Saturday, February 4, 2012

Birthday Tribute: William Talman

I have been greatly looking forward to this post.

Today we honor William Talman, born February 4th, 1915. He was another star who appeared on stage as well as in the movies and on television. Although he was not in a great many movies, he brought some amazing characters to life. And of course on television, he gave us the incomparable and best version of Hamilton Burger we’ll ever have.

My earliest experience with seeing him in a role other than Hamilton was ten or more years ago, in The Hitchhiker. What a one to start with, eh? My brother had given us a DVD set of movies with Edward G. Robinson and Gary Cooper. The Hitchhiker was on Edward’s DVD.

As I recall, my dad was the first one to recognize our friend. I remember him exclaiming approximately, “Isn’t that Burger?!” And William delivered an incredible, appropriately chilling performance as the titular hitchhiker, a remorseless psychopath. (I also remember being bothered by a fly that kept buzzing around the room and that when it finally landed on the carpet, we paused the movie to catch it.) I can’t remember if we watched the film before or after Perry aired that night. I think I remember it ended and we were in time to watch at least some of Perry. I distinctly remember thinking “… I’m glad to see William play good old Hamilton Burger again.”

As mentioned, William had a wonderful sense of humor. One time he was accosted at a red light while in his convertible. The guy asked him if he was the Hitchhiker. When William said Yes, the guy slapped him and drove off. William commented that he never won an Academy Award, but that was the closest he would probably ever get.

I believe that was the only film I ever saw him in until I started deliberately seeking them out over the past year. I have since discovered some wonderful little-known gems, including several where he plays good guys.

One of the first I found was The Ballad of Josie, his last film and his second-to-last performance. THIS TV aired it around Labor Day and I recorded it. He played a district attorney in it. I’m sure that wasn’t a coincidence! The character was kind and good, just like Hamilton. My favorite scene in the movie is where he chews out George Kennedy’s character, who was the main jerk in the film. It was awesome. And I also love where he tells Josie that she should do whatever she wants to do in life.

Those with Netflix Streaming have access to Two-Gun Lady, the Western I mentioned on Wednesday. It would never win any awards, but gosh, it’s a fun way to spend 70 minutes. William plays a federal marshal who’s gone undercover to try to get the goods on the crooked Ivers family that runs a small, unnamed town.

The father long ago gunned down a man named Marshall, while one of the sons killed Mrs. Marshall in cold blood. He also tried to kill the 13-year-old daughter, but she managed to get away. For ten years she was raised by a kind couple and learned to sharpshoot, wanting to come back and kill the man who slaughtered her mother. When she does, her path inevitably crosses with the federal marshal’s. They end up falling in love and he convinces her that she can’t go through with her plan to gun down her mother’s murderer. Instead, they try to bring the family to justice within the law.

Of course, at only 70 minutes there’s not much time to develop a romance. But that problem plagues many Hollywood productions, so I just ignore it. It’s a very enjoyable venture with a fine cast. In addition to William and Peggie Castle, Marie Windsor plays a devious saloon girl in love with the wretched Ivers boy and Robert Lowery plays the upright man who owns the saloon.

In the film The Persuader, William has a dual role. He portrays twin brothers in another lawless Western town. The first brother is determined to stop the crook who runs their town, by forming a vigilante posse. But the town is too afraid to fall in with him and sadly, he is killed early on when he tries to stop the crook’s thugs from stealing his horses.

The second brother arrives a few days later, unaware of his twin’s death. He is stunned when he gets to the home and is greeted by a black ribbon on the door and the grieving widow. A pastor who has given up his large church in Atlanta because he feels inspired that this little town needs him more, he performs his brother’s funeral service and then sets about trying to find his own way to get this town in shape. He feels that a large problem is that the town has forgotten God, and that they must change their own hearts before they can hope to have success taking the town back from the evil running it.

The movie is largely about the characters and their various ideas about setting the town straight. A prominent character is the pastor’s nephew, grieving over his father’s death and angry at the criminal who ordered it. He decides to try to kill the guy, but he is swiftly overpowered. The sly man then suggests that he stick around a few days and see what they’re really all about. Although everyone else can see that the boy is a fool and he’ll never learn what he hopes to from the tricky man, he decides to go along with it.

