Features:Biography: Sidney Toler
Billy Benedict’s show-business career spanned six decades — but he played only a handful of roles. Sometimes his character had a name, more often it didn’t, and most often it was the same role: the skinny messenger with the striking mop of blond hair.
He was born in Haskell, Oklahoma on April 16, 1917. As a teenager he enjoyed performing in local productions, and was an accomplished dancer. He relocated to California and made his movie debut in 1935, in the Edward Everett Horton comedy $10 Raise, which incidentally marked the film debut of another Laurel & Hardy co-star, Rosina Lawrence. For years Billy Benedict would barge into dozens and dozens of films as a newsboy, office boy, copy boy, or messenger boy. His one Laurel & Hardy credit is Great Guns, in which country-boy Billy, sitting on a corral fence, has a single line of dialogue.
Benedict’s individual roles weren’t big enough to monopolize his time, so he was free to work at the other movie studios. When Universal decided to cash in on the popularity of the Dead End Kids, the original kids had moved on to other projects, so the studio recruited a group of replacements and formed a new gang called the Little Tough Guys. What seemed to be a one-shot assignment for Billy Benedict turned into a major facet of his career, as he became a charter member of the movies’ tough-kid gangs. From the Little Tough Guys to the East Side Kids, and finally to the Bowery Boys, Billy Benedict mugged and slugged his way through dozens of roughneck comedies. Interestingly, Benedict occasionally played villains in these movies, but after 1946 he was firmly established as “Whitey,” the grinning, simpleton friend of dopey Huntz Hall.
Benedict continued to play character roles in features (two of the larger ones are in Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch and Gloria Jean’s Moonlight in Vermont) and serials (The Adventures of Captain Marvel, Perils of Nyoka, Brenda Starr, Reporter). He could be a slow-witted hayseed (as in the Mae West–W. C. Fields comedy My Little Chickadee, with Benedict wearing dark hair for once) or a loyal, comic-relief sidekick, but usually he was a messenger boy, dashing in and out of the movie. (In the 1946 musical Do You Love Me?, Benedict was a singing messenger boy.)
Billy Benedict was enough of a name to warrant star billing by 1944 (as one of the East Side Kids), but as the years progressed Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall became the focal points of their movies, shunting Benedict into the background. He soldiered on with the Bowery Boys until 1951, when the 34-year-old “teenager” finally left the series. Late in life he explained why: he had gotten tired of the offstage fights. Leo Gorcey would loudly and argumentatively impose his will over the various productions, leading to backstage dramas and disputes.
Toward the end of his Bowery Boys tenure, Benedict formalized his billing as “William” Benedict, but it didn’t help his chances as a character actor. Casting directors still saw him as Billy Benedict, the messenger boy. Incredibly, in the 1950s he was still being cast as newsboys (as in Ed Wood’s low-budget feature Bride of the Monster). So the veteran actor went back to what he’d been doing when he started making movies: playing small roles and bits. This sustained his career for the rest of his life.
In the 1970s Benedict was a familiar face in movies (notably The Sting, as a croupier) and television (as “Archie Bunker’s” nasty neighbor McNab on “All in the Family”), but he was still typecast. In TV shows and commercials, the perennial white-haired young man delivering telegrams became the perennial white-haired old man sending telegrams. He also appeared regularly in California-based TV shows (like Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show”) and TV commercials (as in a memorable “Bonomo Kid” ad that also featured Western sidekick Dub “Cannonball” Taylor).
The soft-spoken Benedict was a popular member of Hollywood’s Way Out West tent of Sons of the Desert, and the erstwhile Little Tough Guy attended the 1999 “class reunion” of former Universal contract players. In late 1999 he underwent heart surgery but died on Thanksgiving Day. He was 82.
A latter-day interview quotes Billy Benedict, the former dancer, as having “never once” danced in movies. He did — in the 1950 musical comedy Blues Busters — but his lapse of memory isn’t surprising, since this talented actor played in so many films. It may never be possible to accurately chronicle all of Mr. Benedict’s movies.Copyright © 2017 by Scott MacGillivray.
He was one of the biggest crooks in the movies. In the 1940s, any feature-film script calling for a villainous swindler would usually be handed to Douglas Fowley. He played a dapper, dangerous, pencil-mustached gangster in dozens of movies, including Laurel & Hardy’s Jitterbugs. It’s a typical Fowley role: he is an underworld figure who answers to an even higher underworld figure, and he disarms his victims with ingratiating words and a toothy smile.
