Friday, November 15, 2019

Frank Faylen: More Than a Cab Driver

Many, perhaps most, characters actors found themselves typecast in a particular sort of role. Although he was capable of playing many other sorts of roles, Charles Lane found himself playing a succession of no-nonsense, hard-nosed, white collar workers throughout his long career. While Guy Kibbee could play other roles, he was most often cast as jovial, but scatter-brained characters. An exception to this rule was talented character Frank Faylen. It is true that he played taxi cab drivers in such films as Four's a Crowd (1938), Saturday's Children (1940), The Palm Beach Story (1942), and The Well Groomed Bride (1946). In fact, one of his most famous roles is a cabbie, that of Ernie Bishop in It's a Wonderful Life (1947). That having been said, he played much more than cab drivers. And while Frank Faylen specialised in playing average guys, there was a good deal of variety in those roles, everything from sympathetic characters to downright villainous. Indeed, one need only look at Frank Faylen's two most famous roles to see proof of his versatility. Not only did he play good-natured, laid-back cabbie Ernie Bishop in It's a Wonderful Life, but he also played hard-working, but high-strung storekeeper Herbert T. Gillis on the classic sitcom Dobie Gillis.

It should be little wonder that Frank Faylen would become a character actor of note, as entertainment was in his blood. He was born Frank Ruf on December 8 1905 in St. Louis, Missouri to the vaudeville team of Ruf and Cusik. He made his first appearance on stage while he was only a baby. He attended St. Joseph's Preparatory School in Kirkwood, Missouri before beginning a career in vaudeville and on the stage. It was in 1928 that he married Carol Hughes, who would later play opposite both Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. The two of them formed a vaudeville act known as Faylen and Hughes, with Carol Hughes playing a scatter-brained, Gracie Allen type and Frank Faylen playing the straight man. The two would remain married for 57 years and had two children

In 1935 Faylen and Hughes arrived in Hollywood in pursuit of film careers. Carol Hughes would appear as a chorine in George White's Scandals (1935) and a similarly small role in Ceiling Zero (1936) before being signed to Warner Bros. Like his wife, Frank Faylen would also be signed to Warner Bros. He made his film debut in 1936 as a police radio dispatcher in Road Gang. While at Warner Bros. he played primarily bit parts.  Often the parts were so small that  Mr. Faylen would later remark, "If you sneezed, you missed me." Among the few Warner Bros. movies made in the Thirties to feature Frank Faylen for more than a few seconds is Dance Charlie Dance (1937) in which he played arrogant choreographer Ted Parks.

Frank Faylen's fortunes would improve after he left Warner Bros. and went freelance. In Curtain Call (1940) he played Spike Malone, the press agent for a pair of theatrical producers plotting to get even with a demanding actress by casting her in an absolutely terrible play. Poverty Row studio Monogram would team Frank Faylen with long-time Laurel & Hardy foil Charlie Hall for two of Mr. Faylen's most substantial early roles. In Father Steps Out (1941) CEO of the Bay Shore Railroad J.B. Matthews (played by Jed Prouty) jumps off a train and winds up spending time with a pair of hoboes played by Frank Faylen and Charlie Hall. In Top Sergeant Mulligan (1941) Frank Faylen and Charlie Hall would have even bigger roles. They play a pair of ne'er-do-wells (Pat Dolan and Budd Doolittle) who join the army to escape an overly aggressive bill collector named Mulligan (played by Nat Pendleton). Unfortunately, their sergeant at boot camp turns out to be Mulligan himself.

