Culture Notes: Whit Bissell Centenary

The centenary celebrations for Whit Bissell are winding down by now; you’re probably tired of hearing the endless tributes and thinkpieces paying tribute to the actor, born October 25, 1909. Of course I’m kidding: nobody pays elaborate, passionate tribute to Whit Bissell, and if people know his name it’s because of its humorous quality, an internal rhyme contained within a tiny, meek-sounding series of syllables – a name for a soda jerk or a vacuum cleaner salesman.

whitStill, a tribute. Whit Bissell might have been the first actor I could recognize as a character actor, a guy who turned up everywhere but rarely played leads. He has almost 300 credits listed on the Internet Movie Database, yet his actual total is surely higher than that when you factor in his ubiquitous TV appearances and uncredited movie work. But character actors are supposed to be colorful in some way: zany or grotesque, not cut out to be heroes but carrying some distinctive quality. Whit Bissell was like his name: he tended to white himself out. Even other people on screen looked bored by him sometimes.

A compact fellow, evidently prematurely white-haired, Bissell had a slightly severe face and a forceful voice, and thus played a lot of doctors and professors and figures of authority. I must have first known him as the military supervisor on The Time Tunnel, where (as he so often did) he fretted and crunched numbers and supplied a drag on the proceedings. He was on all the TV shows in the 1960s and 70s, including the “Trouble with Tribbles” episode of Star Trek, and stayed in movies, too, so often turning up for his one good scene or tiny fragment of story: The Magnificent Seven, The Manchurian Candidate, Hud.

Before he switched to TV-mostly work, Bissell did lots of differents parts, and it would be wrong to suggest that he always played the same drab, officious role, even if a lot of his stuff blends together; especially early on, he got to play neurotics, and his pinched face made his authority figures available to be untrustworthy at times. Good roles in Brute Force, Raw Deal, and He Walked by Night put him in the noir world as a sometimes sweaty, nervous type; he could bring on the badness, as in Riot in Cell Block 11. When it came time to essay a member of the crazed Frankenstein family tree, in I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, he turned in a typically professional, steady performance, perhaps the least histrionic Dr. Frankenstein ever (despite the florid plot turns and dialogue).

He was repeating his duties there, more or less, from I Was a Teenage Werewolf, and he did a lot of genre work during that era, which is another reason I came to know him so well when I was an adolescent: Creature from the Black Lagoon and Monster on the Campus are among the best of those. And when a framing story had to be added to Invasion of the Body Snatchers to re-assure the audience that the alien takeover wasn’t really coming to their town, of course it was Whit Bissell cast as the authority figure calming down Kevin McCarthy. I always enjoyed seeing him during this time, but my affection increased after I realized his name was Whit Bissell, that funny moniker that might have come from Mark Twain. How can you not like a guy named Whit Bissell?

People like him make movies go. You say, “Ah, there’s Whit Bissell,” and then he’s gone, off to pop up in something else in a few minutes on a different channel, then bound for some retro-TV station showing Wagon Train or Perry Mason or Mannix. In a hundred more years, he’ll still be doing that. Even the quietest character actor makes his permanent place.

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6 Responses

  1. Bissell has one gem of a line in “Teenage Frankenstein,” which he speaks with a tone of parental impatience: “Speak. I know you have a civil tongue in your head because I sewed it back myself.”

  2. Whit Bissell. His weasely Senator in “Seven Days in May” foretold Mitch McConnell. But not Tom DeLay or Dick Armey: even as a skunk, Whit knew there were limits.

  3. He reminded me of John Carradine: a classically trained actor who made countless appearances in mostly low-budget movies, punctuated with occasional serious roles in big-budget movies. Bissell lent instant credibility to even the worst movies, because of his sincere and serious performances no matter how ridiculous the movie, which was probably why he was in such high demand.

  4. For one of the most interesting and intuitive blogs on Whit Bissell’s life and career, I recommend Moira Finnie’s very entertaining and detailed piece “You Need Whit Bissell” which can be found at:

    http://www.moirasthread.blogspot.com/2008/04/you-need-whit-bissell.html

    P.S. There is even a “lost” Whit Bissell movie, (surviving thus far only as a poster and a set of lobby cards): “Third of a Man”

    • Thanks for the link. Obviously my opening paragraph is wrong: people DO pay passionate tribute to Whit Bissell!

  5. I never knew that one of Bissell’s films was among the missing. It’s great to see that someone else notices this hardworking actor.That article by Moira Finnie in praise of Whit Bissell is found at the link below, but is not located at the link above.

    You Need Whit Bissell

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