Born Daniel Vincent Fowley in New York City on May 30, 1911, Fowley attended St. Francis Xavier’s Military Academy in New York. While in his teens he developed an interest in the theater, and played in local stock companies. He was proficient enough to become a dramatic coach, and he played bits in New York-based film productions. In 1932 he moved to Hollywood for more stage work, and in 1934 he began working steadily in pictures, under the aegis of producer Sol Wurtzel and his busy “B” unit at 20th Century-Fox. Fowley was a typical Wurtzel contract player: he worked often, first in bit roles, then moving up to small dialogue parts, and finally to featured player. Fowley is clean-shaven in his earliest roles; in the late 1930s he adopted a pencil mustache which established him as a premier villain.
Like many typecast actors, Fowley was capable of a wider range — he was a skilled performer who could play many different parts equally well. He played a bitter murder suspect in Charlie Chan on Broadway, a gambler in, appropriately enough, Mr. Moto’s Gamble, a crooked taxi baron in In Fast Company, a drunk who causes a disastrous commotion in Mighty Joe Young, a saloon sharpie in the Cisco Kid western Satan’s Cradle, and a worried henchman in the stark police procedural Armored Car Robbery, as well as frequent castings on either side of the law in melodramas. He almost always had supporting roles, but he did play a few romantic leads during the wartime manpower shortage. In fact, his films were often made so quickly, and he could play supporting roles so effortlessly, that he worked in pictures a few days at a time while serving in the United States Navy!
Douglas Fowley had a definite knack for comedy. Most movie fans know him from Singin’ in the Rain as “Roscoe Dexter,” the frustrated movie director. In the opening scene of The Band Wagon he is the smiling but increasingly nervous auctioneer who desperately tries to entice the crowd with his wares. In the early 1940s he worked for Hal Roach in a few comedy featurettes, notably 1941’s Tanks a Million, in which Fowley plays an Army officer who is amazed, bewildered, and dumbfounded by a recruit with a photographic memory.
Producer Sam Katzman, noted for cranking out successful movies on low budgets, hired Fowley to play a high-school football coach In Monogram’s “Teen Agers” comedy Junior Prom. Fowley (clean-shaven once more, apparently during his Navy hitch) registers exasperation with his inept team, and finally tries to leave the field with suitcase in hand! When Sam Katzman liked certain performers, he’d remember them for other roles, and that’s why Douglas Fowley turns up in the Columbia B musical Manhattan Angel. Fowley makes an unbilled surprise appearance as a fashion photographer who simply can’t make sense of his models’ rapid chatter!
Fowley was often resourceful before the cameras, and added comic touches to a stereotypical bad-guy role. In the Screen Guild crime drama Arson, Inc., Fowley plays the villain along the usual lines, but when he expects pretty Anne Gwynne for a romantic evening and old-maid Maude Eburne shows up instead, Fowley reacts with a memorable take worthy of the best comedians. Columbia used him frequently: in the B comedy He’s a Cockeyed Wonder, mobster Fowley fishes Mickey Rooney out of a swimming pool and barks, “I’ve thrown back bigger ones than this!” Also at Columbia, Fowley is the tough guy driven almost to distraction in two “Blondie” features. In one of them he apparently substituted for screen menace Sheldon Leonard at the last minute: Fowley’s character is still named “Blackie Leonard.”
In the 1950s, when fewer studios made fewer movies, Fowley accepted lesser assignments like Cat-Women of the Moon, featuring Fowley in 3-D as a spaceship navigator (and he served as the film’s dialogue director). He also did some television, notably in the Hugh O’Brian series “Wyatt Earp,” and in “The Abbott and Costello Show.” According to Bob Satterfield of the California Sons of the Desert, Fowley and Bud Abbott passed the time exchanging lines from Shakespeare’s plays. Fowley tried to establish himself as a director but his efforts yielded only one film, a B jungle thriller called Macumba Love, produced independently and released through United Artists in 1960.
Fowley’s private life was seldom stable, which may explain his on-again-off-again career during his later years. He was reportedly married eight times, and had occasional personal problems. Things turned around for him in 1970, when he married for the last time (a union which lasted 27 years, until his death). In the 1970s the former fashion-plate gangster was playing white-haired old coots in TV-movies and Western adventures, and was now billing himself as “Douglas V. Fowley.” A short-lived ABC sitcom of 1979, “Detective School (One Flight Up),” had urban misfits aspiring to be gumshoes. Fowley’s comic timing was the best thing in the show: when bossy harridan Lawanda Page struck a “sexy” pose and crooned, “Check it out! Check it out!” grizzled wino Douglas Fowley yelled back, “Throw it out! Throw it out!”Health problems overtook his career in the 1980s; his final film was a 1981 episode of the “Father Murphy” TV series. His retirement years, although plagued with illness, were happy. He died on May 21, 1998, nine days before his 87th birthday.
Douglas Fowley belongs in the character actors’ hall of fame. It’s nice to know that he worked with Laurel & Hardy at least once in his career.Copyright © 2017 by Scott MacGillivray.
