Saturday, December 16, 2017

William Schallert, A Man of Many Faces

 (This post is part of the What a Character! Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken and Freckled, and Paula's Cinema Club.)

The average person might best remember actor William Schallert as teacher Leander Pomfritt on Dobie Gillis or Patty Lane's father Martin on The Patty Duke Show. They might even remember him as the crochety Admiral Hargrade on Get Smart. Fans of classic television and classic film might well remember William Schallert from  any one of his many guest appearances on television shows or appearances in feature films. The simple fact is that Mr. Schallert was an incredibly prolific actor. He made his film debut in 1947 and made his last appearance on television in 2014. In the year 1960 alone he guest starred on twenty different shows, this in addition to holding down a regular role on the TV series Philip Marlowe. In addition to being extremely prolific, he was also extremely versatile. While most character actors tended stick to one certain type of role, William Schallert played several different types of roles throughout his career. Over the years he played bankers, scientists, lawyers, military officers, doctors, hillbillies, and many more.

Of course, while William Schallert was a very versatile actor, that is not to say that he was not identified with a specific sort of role more so than others. Quite simply, Mr. Schallert excelled at playing educated, well spoken men. Indeed, his two best known roles were of this type: Mr. Pomfritt on Dobie Gillis and Martin Lane on The Patty Duke Show.  Mr. Pomfritt was known for his deadpan jokes and often called his students "my young barbarians" or "my young unemployables" or something similar. Despite this he often served as a fount of wisdom for protagonists Dobie Gillis and Maynard G. Krebbs. Martin Lane was often exasperated by the antics of his daughter Patty (and sometimes her identical cousin Cathy as well), but maintained a sense of humour throughout and was ultimately supportive of her. In The Beat Generation (1959) William Schallert played Father Dinelli, the priest who counsels Francee Cullorah (played by Fay Spain), who is expecting a baby.  In The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969) William Schallert played a role not that far removed from Mr. Pomfritt on Dobie Gillis, that of science instructor Professor Quigley. One of his best guest appearances on television was on The Dick Van Dyke Show, playing Reverend Kirk, the father of a boy from whom Rob and Laura's son has apparently learned profanity.

Indeed, William Schallert played so many intelligent, well spoken men over the years that it is often surprising to see him play characters who were, well,  none too bright. In the 1957 Gunsmoke episode "Twelfth Night", Mr. Schallert played hillbilly Eben Hakes, who is determined to continue a long running feud with another hillbilly family. Eben is about as far from Mr. Promfitt or Martin Lane as one can get. He is none too bright and lives by a code of the hills that is alien to most people in polite society. In the movie Lonely Are the Brave (1962) William Schallert played Harry, the dim-witted deputy of Sheriff Morey Johnson (played by Walter Matthau).

Not only did William Schallert play many intelligent characters, but he was best known for characters who could be described simply as "nice". This was certainly true of Mr. Promfitt and Martin Lane. That having been said, it was not true of every character Mr. Schallert played. Indeed, in the famous Star Trek episode "The Trouble with Tribbles", he played a character of the sort for which fellow character actor Charles Lane was best known, the United Federation of Planets' officious Undersecretary of Agriculture Nilz Baris. Something of a stickler for details, Baris is one of the more unsympathetic roles Mr. Schallert ever played. Even less sympathetic is a role that William Schallert played on a guest appearance on Room 222, one particularly shocking given he had played Martin Lane on The Patty Duke Show. In the episode "Fathers and Sons" Mr. Schallert played Dr. Charles Garrett, an overly conservative father at odds with his son not only due to politics, but the fact that his son doesn't want to follow him into the medical field as well. In the Bonanza episode "Look to the Stars" William Schallert played another very unsympathetic role, that of stern, strict, and downright racist schoolmaster George Norton.

Indeed, not only were many of the roles William Schallert played over the years not exactly sympathetic, some were downright villainous. In the 1970 Gunsmoke episode "Albert" William Schallert played Jake Spence, the leader of a band of outlaws who takes a bank teller's wife hostage after he blames them for the theft of some of the bank's money. In the 2012 miniseries Bag of Bones William Schallert played an even more villainous character, millionaire Max Devore. Ruthless in the extreme, as a young man Devore was guilty of both rape and murder. In one of his earliest films,  The Man from Planet X (1951), William Schallert played completely amoral scientist Dr. Mears who is not below using torture to get what he wants. While he rarely played villains, William Schallert was very good when he did.

