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The Underappreciated Characters: A Look at the Careers of Bill Bixby, Karen Black, Strother Martin, Roddy McDowall, and Yvonne De Carlo

There are certain actors that are the entertainment industry’s utility players. These are the talented individuals that can move from genre to genre and are consistently working. They may not have achieved the kind of stardom that Tom Hanks or Meryl Streep has achieved but they are good at what they do and make an impression in whatever role they are cast in. 

As a child of the 1970s and 1980s, I watched a great deal of television and spent my fair share of weekends at the mall going to movies with my friends. I was always intrigued by those familiar faces that would show up unexpectedly in some series like Columbo or a movie of the week. Character actors, in particular, were always more interesting as performers to me because they usually had the best asides in the film or bits of compelling business.

Here is a list of performers that I feel didn’t get enough recognition for their contributions to the entertainment industry…

Bill Bixby: The Versatile Everyman

For example, Bill Bixby was one of the most genial actors around. In the 1960s, you could catch him on any number of popular shows like The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis and The Andy Griffith Show. Then in 1962, Bixby found himself in a recurring role on The Joey Bishop Show portraying Charles Raymond for six episodes. The following year, the young actor would find himself starring in a sitcom that would propel him to national recognition, My Favorite Martian with Ray Walston. 

Bixby played Tim O’Hara, a newspaper reporter who rescues Martian Exigius Twelve and a Half when his craft crashes near Los Angeles. To avoid suspicion, O’Hara tells everyone in his world that his newfound acquaintance is his “Uncle Martin.” You can imagine the plethora of challenging situations this causes for him and how he must keep up his cover story. The “Fish Out of Water” tale is timeless and yielded some hysterically funny situations. 

His next significant role on the small screen was in the family comedy, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. For three seasons, the actor was Tom Corbett, a widower who has to contend with his precocious son, Eddie (Brandon Cruz) wanting to play matchmaker for him. Bixby was perfect as the young Dad who tries to balance his career as a magazine publisher with his responsibilities as a parent. This was Sleepless in Seattle before Sleepless in Seattle

While Bill was finding steady work in television, he also managed to make his mark in some feature films playing a wide variety of roles. He was cast in Billy Wilder’s legendary comedic venture with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, Irma La Douce (1963) as a Tattooed Sailor. Believe it or not, he was also in two Elvis Presley musicals, Clambake (1967) and Speedway (1968).

Another impressive thing to note about Bixby is that he didn’t shy away from the horror genre either. He did a stint on Rod Serling’s Night Gallery playing an evil Druid named, “Bruce the Black.” He also appeared on Tales of the Unexpected. But to me, he will always be The Incredible Hulk. As Dr. David Banner, he excelled at being the tortured soul. A man who couldn’t escape his fate no matter how hard he tried and destined to walk alone. I defy anyone to not tear up when he walked away at the end of every episode. 

Bixby was also fortunate enough to make the transition from actor to director. Prior to his death in 1993, he directed episodes of Blossom, Sledge Hammer! The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, Charlie’s Angels, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father and Mannix. One can only imagine what he could have done had he lived longer. 

Karen Black: Sex Kitten to Psycho in 60

Karen Black was always a pleasure to watch. Like most actresses of her generation, she started out in television during the 1960’s finding work on such hit series as The Big Valley and Mannix. When the young thespian became involved with Roger Corman, things were never the same again. In that world, she was introduced to several key players that would foster her career like Jack Nicholson. 

Her first appearance on screen was courtesy of a young Francis Ford Coppola in his film, You’re a Big Boy Now (1966). Things changed for the actress on the career front when she was cast in the underground cult film, Easy Rider (1969). That production was the beginning of her association with some maverick titans of the 1970’s such as Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, and Peter Fonda. 

Nicholson became one of her closest friends and he cast her in Drive, He Said. This would mark his first film as a director. She continued her journey making interesting films like Cisco Pike (1972)and Portnoy’s Complaint (1972) with Richard Benjamin. During these earlier ventures, she was very much the sex kitten. Her tousled hair and sleepy almond eyes made her appear ready for anything. Her versatility and ability to move from dramas to comedies to horror made her indispensable as an actress. 

She even appeared in blockbusters like The Great Gatsby (1974) with Robert Redford and Airport 1975 (1975) with Charlton Heston. Robert Altman cast her in the Academy Award winning, Nashville (1975). When she transitioned to the horror genre, it was a game-changer. She transformed into a character actress and one with the ability to go psycho in 60 seconds. In Dan Curtis’ Trilogy of Terror (1975), Black was a force to be reckoned with. Running from a possessed indigenous doll, portraying a serial killer who preys on young, male college students or a schizophrenic woman, Karen was having the time of her life and so were we watching her on-screen. Not to mention her wonderful turn with Bette Davis and Oliver Reed in the creepy haunted house movie, Burnt Offerings (1976). 