Over the next few years Frank Faylen would continue to play bit parts and somewhat more substantial roles, appearing in such films as A-Haunting We Will Go (1942), The Palm Beach Story (1942), Good Morning, Judge (1943), and The Canterville Ghost (1944). What would be his big break would come with The Lost Weekend in 1945. In the film  Mr. Faylen played a role as far removed from Ernie Bishop or Herbert T. Gillis as one could get, the sadistic male nurse "Bim" Nolan in the alcoholic ward in which writer Don Birnam (played by Ray Milland) finds himself. Not only does Bim have very little sympathy for the patients in the ward, but he actually mocks them. At one point he even taunts Birnam with a graphic description of delirium tremens. While Ernie Bishop is the cabbie everyone wants when he or she gets into a taxi, Bim Nolan is the nurse one never wants to see when he or she is in hospital.

Following The Lost Weekend the quality of Frank Faylen's roles improved dramatically. Indeed, it was the following year that he played Ernie Bishop in It's a Wonderful Life. Ernie is no mere bit part, playing a major role in It's a Wonderful Life. Along with Mr. Martini (played by William Edmunds), Ernie represents the sort of ordinary guy that the Bailey Building and Loan helps out. Ernie is about as far from Bim in The Lost Weekend as one can get. He is among the many residents of Bedford Falls who prays for George Bailey in his time of crisis. He acts as the doorman on George and Mary's wedding night at the old Granville house (later their home). It is Ernie who reads the telegram from Sam Wainwright in which Sam instructs his office to advance George up to twenty-five thousand dollars. Even in the timeline in which George is never born, in which Ernie has lost his wife and kids and lives in a shack in Potter's Field, Ernie is still warm-hearted, showing concern for Bert the Cop (who appears to be his best friend in both timelines).

Given the impression Frank Faylen makes in both The Lost Weekend and It's a Wonderful Life, it should come as no surprise that he rarely played bit parts afterwards. In fact, from the late Forties into the Fifties, he would regularly appear in various Westerns. Among these was Whispering Smith (1947), in which he played  Whitey Du Sang, a gunslinger for hire and a sworn enemy of Whispering Smith (played by Alan Ladd).  Not only does Whitey have no qualms about committing murder, but he has no problem about betraying those who trust him either. In Blood on the Moon (1948) Frank Faylen played crooked Indian agent Jake Pindalest. Not every character Mr. Faylen played in Westerns was a bad guy. In The Lone Gun (1954) he played Fairweather, a charismatic gambler who also happens to be one of the few friends of the film's protagonist, town marshal Cruze (played by George Montgomery).

Not only would Frank Faylen appear frequently in Westerns, but in film noirs as well. In Race Street (1948) he played Phil Dixon, the operator of a gambling syndicate. Curiously, while Frank Faylen played a lot of heavies in Westerns, he played quite a few fairly upright characters in his film noirs. Most notable of these is Stan Hogan in 99 River Street (1953), a taxi cab company dispatcher who is as good-hearted as Ernie Bishop ever was. In film noirs Mr. Faylen sometimes found himself in law enforcement. He was Det. Gallagher in Detective Story (1951), Police Inspector Anderson in The Sniper (1952), and Commissioner Haskell in Riot on Cell Block 11 (1954).

While Frank Faylen appeared in plenty of Westerns and film noirs in the Forties an Fifties, he also continued to appear in comedies. In Road to Rio (1947), Mr. Faylen played the hit man Trigger, who along with Tony (played by Joseph Vitale), is hired to deal with Sweeney and Barton (played by Bing Crosby and Bob Hope respectively). Fortunately for Sweeney and Barton, neither Trigger nor Tony are particularly competent. Frank Faylen also appeared with Bob Hope in My Favourite Spy (1951), making a brief appearance as Newton, a drunk casino patron. He also had the role of Sgt. Chillingbacker in Francis (1950), the first of the  Francis the Talking Mule movies.

