Posted by Richard Harland Smith on May 18, 2012
I noted the death of Hollywood character actor Woodrow Parfrey with great sadness back in1984. Truth be told, I believe I learned of his passing the following year, with the publication of John Willis’ Screen World 1985, which cataloged every film (domestic and foreign) released in the United States in 1984 and concluded with a necrology for that year. The deaths of film folk were especially weighty that year, with the loss of Richard Basehart, Richard Burton, James Mason, Sam Peckinpah, Janet Gaynor, Sam Jaffe, Joseph Losey, John Marley, James Mason, Walter Pidgeon, Francois Truffaut, Oscar Werner, Johnny Weismuller… and of course Woodrow Parfrey. 61. Heart attack. No picture. But I didn’t need a picture to remember what he looked like. Hollywood got a lot less interesting after 1984, at least for me. I won’t go so far as to cite the death of Woodrow Parfrey as an inciting event turning me off of mainstream Hollywood films but, brother, it sure didn’t help.
If you’re of a certain age, you know the face. You will remember, or at least think you do, seeing that face staring out at you from behind countless bank teller cages, over innumerable church pulpits, and across an infinity of boardroom tables. From his beginnings in live theatre (starting with a 1952 Broadway revival of ROOM SERVICE, starring Jack Lemmon) through his TV and film work, Woodrow Parfrey became synonymous with corporate unease, spiritual bankruptcy, and galloping weakness. He had a look – rail think, weak-chinned, slightly jug-eared — that doomed him to playing middle management at its most weasly. And he played it well, he played it to perfection. His talents honed in New York regional and Broadway theatre, Parfrey worked also in live television early in his career, on episodes of CBS’ DANGER (1950-1955), STUDIO ONE (1948-1958) and BOB HOPE PRESENTS THE CHRYSLER THEATER (1963-1967), in which he played a dead killer reanimated by dint of dodgy science in Richard Matheson’s 1966 teleplay “Time of Flight,” an unsold pilot for a proposed TV series to be called RACE AGAINST TIME.
A phrase characteristic of the bulk of Parfrey’s long and diverse career as a character actor might be “reliably unreliable.” He played his share of villains (memorably, as scientist Jon Lormer’s greedy guts assistant in the “Fatal Cargo” episode of VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, who unleashes a remote-controlled white jungle ape aboard the Seaview and suffers a DEVIL BAT-like karmic comeuppance) but most often he was just plain luckless, flustered, and seemingly coated in a perpetual rime of flop sweat. If he managed a bank, it would be robbed; if he threw a big society party, kidnappers would crash it; if he managed a supermarket, he’d get flimflammed… and the audience would cheer. An atypical role for Parfrey was as the sardonic fry cook in Don Siegel’s DIRTY HARRY (1971), the one who serves Clint Eastwood a hotdog just as a bank robbery goes down across the street. He could play a swell as well, if not better, than anybody, but the Parf (as I like to call him) could just as easily slip into the work shoes of the hoi polloi and deliver a steaming cup of working class gravitas In a two-part 1963 episode of COMBAT! (1962-1967) titled “The Long Way Home,” Parfrey was unforgettable as a timorous grocery cook turned G.I. who is sent to star Vic Morrow’s squadron as a replacement dogface and winds up taken prisoner by the S.S.; seen cowering in battle, Parfrey’s jittery PFC is coded as the unit’s weak link, the most likely to divulge army troop placements under torture, but he proves himself an unlikely (albeit tragic) hero in the final moments, taking down Übermensch Oberführer Richard Basehart while Morrow cowers with facial lacerations. And then, just a couple of years later, he played a Cal-Tech prof drafted into the war effort on HOGAN’S HEROES (CBS, 1965-1971), posing as a Gestapo officer to infiltrate Stalag 13 to disarm a German rocket in “Kommandant of the Year.”