The 1980s found her in such classics as Invaders from Mars (1986), It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987) and the 1990s brought Children of the Corn: The Gathering (1996) and the millennium cemented her as a cult favorite in Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses (2003). She made movies right up until her untimely death in 2013. Her spirit will live on because two of her films, Deadly Tales IV and the drama, A Walk into a Split Mind are currently in post-production. I often wonder had she been able to continue would she have been cast in a Quentin Tarantino film? Would David Lynch have taken her under his wing and possibly used her in Twin Peaks: The Revival? The director utilized Robert Blake, Harry Dean Stanton, and Ann Miller. Unfortunately, this type of dream will never come to fruition but it is fun to think about since Karen Black made everything that she appeared in better. 

Strother Martin: El Capitan and Western Weasels

Strother Martin’s most famous role was Captain in the brilliant Stuart Rosenberg film, Cool Hand Luke (1967). Everyone can quote his personal tagline, “What we got here, is failure to communicate. Some men, you just can’t reach.” One could argue that he was a sadistic son of a bitch who enjoyed breaking Paul Newman’s Luke and humiliating him in front of the other prisoners that clearly adored him. This guy was a weasel living behind his title and using it to his full advantage under the guise of “correcting” the convicts in his brutal work gang.  

But then again, Martin played many weasels during his career. Captain wasn’t the only one. He was a unique character actor with a recognizable voice. Whiny and high pitched, he could convey so many different moods. Westerns were a huge part of his world. He guest-starred on Gunsmoke, Death Valley Days and The Big Valley during the 1960s. 

His path would also cross with the most famous cowboy of all, John Wayne in several pictures. He starred in The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), Rooster Cogburn (1975), McLintock! (1963) and True Grit (1969). Strother also found himself opposite another tough guy, Lee Marvin in The Great Scout and Cathouse Tuesday (1976). The actor would also spend time with another great director, Sam Peckinpah on The Wild Bunch (1969). Most interesting of all is that Martin and Paul Newman would find themselves reuniting in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). A decade later, they would film Slap Shot (1979) together. It is a testament to his talent that so many directors and colleagues wanted to work with him repeatedly. 

In addition to high profile movies, the actor was everywhere on the small screen during the ’70s joining Robert Young on Marcus Welby, M.D. and of all things, Love, American Style. But that was the beauty of him, you never knew where he would turn up and when he did it was usually in a glorious role that only he could play. He even spoofed himself on Saturday Night Live with a hilarious skit about kids at French camp and when they would mispronounce a word, he would send them to Le Box just like Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke

That decade also found Strother in, of all things, a Cheech and Chong movie, Up in Smoke (1978) as Mr. Stoner. Comedy was also not out of the realm for this actor and he would be cast in The Villain (1979) with Kirk Douglas and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Martin even did a stint in the horror genre in the most memorable and disturbing Dr. Moreau type pic, Sssssss (1973) starring Dirk Benedict and Heather Menzies. Shortly before his death of a heart attack in 1980, he appeared in another scary flick, Nightwing (1979) about killer bats invading a reservation in New Mexico. 

One thing is certain, Strother Martin possessed a range and it would have been nice to have seen him, had he lived longer work with some of the great horror directors like Carpenter, Craven, Hooper or Romero. 

Roddy McDowall: From Child Star to Vampire Killer

Roddy McDowall was always one of my favorite actors. There was something about him. He was relentlessly cheerful and his off-screen life seemed exciting. Not everyone got to hang with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Andy Warhol. Although Roddy started off as a child actor and worked for the likes of the brilliant John Ford in How Green Was My Valley (1941), he was also in the Flicka movies and of course, Lassie Come Home (1943). Unlike some young thespians who can’t translate their youthful successes into a full-fledged career by the time they reach adulthood, McDowall found work and it kept coming. 

When Orson Welles tackled Macbeth (1948), he cast Roddy in the role of Malcolm. His part in the Shakespeare classic prepared him for starring in the ridiculous Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s opus, Cleopatra (1963). Playing opposite his great friend, Elizabeth Taylor, his performance easily stood out for me in this overblown spectacle. That’s not to say it wasn’t great fun to watch. This was definitely McDowall’s era. He was frequently cast as a 60’s bohemian type in films like The Subterraneans (1960) but he could easily go from that to Disney family films like That Darn Cat! (1965)and Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971). McDowall did do quite a bit of television just like other actors of that era. One of his memorable roles was that of The Bookworm on Adam West’s Batman series. Of course, he appeared on The Twilight Zone and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour as well. Much like Karen Black and Strother Martin, he could easily move from medium to medium. 