Of course, William Schallert might have been at his best playing wholly off-the-wall characters, often in make-up that made it very difficult to recognise the character as being played by William Schallert. Admiral Hargrade only appeared in four episodes of Get Smart (one of them being two parts of a three part episode), yet he remains one of the best remembered characters on the show. The original head of CONTROL, Admiral Hargrade is cantankerous, a bit senile, and positively ancient. Looking much older in make-up, William Schallert might only be recognisable as the Admiral to the casual viewer by his voice.  Another odd role that William Schallert played was that of folk singer Red Wooodloe on The Partridge Family. Sporting long hair and a moustache, Mr. Schallert is nearly unrecognisable as a folk singer whose salad days were decades ago. Such was William Schallert's versatility that he actually played three roles on The Patty Duke Show. In addition to his regular role as Martin Lane, he also appeared as two separate Lane relatives: Uncle Jed and Cathy's father Kenneth. Uncle Jed was essentially a country cousin who arrives just as Cathy is about to throw her first "adult" party. Kenneth was Martin's identical twin, distinguishable from Martin in that he has a moustache.

Given the length of William Schallert's career it would be impossible to address every role he ever played without writing an entire book. Indeed, IMDB lists 284 credits for his work in television alone! Among the other interesting roles played by Mr. Schallert were a nervous drummer who might be guilty of murder in the Have Gun--Will Travel episode "The Long Night", CIA Director Grauber in Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), Mayor Schubert in In the Heat of the Night (1967), and FDR's advisor Harry Hopkins in the mini-series War and Remembrance. As amazing as it seems given the sheer number of guest appearances Mr. Schallert made on various TV shows, he also had several regular or recurring roles on shows besides Dobie Gillis and The Patty Duke Show, including The Adventures of Jim Bowie; Hey, Jeannie!; Philip Marlowe; The Nancy Walker Show; The Nancy Drew Mysteries; The Waltons; The New Gidget; and The Torkelsons.

William Schallert was one of the most prolific actors to ever work in television, and one with a substantial career in film as well. Indeed, the average person might not recognise his name, but they would certainly recognise his face. Mr. Schallert was able to appear in so many films and TV shows precisely because he was something of a chameleon. He could essentially be anything a role demanded of him: a teacher with a dry wit; a caring father; a doddering old admiral; and so on. He truly was a man of many faces.

(For a more in depth look at William Schallert's career, read my eulogy of him upon the occasion of his death)


VP81955 said...

I was blessed to have interviewed Mr. Schallert in 2002, when he appeared in a stage play in New Jersey. We talked for nearly two hours, and he was a delightful raconteur.

Years later, I reprinted the article from that interview at

Enjoyed your piece on him, and your 2016 tribute to a man I call the quintessential character actor.

Paula said...

As you say, Schallert mostly portrayed nice guys, so much so that I believe he was in a drugstore or medication commercial in the '80s. I'd forgotten he could be a very bad dude indeed! Thanks Terry, for this eye-opening contribution to the WAC! Blogathon.

Paula said...

I can't find the ad I was thinking of, but he did do this one for health insurance in 2010:

Irish Jayhawk said...

What a true character actor! Always thought he would be like an ideal dad- because he played that role so well. Very calming presence. Per usual, another fascinating post from you, Terry. Thanks so much for joining our blogathon!

Caftan Woman said...

Marvelous choice and very well done. Have you heard Dennis Weaver's commentary on the Gunsmoke DVDs? It may have been the very episode you highlighted where Dennis' delighted shout of "Look, it's Bill Schallert" has forever cemented the actor I formerly referred to as William to Bill. Dennis was so affectionate in speaking of his friend.

One of my favourite TV performance of Bill's is on a two part Hawaii Five-O where he played a lawyer. One of those guys with a homespun southern accent, but sharp and pointed as a tack. Terrific.

In the movie Man on Fire, Bill was the court stenographer to Judge Anne Seymour and their byplay made me with the movie about a divorcing couple was more about the Judge and her underling. A sequel or a TV show was definitely in order.

The Metzinger Sisters said...

Schallert has always been one of my favorite character actors and I especially love watching him when he plays fathers ( like Nancy Drew's dad Carson in The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries and The Patty Duke Show ). Great choice!

Unknown said...

'Always loved William Schallert! 'A terrific actor and, by all accounts, he was a wonderful human being in his own right. 'Just a lovely man!

Silver Screenings said...

I just looked up his filmography on IMDB, and what a busy man! It must speak to his professionalism and his talent. I'll play closer attention the next time I see him on screen....which, as it turns out, should be fairly often!

Paula said...

I guess it's like Walter Brennan told Gary Cooper, don't be the star, and you'll always get work. Or, put another way, don't get hot, because then you'll never be cold.

Unknown said...

Excellent work!

I remember William Schallert from 'The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis' and the Kirk Douglas film, 'Lonely Are The Brave' opposite Walter Matthau's sheriff. Also his later work on 'The Patty Duke Show'. And as Ross Martin's temporary replacement opposite Robert Conrad on 'The Wild Wild West',