First and foremost, The Persuader is a religious film. It’s not overbearing or preachy; it’s a beautiful production with a powerful message. In the end, the town does change. Not only do they turn back to God, they develop a newfound courage. In the climax, they all stand up to the crook and his men when he threatens to burn down the church they’ve all built. And the guy, finding a quiet respect for the pastor, backs off.

The film also has some very adorable things you’re not likely to find anywhere else. Have you ever seen William Talman petting kittens or holding one?

His most complex and dark good guy character is probably Captain Harper in the movie Smoke Signal. While Dana Andrews gets top billing and William only fourth, I can’t help but feel it’s just because Dana Andrews is the more well-known star of the two. The more I watch the film, the more I’m convinced that William’s character is the main one. Dana Andrews’ character and the leading lady, Piper Laurie, have less screen time than you’d expect from the two top-billers. Instead, the focus seems to be largely on Captain Harper as he leads his small group through the Colorado River Rapids as they try to escape Native Americans on the warpath and reach Fort Marble.

I also believe one of the movie’s main themes is how easy it is to misjudge people. Harper is bitter and hateful towards the supposed traitor Captain Halliday, who left to join the Utes and apparently was responsible for a battle that killed Harper’s brother. The other men feel the same. But on their journey they begin to see that Halliday is not what they thought. He’s a good, honorable man who risks his life for any of the others when they’re in trouble. And he reveals it was the deceased Major Evans who was causing trouble with the Native Americans, until they finally couldn’t take it and began descending upon them in war. Several tribes have united in the fight, and only the Apache chief can stop the bloodbath. Halliday is trying to get to him. Harper, however, is still suspicious. And as the movie goes on, the others begin to turn against him, believing he is as wretched as they thought Halliday was.

Harper is certainly an enigma. At one point he sends Halliday’s then-strongest sympathizer, Sergeant Miles, to get to Fort Marble ahead of them. Miles ends up killed by the Native Americans who have been following them along the top of the Grand Canyon. Most of the group believes that Harper deliberately sent Miles to his death because he wanted to testify in Halliday’s behalf at the upcoming court-martial. But when Harper overhears Private Livingston speaking bitterly about him, he looks distressed. The next morning he gets the group together and tells them they’ve forgotten that they’re soldiers and he considers them all equally responsible for helping get through this journey. The implication seems to be, as Sergeant Daly tried to assure the Private, that Harper did not have any ill intentions towards Miles. Most likely, he sent Miles because he had previously had more scouting experience than the others.

There are many indications throughout the film that Harper is a good man who is being misunderstood as much as Halliday. At another point, he loses his temper with Halliday and says some cruel things about him in relation to the Native American pendant he always wears. Halliday finally says it belonged to his wife, who died in the same battle that claimed Harper’s brother. Harper is honestly stunned and looks guilt-stricken.

By the climax, even Harper’s strongest supporter Sergeant Daly seems to be against him. Daly and the others still living threaten to mutiny if he won’t release Halliday to get to the Apache chief, instead of insisting on him coming to the court-martial. Harper refuses, and still acts like he plans to kill Halliday himself if they can’t make it to the court-martial (which he has threatened to do off and on). But the Apaches are waiting for Halliday on the banks as they emerge from the canyon near Fort Marble. Harper, showing the respect and trust for Halliday that has quietly developed throughout the venture, lets his gun slip from his fingers and gives Halliday a thinly-veiled okay to escape and go to the Apaches. Halliday does, and Harper orders the men to shoot at him, knowing that they’ll deliberately miss. The one girl, Major Evans’ daughter, has fallen in love with Halliday and thanks Harper for what he did. Harper smiles kindly and assures her that Halliday will be back, to which she agrees.

