Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Charles Gilpin

This is only the third time I've written about an actor based on just one film, but in the case of the performance of Charles Gilpin in the 1926 silent movie, Ten Nights in a Bar Room, that's all the proof needed to see what a brilliant actor he was.

In the film he plays a man who turns to alcohol after his business is stolen from him. His journey takes him from drunken rock bottom to sober redemption. And what's so impressive is that all of this is done without uttering one word of dialogue. I'm confident in saying that Charles Gilpin gives not only one of the greatest performances of the silent era, but of any era, and if people weren't so afraid to watch a silent movie, I'm confident they would agree.

Ten Nights in a Bar Room, produced by the Colored Players Film Corporation, was released at a time when Hollywood made movies for white audience with white actors. Lower budget movies featuring all Black cast were made - called Race Films, but they were only shown at Black theatres and rarely received any mainstream press. In fact it wasn't until recently that journalist discovered there was an entirely different kind of ethnic experience that existed long before the Black cinema phase known to many as the Blaxploitation era.

Charles Gilpin, or often referred as Charles S. Gilpin was mainly a stage actor. He received most of his notoriety by playing the lead role in the original Broadway cast of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones. It's a shame more film work didn't come his way because his work in Ten Nights in a Bar Room is a powerhouse of a performance that leaves one begging to see more. And the fact that one film is all that's left of his work is a shame to both the world of the arts, as well as his legacy. 

Friday, February 17, 2023

Virginia Leith

Fans of the 1962 mad scientist classic, The Brain that Wouldn't Die, are familiar with the wonderful performance of Virginia Leith. If you've seen it, it's hard to get the image of her decapitated talking head out of your mind. And in looking at her whole career as an actor, one will find a talented performer who should be remembered more for her whole body of her work, rather than just her head.

Virginia Leith really had two separate acting careers. Her most prolific, and memorable work was between 1953 and 1962, before she took a break from acting. She returned to her profession in 1977 where she mostly showed up in television shows that ranged from Starsky and Hutch to the The White Shadow. It's her early work, though, that stands the test of time and really showcases her talent.

She didn't talk in her first film, Fear and Desire, but her featured role as the girl captured by soldiers who don't know what to do with her is haunting. This lead to bigger parts in equally powerful films such as Violent Saturday and A Kiss Before Dying. But it's her work in the first episode of the anthology series, One Step Beyond, where she plays a woman possessed by the ghost of a murder victim, is where this wonderful actor really gets the opportunity to shine.

A lot of odd but good movies came out of the 1950's and early 1960's, and Virginia Leith happened to star in quite of few of them. By today's standards, many of her films might be considered B movies, but the quality of her work in these films is something any actor could be proud of, making Virginia Leith my pick for today for being Not Very Famous...but should be.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Gloria Foster

Any scholar of Black Cinema is familiar with the ground breaking film, Nothing But A Man, which featured an ensemble of incredible performances that are just as impressive today as they were when the movie debuted in 1964. It's hard to walk away from that film and not be moved by the honest acting of Ivan Dixon, Abbey Lincoln, Yaphet Kotto, Julius Harris, and today's pick for the Not Very Famous...but should be, Gloria Foster.

Remembered mostly today for her role as, The Oracle, in the first two Matrix films, Gloria Foster's forty year career spanned from the early 1960's to her sudden death in 2001. It was a creative journey that took her from Broadway and Off Broadway, where she won 3 Obie Awards, to the big screen and the small one.

Unlike her many talented peers, she was not a part of the Black cinema phase of the 1970's, often referred to as the Blaxploitation era. It was a time in Hollywood where Black actors thrived in low budget action films, only to be pushed aside when the market became saturated with an abundance of knockoffs of lesser quality. So while the opportunities for Black actors became scarce, Gloria Foster continued on, mostly in television ranging from guest starring in shows that range from American Playhouse to Law and Order.

She certainly had the talent, but never had the high profile project for anyone to discover her in. Co-staring in Leonard Part 6, considered one of the worse films ever made, didn't help, although that was no fault of hers. With The Matrix films she was certainly on her way to being noticed, even though those movies, as good as they were, never showcased her true talent like her early work did in Nothing But A Man.

One can only wonder what wonderful work she could have given the world had she just had more opportunities. I guess we'll never know, but by the work she left behind, I think we already do.

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Paul Harris

Early in his Broadway career, Paul Harris secured roles in the National tour of Showboat, and a world tour of Porgy and Bess. So it's no surprise that the first film role he played was the leading one in the Othello inspired drama, All Night Long, from 1962.

Set in jazz clubs, Harris plays piano man, Aurelius Rex, who, like Othello, is lead to believe his beautiful wife is cheating on him. With the exception of a more hopeful ending, All Night Long follows the main storyline of the popular Shakespeare tale. And just like the play, it's the lead role that captures the heart of the piece. And Paul Harris does so with quiet intensity, proving that subtlety is often the right choice.