One of my favorite Woodrow Parfrey roles was as the orangutan judge Maximus, who presiding over Charlton Heston’s trial in PLANET OF THE APES (1968) and forms the See No Evil/Speak No Evil/Hear No Evil triptych. Covered head to toe in John Chamber’s award-winning makeup, Parfrey is of course unrecognizable… except for his voice. (He would go ape again on the short-lived TV series, developing an eye problem from wearing chimpanzee contact lenses and forced to play the part wearing an eyepatch. A chimpanzee with an eyepatch! Is there anything better than that?!) The actor became a favorite of directors Franklin Schafner and Don Siegel, who cast him in such films as THE WAR LORD (1965), MADIGAN (1968), PAPILLON (1973) and CHARLEY VARRICK (1973), in which he sweats buckets under the thumb of both Walter Matthau and John Vernon in the role of a crooked bank manager, for whom you nonetheless feel great empathy when he laments, sadly, and half-expecting to wind up a casualty of a Mafia rubout “For the first time in my life, I’ve found a place that I love.” His DIRTY HARRY costar Clint Eastwood would employ him from time to time as well once he became a director, giving him plum roles as an Old West snake oil salesman in THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (1976) and as a doctor in BRONCO BILLY (1981) while one of his best remembered later roles was as a shifty driving instructor who accepts a payoff in exchange for getting his students to buy salesman Kurt Russell’s USED CARS (1980).
Feeling full of love for Woodrow Parfrey this week (a propos of nothing, and marking neither his birth nor his demise), I reached out to his son, author, publisher, recording artist Adam Parfrey, who consented to answer a few pesky questions about his dad:
RHS: I understand your dad fought in World War II. And spent time as a prisoner of war.
Adam Parfrey: My father fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and was captured then. He was never put in a camp, but marched around. He escaped once but was recaptured. Unlike many of his fellow prisoners he survived, but after he was liberated he was so thin that doctors injected him with lots of glucose. As a result he developed Type 1 diabetes. The G.I. Bill enabled Dad to enroll in the New School in New York City, where he was taught acting along with fellow classmates Rod Steiger, Marlon Brando (for a while), Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur, Harry Belafonte, and Tony Curtis. He met my mother, Rosa, who was teaching at the New School. Their inspiration there was the German director Erwin Piscator, who was known for creating what was called “Epic Theater” and directing plays by Bertold Brecht. At the New School, my father performed in several Piscator-directed plays, including ALL THE KING’S MEN and Sartre’s FLIES. After my father died in ’84 I found among his effects a card that announced that he was Valedictorian of his class at the New School.
RHS: So he got his start in theatre.
AP: In the late ’40s and throughout the ’50s, my father performed on Broadway, Off-Broadway, summer stock, live television, radio, and a couple Grade Z movies.
RHS: Right, the independently-produced SO LOVELY, SO DEADLY (1957) and JOHNNY GUNMAN (1957), released by Tudor Pictures. He got to be on the poster of SO LOVELY, SO DEADLY, in which he played the heavy.
AP: He seemed to have fun with those films, and told me that a director from one of those movies told him to speed up the pace of a scene because they didn’t have much film stock left. In the early ’60s he played a neurotic right-winger having a nervous breakdown in the play ADVISE AND CONSENT, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner.
RHS: Schaffner’s only Broadway play.
AP: He met and befriended many television and movie directors he would later work with in Hollywood from his New York years.
RHS: When did he move the family to Hollywood?
AP: We all moved West in 1962. I recall that of film actors he had most respect for Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, and Claude Rains. I think he appeared with Karloff and Rains in a couple New York TV productions. He also loved Laurence Olivier in the stage play of THE ENTERTAINER.
RHS: What do you remember about those early years in Hollywood?
