Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Tribute to the Busiest Actor in the 1960s

For our Underrated Actor of the Week honors, Paul2 selected Whit Bissell, who was the busiest actor in Hollywood for over a quarter of a century. Starting with his 1940 debut as a palace guard in Errol Flynn’s The Sea Hawk, Bissell appeared in almost 300 roles in film and television until he retired from the screen in 1984. His acting prime spanned from 1955 to 1980, during which he appeared just in about every TV series that aired. He guest starred on Wagon Train five times, Perry Mason and The Rifleman four times, and was in three episodes each of The Virginian, Have Gun—Will Travel, and Hawaiian Eye. And, amazingly, he played a different character in each episode of those series.

It wasn’t that Whit Bissell was a great actor—his gift was being able to play any role convincingly. He could portray the kindly white-haired physician, the authoritative Army general, the menacing alien, the comforting father, the politician, or the undertaker (as he did in the opening scene in The Magnificent Seven).

He didn’t get many leading roles, though he played Professor Frankenstein in I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957). It was a juicy role that provided his most famous line of dialogue, directed toward his teenaged monstrous creation: “Speak. I know you have a civil tongue in your head, because I sewed it back myself!”

In the 1950s, he endeared himself to science fiction and horror fans with supporting performances in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, Monster on the Campus, and Creature from the Black Lagoon. He received belated recognition when he received a life career award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films in 1994.

His only regular gig was on the 1967-68 ABC sci fi series Time Tunnel, in which he played General Haywood Kirk. It was a thankless role (time travelers James Darren and Robert Colbert had all the fun), but Whit played it with his usual professionalism.

Off camera, Whit Bissell was actively involved in both the Screen Actors Guild and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. He died in 1996 at the age of 86.


  1. Back in my undergrad days my film friends and I had to come up with a system that would let us know if we should check out a film and make sure that it would not be a waste of time or money.Back then before the VCR there only 3 ways of"getting in to old movies". The Late Late Show, Have a friend with Theta cable (very rare) so you could watch the famous Z channel, or" Rep Houses". We were lucky that in Southern Cal at the time we had many of them The best were the Fox Venice, The Nuart in Santa Monica/.West LA (still going but more as a true Art House) and my favorite The Encore on Melrose Blvd right across the street from Paramount, and next to Western Costume. It's gone now. Anyway what we came up with was the WBSA. The Whit Bissell Seal of Aprovable.We knew that most of the films we loved back then had Whit in them .So we tought if Whit was in it It might not be a great or even good film,or TV show, most likly it would be a turkey ,but Whit would be good and we just might like it. And after all these years the WBSA has Never Let Us Down!.
    I'll be up front and say I watched the Time Tunnel for 2 reasons 1. Whit. And Lee A Former Miss America in a White Lab Coat .Worked for me.

  2. LOL. Great comment, Paul. And interesting blog, Rick. I love the character actors. They are like old friends and are usually responsible for the strength of the movie, stars notwithstanding.

  3. Paul2, love the story about the Whit Bissell Seal of Approval. As you know, my wife and I have been on a run of classic 1960s TV series and Whit has guest starred in all of least once.

  4. I was just thinking about a variation on "Harper Valley PTA." It goes something like this: The day Paul socked the movies with the WBS of A.

  5. Rick , Thank you for an example of the WBSA In Action. See What I mean?

  6. toto2, your comment reminded that there was a theatrical film version of "Harper Valley PTA" with Barbara Eden. It's not likely to show up on TCM! In fact, I often wonder what's happened to so many little films like that...they just seem to have vanished.

  7. i remember Whit Bissell playing the evil scientist who turned Michael Landon into a werewolf in the 1957 cult classic film "I Was a Teenage Werewolf"
    i met Michael Landon in person the year before he died of cancer.