The 1960s also saw him do a Biblical film, The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) playing one of the Apostles, Matthew. Perhaps the most exciting things to come out of that swinging era were the start of his association with The Planet of the Apes movies and starring opposite Ossie Davis in The Cemetery segment of the pilot for Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. Which coincidentally, featured the debut of a certain young filmmaker, Steven Spielberg. From there, he would appear in several more Planet of the Apes franchise movies. In the ’70s, he would go on to star in the Planet of the Apes TV series, playing Galen. He even managed to squeeze in a hit disaster flick, The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and a western, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972). 

Perhaps what is most intriguing is the fact that Roddy was attracted to horror. He starred in one of my favorite genre pictures, The Legend of Hell House based on the Richard Matheson book about a terrifying haunting. Of course, he is probably the most remembered for his performance as Peter Vincent in Fright Night (1985) and Fright Night 2 (1988). He continued to work up until his death in 1998 with turns on Pinky and the Brain, Gargoyles and A Bug’s Life (1998). With a career as flourishing as McDowall’s, it’s hard to encapsulate everything but he is also proof that there is life beyond Hollywood as well. Roddy’s work as a photographer was widely celebrated and in 1990, he published Double Exposure which featured many portraits of his industry comrades. He truly lived the art life. 

Yvonne De Carlo: The Bombshell Turned Munster

Most people remember Yvonne De Carlo as Lily Munster on the classic TV series, The Munsters. However, she was so much more than that. As a matter of fact, she was a beauty queen of the highest order. One only needs to see stills of her from The Ten Commandments (1956) to know how ravishing she was. What is fascinating is that her matinee looks did not hinder her in any way shape or form. She wasn’t pigeonholed as the starlet or ingenue which enabled her to showcase her acting range. 

The 1940s was where she gained confidence and honed her craft often starring in such B pictures as Salome, Where She Danced (1945). And then she continued that trajectory in the ’50s with the film noir, Death of a Scoundrel (1956) as a secretary who tells the life story of her murdered boss to detectives. She also appeared on Bonanza and Playhouse 90. The ’60s saw her career take off with a terrific role as John Wayne’s housekeeper, Mrs. Warren in the ribald, McLintock! (1963). She was also a regular on the popular TV show, The Virginian. Much like the other subjects of this article, Ms. De Carlo also found her way to the horror genre starring in 1975’s The Intruder opposite Mickey Rooney. She was also in the terrifying The Silent Scream (1979) as Mrs. Engels the owner of a seaside mansion who rents out rooms to college girls. Oh, did I mention her son is a serial killer? 

Then, of course, the 1980s was awash in horror films for the actress with Play Dead (1983), Vultures (1984) and another personal favorite, American Gothic (1987)where she played the homicidal Ma to Rod Steiger’s insane Pa. She continued the trend starring in Mirror Mirror (1990) along with Karen Black, Tales from the Crypt and Here Come the Munsters (1995) appearing as a restaurant guest. Although she lived to be 84, sadly she stopped acting after 1995. 

While we have contemporary actors like Kathy Bates, Bruce Dern, John Turturro, and Steve Buscemi to pick up where Bixby and the others left off, it sometimes seems like Hollywood still doesn’t celebrate the achievements of character actors. Everything tends to revolve around leading men and women. Without these multi-faceted and talented individuals movies would be rather dull, don’t you think? 

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About Susan Leighton

Susan Leighton has written for many entertainment sites including 1428 Elm, VHS Revival, Cult Faction, The Queen of Style, TV Series Hub, Heroic Hollywood, That's My E and Crash Palace. She is known for her interviews with genre icons, Bruce Campbell, Joe Lansdale, Joe Bob Briggs, Dee Wallace, Michael Ironside, Jeffrey Combs, Josh Becker, Danny Hicks, Brent Jennings and Alice Krige. As well as prominent paranormal experts, Christopher Garetano, Chuck Zuckowski, Paul Bradford, Daryl Marston and Kristen Luman. She has also hosted two podcasts, Nerdrotic & Pop Culture Minefield. Her short stories are featured on the Get Scared Podcast on all platforms. Currently, she is writing a paranormal TV series and a feature film script with the hope of eventually obtaining "hyphenate" status, lol. Look for her collection of essays to be included in Lee Gambin's upcoming compilation on great sitcoms of the70's and 80's, "Tonight, on a Very Special Episode."

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