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
This guy Talbot was everywhere. We vividly remember him, mostly on television. We never knew his name, but it’s pretty clear most of the actors in Hollywood did. Thanks for this most interesting post, and thanks for remembering the character actors.
Another staple in the business was Bob Steele, (B or C Cowboy Star in a zillion movies) and later, a character actor in some really big movies “The Big Sleep” and “Of Mice and Men” We believe he did his own stunts in the “oaters” he starred in, which defined him as an athlete as well. There are a lot of interesting surprises about Bob Steele, his family and famous friends. Certainly, Bob Steele would be worthy of further investigation.
If I am not mistaken Bob Steele was also a regular character on the TV Series F TROOP..
I first heard of him in that Green Acres bit when I was a kid. It’s a very funny Reagan-as-governor parody that includes Talbot caressing an Oscar tenderly and includes this immortal bit of self-deprecating dialogue:
TALBOT: I was a movie star, you know.
LISA: Oh really? Which one were you?
Great account of Lyle Talbot’s checkered by lively career, Eve. I can’t say I felt quite as warmly about Lyle Talbot in his early incarnations as a bounder at Warner Brothers. Whenever he appeared in a movie, you just KNEW he was going to bring some form of trouble to the heroine (often of her own volition, though the script usually made him the bad guy).
I am really looking forward to reading the entire Margaret Talbot book too, esp. after the juicy morsels left in The New Yorker’s pages. You can read and hear Ms. Talbot talking about her father and mother in this NPR Interview:
BTW, the Talbot children are all quite accomplished and creative individuals, as their family website indicates:
Cheers! And a Happy Thanksgiving to you–Moira
Yes, but some of us like our Big, Boxy Bad Boys, though we often live to regret it.
Lyle Talbot was a stalwart actor, with as you say, an ebb and flow career. He also had a remarkably good voice. Very nice and well written account of Mr. Talbot.
I had the good fortune of meeting–actually “waiting-on” Mr. Lyle Talbot in the late 1980’s, when I was a singing-waiter at a restaurant in San Francisco that was located (and still is, I think…Max’s Opera Cafe) in the apartment complex he lived in. He was a regular patron and though I didn’t recognize him at first, the name rang a big bell (I was young and callow) that he had co-starred with my great-aunt, Grace Moore, in her most famous film, “One Night of Love” in 1934 (for which she was nominated for ‘Best Actress,’ losing to Claudette Colbert in “It Happened One Night”). I had never spoken to anyone who had actually known her (she was killed, of course, in a plane crash in 1947, long before I was born). When I mentioned my connection to her, he instantly lit up and went on and on about how lovely, how funny, charming, talented, etc. he remembered her as being. That rather cemented our “friendship,” and he always asked to be seated in my section. Good tipper, too, and always nattily dressed and absolutely charming. The term “couldn’t have been nicer” comes to mind. I sometimes wish I had been a little more informed about him and the wonderful career he had in the 1930’s (that would have required a trip to the library back then!). Rather shamefully, the MAIN reason I knew of him was because of my obsession (at the time) with the films of Ed Wood and his participation in them–I was too timorous to ask him about the Wood films, perhaps wrongly assuming he wouldn’t want to be remembered for those particular masterpieces. Wished I had known all the many great stars he’d worked with during his “matinee idol” years and asked him more about them! How nice of you to remember him this way, Eve!
I have not yet started his daughter’s book–it will be my long T’giving weekend reading–but I hope and expect she will not disillusion either of us. I mean, I know he was not perfect–that would be dull–but he really does seem a stand-up sort of fellow.
I am about halfway through Margaret Talbot’s book, which is wonderful. Happy to say Lyle was just as swell a guy as we thought–not deep or introspective or particularly smart, even, but a happy-go-lucky, geniunely nice guy it must have been a treat to have lunch with.
Talbot was always one of my favorites. No matter what kind of film he appeared in, he did his best.
Re Lyle Talbot … he appeared in an episode of “Newhart” where Bob discovered, at a party he attended, the chracter Talbot played was someone he’d always wanted to meet him but when he got to approach him, he’d passed away.
Doesn’t sound like it would be “funny”, but it was a great kicker.