AP: We were dragged along with the folks to parties at Don Siegel’s house in Sherman Oaks. Academy Awards, Christmas, and other parties. I think the Don Siegel connection started as a result of friendship with Doe Avedon, who was once married to photographer Richard Avedon, but who left him for an actor friend of my folks, who tragically died in a car wreck. Doe later married Don Siegel. Don used my father quite a bit, both in movies and television. Don was obsessed with talking about diabetes, I recall. At one party my father got in a fistfight with John Cassavetes as a result of John’s insults about Olivier. I think my father, coming from a more technical than method school, interpreted John’s drunken rant as a personal insult. One great memory is being taken to the set of VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA. Everyone on the set loved my pop. and in this strange show he played a maniac who remote controlled a giant white ape to kill people on the submarine. As one scene was being filmed my stomach growled loudly and Richard Basehart yelled out, “WHO THE FUCK IS THAT?!”
RHS: That is an inarguably great memory. Where did you all live in Los Angeles?
AP: The first place my folks moved to was a Malibu cabin on the Pacific Coast Highway. Those places were quite inexpensive at the time, and were built up later as million dollar homes.
RHS: Do you have specific memories of your dad being at work back then? What was it like seeing him on TV?
AP: As a tiny tot I best remember seeing my father running up and down the aisles in some summer stock show he was doing with, I think, Shelley Berman. The televisions at the time were very small and black and white, and other friends’ fathers were also on that small TV at times. I didn’t take much notice of it, frankly. I think he was better suited to stage acting than film acting. That said, I loved him in the Harlan Ellison-written episode of THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., “The Sort of Do-It-Yourself Dreadful Affair,” where he played a mad scientist who tripped on himself. Thought his performances in PAPILLON and CHARLEY VARRICK were great. I like a lot of what he did. People on the set, like Edmond O’Brien on an episode of THE HIGH CHAPARRAL, told me that he was the best actor they’ve ever seen. I think a lot of that praise had to do with the fact that he really transmitted amazing things in person that may have not made it on film.
RHS: What’s great about his role in PLANET OF THE APES is that it allows you to focus on his voice. Physically, he got stuck playing weaklings and jerks, but his voice was distinct, sonorous, at times even plummy. Did he ever do radio?
AP: Yes, he did a lot of radio when radio featured performances in the late ’40s and ’50s. I’ve got a first edition of Samuel Beckett’s “All That Fall” which he used as a script for a radio performance. Speaking of Beckett, he also performed in the first televised performance of WAITING FOR GODOT, a strange show that used Krazy Kat as set design.
RHS: What was your dad like off-camera?
AP: I am incredibly fortunate to have had such a great father. Family was very important to him. He was generous with his time and affection, helping me with Little League baseball, high school acting roles, encouraging me when times got tough. I miss him every day. People on the sets appeared to love him, too.
RHS: Did he ever go through lean times or was he able to go from role to role?
AP: He had to turn down a continuing role in THE WALTONS series in order to act in CHARLEY VARRICK and PAPILLON. I think he lost a good deal of money making that choice, but I’m glad he did. He was a pretty busy actor, particularly throughout the ’60s… it did get lean at times in the ’70s. I remember him calling up his agents and offering at one time to do soap operas. I think he did a couple GENERAL HOSPITALS then. He even tried to get advertisements which he refused to do most of his career. I remember him turning down roles, too, like one Eastwood movie. I always wondered about that choice of his, since he and Eastwood worked together quite a bit otherwise.
RHS: Ever get a sense that he wanted to do bigger things?
AP: He wanted nothing more than to be a character actor and doing the best character possible. No interest in leading roles — in fact, he thought that most leading men were quite limited and one note. With exceptions of course. When he got back from the Jamaica location for PAPILLON, he told me Steve McQueen didn’t really “get” the part, but after he saw the film he changed his mind completely and stated that some actors really know how to work the camera, and that McQueen was “great”!
RHS: You had a pretty big family for a working actor – four kids, right?
RHS: It’s been great learning about your dad through you. Your dad’s death hit me hard back then and I’d like to take the opportunity now to wish you and your family my most heartfelt condolences, more than a bit belatedly. Woodrow Parfrey had great currency in my house and he was someone both my dad and I could point to and say, “Oh, look who’s here!” as if he had just walked into our house. That doesn’t happen nearly enough at the movies anymore.
Thanks to Adam for sharing his time and his memories. Watch a Woodrow Parfrey show today!
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