Both Harper and the marshal Dan Corbin from Two-Gun Lady appear in a Western story I’ve been writing. Of course, the townspeople are quite bemused by how much they look like. They are polar opposites in personality, but both are good people. The story takes place after the end of both movies and features my own imagining of how I imagine the resolutions to have gone. Halliday did return and undergo the court-martial, where Captain Harper testified in his behalf. Halliday was restored to his former position.

Among William’s other good guy movies are two Robert Mitchum pictures. In both he plays a good friend of Robert’s, and in both his poor characters die. In the afore-mentioned The Racket (which features Ray Collins as a crooked D.A.), William plays an honest policeman eventually killed by a mobster. And in the heart-wrenching war film One Minute to Zero, William plays an Air Force Colonel with a wife and two kids. He eventually dies during a mission saving Robert’s character and his unit.

One Minute to Zero also features the only times I’ve heard William sing. (And he’s very good.) He sings a few lines of Bird in a Gilded Cage during a scene where he’s showering and Robert’s character has accidentally gotten himself locked out of the apartment they share. And he sarcastically (but good-naturedly) sings a line of the Army song when they come upon two of the soldiers entertaining a bunch of Korean kids by blowing bubblegum.

I still haven’t gotten around to talking about to his television appearances yet. (Although I do remember briefly mentioning some of those before.) I believe his most poignant role was in an episode of Tales of Wells Fargo entitled Return of the Outlaw. His character, a wounded outlaw nursed back to health by a young woman who ends up helping him escape and running away with him, is really not a bad sort. He genuinely cares about the girl, although he doubts they can make a relationship work on the run and with their age gap. But she wants to stay with him. He senses she’s torn and really wants to go home, however, so when the main character comes looking for her, he has her go back with him. She pleads with him to come back and turn himself in if he loves her, but he’s afraid. Eventually, however, he does go back, because he loves her and hopes they can make it work after he does his time. But her angry father shoots and kills him without waiting for any explanation.

I was heartbroken by that one. I started writing a story as a follow-up to it, where they find he’s still alive but badly hurt.

I was also quite intrigued by his character Walt Archer from an episode of Wagon Train. Bitter and racist, he says some horrible things when he discovers that his friend’s wife has given birth to a Native American baby after she was raped. But Flint McCullough, one of the main characters, previously saw him being sweet and gentle with his little girl and realizes he’s really a good person. He tries to get at the heart of Walt’s bitterness and learns that he thinks Native Americans attacked their home, killing his father and rendering his mother catatonic. Walt and Flint end up getting into a fight and Walt receives a bloody nose. His mother suddenly screams at the sight of the blood and comes out of her state, where she reveals that it was not Native Americans but a white man and his mob that attacked. Walt is stunned and horrified. Wanting to turn over a new leaf and make amends, he goes back with Flint to his friend’s house to apologize.

We’ll be here all day if I try to talk about every one of his guest-spots I’ve loved, so I’ll just mention his role on Gunsmoke, in the episode Legends Don’t Sleep, and one of his two appearances on Have Gun-Will Travel, in The Shooting of Jessie May. Those are two very good and very sad ventures.

And then of course, Hamilton Burger. I talk all the time about how wonderful he is, so rather than try to cram it all into a few sentences, I’ll mainly provide another link to that defense I wrote for him. I added a couple more paragraphs a while back, and there’s still another I’ve been wanting to figure out how to slip in.

There’s just so many indications in so many episodes that he’s a kind person. I love how he’s often so polite with the witnesses and is concerned about the ones that break down. He tries to be so gentle with the ones who have especially had a rough time of it and seen particularly terrible things. And that holds true with the defendants, too. In The Wrathful Wraith, he is distressed when he sees the overwrought defendant crumbling from some of his comments. He’s concerned as it is that she might have not been in her right mind when she supposedly killed her husband (who had faked his death before that and had started “haunting” her). He meets with Perry and the judge in chambers and suggests a plea deal of innocent by reason of insanity. Perry is gracious but declines.

Hamilton is my favorite of William’s characters, but he brought so many amazing ones to life—good, bad, and troubled. I’m still looking for some of his more rare performances, but I’m thrilled with the amount I’ve found.

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