A photo of Lyle Talbot has been listed on EBay with bids starting at $25.
I have a thing for those Big Boxy Guys from the 1930s and ’40s. You know, the ones who look like they’re still in the original factory carton and have not been unpacked yet: George Brent, Brian Donlevy, Warner Baxter, Lyle Talbot. Yum. So imagine my delight to open the Oct. 1 issue of The New Yorker to find an article about Lyle Talbot by his daughter, staff writer Margaret Talbot! I was happy to see my suspicions confirmed: he was a genuinely nice guy.
Lyle Talbot never became a star, though he worked steadily at Warner Bros. throughout the 1930s and, says his daughter, “he was never bitter about his career: all his life, he felt lucky to have been plucked from obscurity, lucky to be an entertainer . . . and taking pride in never having to supplement his actor’s income with, say, selling real estate.” Talbot was born in 1902 to show-biz parents, and grew up touring in stock companies. He even headed his own Talbot Players before wisely heading to Los Angeles when the talkies hit. Warner’s tested him in a couple of 1931 shorts before launching him into Love Is a Racket, supporting Doug Fairbanks, Jr., and Ann Dvorak.
Lyle Talbot was quirkily handsome, with a deep voice, big blue eyes, and a weirdly-shaped skull (my friend Mel calls him “Raisinet-Head”). Through his 1930s Warner Bros. years, he played just about every kind of role: weak-willed playboys, gangsters, nice young businessmen, detectives, reporters, gigolos. He supported Barbara Stanwyck (The Purchase Price, Ladies They Talk About, A Lost Lady), Bette Davis (Fog Over Frisco, and the wonderful Three On a Match, a pre-Coder you must catch), Joan Blondell (Big City Blues), Ginger Rogers (The Thirteenth Guest, A Shriek in the Night), Carole Lombard (No More Orchids), Loretta Young (She Had to Say Yes), Kay Francis (Mary Stevens, M.D., Mandalay), Marion Davies (Page Miss Glory) and Shirley Temple (Our Little Girl).
Of the latter leading lady, Talbot recalled, “We were bitter enemies in the movie . . . she approached me off-set. ‘Mr. Talbot,’ she said gravely—and she had all the poise of a mature woman—‘I want you to know that those lines are only in the script. I really do like you.’ I was too embarrassed to do more than stammer ‘thank you’ to her.” He had quite the interesting life off-screen, too: was critically injured in a 1933 car accident; ran into a burning building in 1938 to rescue a friend; was married four times; and co-founded the Screen Actors Guild.
By the late 1930s, though, Talbot was spinning his wheels at Warner’s. He said “yes” to everything, including loan-outs. “It bothered me at first,” he said in 1938 of the decreasing size of his roles. “I had always played leads in stock, and I couldn’t understand why they didn’t let me do them in pictures. Now, I don’t mind any more. I feel that I’ve essentially become a character actor.”
And thus he remained for the next 40 years, in films large and—mostly—small. He became stouter and quickly middle-aged; he played Commissioner Gordon in the 1949 Batman serial, Lex Luthor in Atom Man vs. Superman (his Raisinet-Head was not flattered by the bald wig), took the five bucks (or whatever Ed Wood paid) to appear in Jail Bait, Plan 9 From Outer Space and Glen or Glenda. He also worked steadily in TV, from the 1950s through a 1987 Newhart episode; he was a regular on Dangerous Assignment, Dick Tracy, Commando Cody, The Bob Cummings Show and Ozzie and Harriett, and he played “Senator Lyle Talbot” on Green Acres, decades before Family Guy’s po-mo “Mayor Adam West.” Lyle Talbot was 94 when he died in San Francisco in 1996. I briefly interviewed him two years before he died, and he put me on his Christmas card list, which I thought was awfully sweet.
His sons David and Stephen are, respectively, a founder of Salon.com and a TV producer; daughter Margaret’s book about her father will be out later this year, and I already have it on my wish-list. Here is a clip from Our Little Girl (1935), in which Shirley Temple does not want to be “picked up” by Lyle Talbot, and let me tell you, if he said, “Let’s pretend that I’m the Daddy and you’re the little girl,” I’d sure as hell let him pick me up: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AEAUrwz_s_4