Of course, like many character actors, Frank Faylen would have a career in television. He made his television debut in an episode of Racket Squad in 1951. He made guest appearances on such shows as Maverick, The Ann Sothern Show, Wanted: Dead or Alive, and Whirlybirds before being cast as Herbert T. Gillis on the sitcom Dobie Gillis (originally titled The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis). Dobie Gillis would prove to be a hit and would have a long, successful run in syndication, so that ultimately Herbert T. Gillis could well be Frank Faylen's best known role besides Ernie Bishop. Herbert T. Gillis was the father of the title character, who was always exacerbated by his son's antics. Herbert T. Gillis owned a grocery and was a veteran of World War II, both of which he was very proud. Not only was Herbert a hard worker, but he also tended to pinch pennies. As a result he constantly found himself frustrated by the fact that Dobie was interested only in girls and money, and would only work hard with regards to the former. In the first season, before a sponsor complained, it was not unusual for Herbert to exclaim, "I gotta kill that boy. I just gotta..."As aggravated as Herbert could sometimes be at Dobie's behaviour, it was still clear that he loved his son and only wanted the best for him. Frank Faylen would reprise his role as Herbert T. Gillis in the 1977 unsold television pilot Whatever Happened to Dobie Gillis?.

After Dobie Gillis ended its run Frank Faylen continued to appear in movies and television shows. Perhaps because of his association with Dobie Gillis, in his later career he primarily appeared in comedies. In The Monkey's Uncle (1965) he had a memorable turn as school board member Mr. Dearborne. He also appeared in the comedies Fluffy (1965) and When the Boys Meet the Girls (1965). On television Frank Faylen guest starred on such shows as My Mother the Car, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Petticoat Junction. He had a notable guest shot on That Girl in the two part episode "There Sure Are a Bunch of Cards in St. Louis." He played Bert Hollinger, the father of Ann Marie's boyfriend Donald (Ann Marie being played by Marlo Thomas and Donald being played by Ted Bessell). Frank Faylen's last appearance on film would be as Mr. Keeney in Funny Girl in 1968. His last television appearance would be on an episode of Quincy M.E. in 1978.

Frank Faylen died on August 2 1985 at the age of 79 from pneumonia. He left behind a remarkable career. Even as a bit player, Frank Faylen appeared in such legendary films as They Won't Forget (1937), Gone with the Wind (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), They Drive by Night (1940), and The Reluctant Dragon (1941). As his career progressed his roles became more substantial, so that he would have significant parts in films from Hangman's Knot (1952) to Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957).

While other character actors were known for a specific type of role, Frank Faylen managed to escape typecasting and played a wide variety of roles. Indeed, it must be pointed out that his three best known roles are very different from each other. Bim in The Lost Weekend is sadistic and actually takes joy in his taunting of the patients in his charge. Ernie Bishop in It's a Wonderful Life is respected in his community and would do anything for his community. He truly has a heart of gold. Herbert Gillis is a bit of a curmudgeon, particularly with regards to his son Dobie, but in the end he is only looking out for his son's best interests. The three characters couldn't be more different, and yet they were all played by the same man. In many ways they are Frank Faylen's career in a microcosm. He played everything from heavies to good-hearted characters and everything in between.


Caftan Woman said...

A grand look at a favourite actor.

Long before I finally saw The Lost Weekend, my father prepared us for Bim Nolan. "Wait till you see that guy!" He was definitely as advertised.

Silver Screenings said...

Frank Faylen definitely avoided stereotyping, as you mentioned. In fact, it always takes me a few minutes to recognize him because he seems so different in every role.

Vienna said...

Great tribute. Frank was in so many films. Two I recall are 99 River Street, as John Payne’s loyal friend and Hangman’s Knot with Randolph Scott.

FlickChick said...

Well, he will always be Mr. Gillis to me, or at least one half of the original Bert & Ernie, but thank you for a tribute to a career that was so much more than those parts. He was a familiar face and we are always oh so glad to see him any time he appears.

The Classic Movie Muse said...

I've always loved Ernie from It's a Wonderful Life, but didn't know much about the man behind the character. It's cool to hear he wasn't typecast and was a very versatile actor. I'm going to keep my eye out for him in the credits now! Thanks for sharing this tribute to him.