animated features, a reflection of the death of Walter Huston, and Reginald Gardiner, and Mary Wickes (who acted right up until the end of her life, bless her and bless the people who hired her)?
Which came first, the character actor, or the character actor roles? Which died first? What are your thoughts?