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.