One would have thought that after such a powerful introduction in the film world, other equally memorable parts would follow. And although Paul Harris is unforgettable in every role he played, most of his following characters were supporting or smaller. His only other leading role came in the 1974 little seen crime drama, Jive Turkey, where he gives another riveting performance, this time playing racketeer, Pasha, trying to stay one step ahead of both the police, and the mob.

Perhaps his most watched film is one in which he had a supporting role, that of Gator, the pimp in the Issac Hayes action thriller, Truck Turner. And even though lovers of Black cinema from the 1970's may be familiar with that movie, most people have probably never heard of Paul Harris. This is a cinematic shame, for his work is proof he had the talent and natural presence to go far in the world of film and television.

Although not a name one thinks of when naming great actors, Paul Harris was one. And if you are lucky enough to stumble upon one of the many obscure films he was a part of, you will most likely agree that he was Not Very Famous...but should be.

Friday, February 3, 2023

Royal Dano

Royal Dano's face is probably more recognizable than his name. And even that is tough because he looked and acted differently in practically every role. The one link to familiarity was the quirky, oddball characters he usually played.

He was never the leading man. And quite often his role was smaller than supporting. However, it was his ability to make a minor character memorable is what contributed to so many movies and televisions shows being better than they would have been with a lesser actor.

No matter the medium, or size of the role, Royal Dano owned his moments in the spotlight. From Abraham Lincoln in the television show Omnibus, a bizarre anthology series from the early days of television, to Farmer Green in the cult comedy/horror film, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, one is always surprised at the amount of intensity one actor could add to a character which only occupied a few scenes.

From The Rifleman to Gunsmoke, and The Red Badge of Courage to Moby Dick, with literally hundreds of other equally memorable performances rounding out his career, Royal Dano is genuine "royalty" in the world of the Not Very Famous...but should be.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Lynn Hamilton

Watching an old episode of Mannix late one night, I stumbled onto an actor's layered performance that had me glued to the screen. That actor was Lynn Hamilton. I thought she looked familiar but I couldn't place her. About a year later, while watching a rerun of Sanford and Son, it all came back to me. She played the girlfriend of Fred Sanford for several seasons.

As I admired her ability to equally share the spotlight with that scene stealer, Redd Fox, I realized she also had other recurring roles on several popular televisions shows like The Waltons, and The Practice. And between those shows, she was Vivian Potter on the soap opera, Generations.

Lynn Hamilton's acting career ran between 1958 and 2009. As well as being all over television in guest starring roles in a variety of shows that range from Gunsmoke to Judging Amy, and Room 222 to The Golden Girls, she also popped up regularly in many mainstream movies. Although her film roles were not as large, she still managed to hold her own in such screen classics like, Lady Sings the Blues, Buck and the Preacher, and Leadbelly, just to name a few.

She was a very good working actor, but sadly, did so in a time where opportunities were hard to come by for a person of color. Watching many of the performances of this wonderful talent, I realize what a treasure her work is. And I firmly believe, had she been born 40 years later she would be a household name with at least one Emmy or Oscar nomination to her credit.

Friday, December 30, 2022

Elsie Ames

One does not have to be a great actor in order to be famous. In the case of Elsie Ames, though, she wasn't even a good actor. Some may go as far as saying, bad. Or at best, an over-actor. And yet, the film work she left behind is as memorable as some of her famous co-stars, that range from Buster Keaton to Gena Rowlands.

A star she was not. A novelty she was. And a memorable one at that. As half of the vaudeville dance team of Ames and Arno, she was more of a knockabout rag doll than an actual dancer. Their rough and tumble dance routine eventually made it to the big screen in the Bing Crosby musical, Double or Nothing. 

In 1940, producer Julies White, of The Three Stooges fame, thought she would be a good partner for Buster Keaton, who had just joined Columbia Pictures growing short subjects department. Keaton, as well as the studio, had high hopes in revitalizing his derailed career, and White felt that teaming him with Elsie Ames would be the perfect match.

However, she would have been a better fit with The Three Stooges, as her style of physical humor was far more knockabout than Buster Keaton's, making the films they made together more interesting than actually good. Like them or not, though, the jaw-dropping pratfalls that Elsie Ames does without a stunt double are a pure joy to witness.

Later in life, she joined up with John Cassavetes and his stock company of actors, appearing briefly in a couple of his films. There's no slapstick in those performances, but she is in a scene in Minnie and Moskowitz where Gena Rowlands falls down some stairs. I have to wonder if Ms. Ames gave Ms. Rowlands some pointers.

Her work with Buster Keaton is definitely worth checking out. And while her acting style is actually quite annoying, her stunts are amazingly memorable, making Elsie Ames my pick today for being Not Very Famous...but should be.