Some of Laurel & Hardy’s co-stars were often associated with a single type of character part: Jack Norton usually played drunks, Eric Blore servants, Charles Middleton villains, and so on. Character actor Sidney Toler made dozens of films over 17 years, but he is generally identified with his most famous role: “Charlie Chan.” When Warner Oland, who personified the wily Oriental detective in films, died in 1938, 20th Century-Fox scoured the casting directories for a suitable replacement. Amid much publicity the studio settled on a relatively obscure background player named Sidney Toler, and the “Charlie Chan” mysteries made him a star.
Sidney Toler was born in Warrensburg, Missouri on April 28, 1874. A graduate of the University of Kansas, he played prominent roles in popular plays of the day, including “Lulu Belle” and “Canary Dutch.” He also wrote one play, “Belle of Richmond.”
He entered films at the dawn of sound, in 1929’s Madame X. Toler’s stock-in-trade was resigned grumpiness, which he often used for comic effect. In Speak Easily (1932), stage manager Toler’s reactions to the Buster Keaton-Jimmy Durante antics around him are very funny. (Not all of Toler’s roles were this prominent; he’s a crowd extra in The Marx Brothers’ 1933 film Duck Soup.)
Laurel & Hardy’s Our Relations gave Toler the reasonably good role of the grouchy captain of the boys’ ship (“And don’t call me Cappy!”). Toler was a dependable character player but he didn’t make a great impression on audiences until he became “Charlie Chan.”
Sol Wurtzel, who later produced most of Laurel & Hardy’s wartime films, had been making the Chan mysteries steadily until star Warner Oland passed away and “Number One Son” Keye Luke bowed out. Wurtzel wanted to keep the series going, but he was typically cautious about Sidney Toler; he tried the actor for a single picture before committing to a series. Toler caught on immediately, and he continued in the role almost exclusively for the rest of his career. When Fox discontinued the series in 1942, Toler returned to character work but his Oriental portrayals now found him cast as an ethnic type in exotic settings, and these were only supporting roles.
The 68-year-old actor, evidently recognizing that his only chance for starring roles would be as Charlie Chan, bought the screen rights to the character himself. He tried to interest Fox in a deal in which he would produce the films and Fox would release them. This might have worked a few years later, when independent producers had more chances for releasing outlets with major studios, but in 1943 Fox said no — not surprising since the Chan boxoffice receipts were slumping anyway, and Fox had already written off the series.
Toler approached various producers, trying to revive the Charlie Chan property. Philip N. Krasne, a prominent Hollywood attorney who often invested in motion picture productions, was receptive to Toler’s pitch, and with financing assured Toler found a berth at Monogram Pictures. Monogram was a “budget” studio without too many star attractions, and considered landing Toler and Charlie Chan a great coup. This proven property would open doors for Monogram: theater managers who ordinarily wouldn’t go near Monogram product took a chance on the new Chan series. To Monogram’s credit, the studio hired major-name supporting actors to give the productions some stature, and Charlie Chan’s return was welcomed by moviegoers.
Sidney Toler’s “Chan” was less placid and more acid than his predecessor, and his annoyed remarks to Numbers Two, Three, or Four Sons, and to “Birmingham, the chauffeur” show Toler as his delightfully grumpy best. He also took part in the comic moments of the Chans, notably the finale of Dark Alibi, in which Mantan Moreland and Ben Carter do their “incomplete sentence” act and Toler joins in! Toler’s last non-Chan role was in the Fred Allen–Jack Benny comedy It’s in the Bag (1945), and even this had Toler good-naturedly kidding his meal ticket: he’s a sour plainclothes detective who occasionally speaks without prepositions, like “Mr. Chan” himself!
At a time in life when many actors would be idle and in quiet retirement, Sidney Toler was in his seventies, making three Charlie Chan features a year for Monogram. In 1946, diagnosed with cancer, Toler filmed two Chan features in increasing pain. To minimize the demands on Toler, Monogram hired Victor Sen Young, his Number Two Son from Fox. Young and Mantan Moreland carry much of the action in Toler’s last few films. Like Warner Oland, Sidney Toler died in professional harness; now gravely ill, Toler was positively heroic in his determination to complete one more film, The Trap, before the illness took his life at the age of 73.
When today’s audiences see Sidney Toler in Our Relations, they usually recognize “Charlie Chan.” His scenes with Laurel & Hardy made for some amusing comedy. If only 20th Century-Fox had used Sidney Toler in a Laurel & Hardy movie — or Laurel & Hardy in a Sidney Toler movie!Copyright © 2016 by Scott MacGillivray.
Scott MacGillivray’s Laurel & Hardy: From the Forties Forward was the first book to fully chronicle the later careers of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and everything that followed, from theatrical reissues to home videos. If you enjoyed the book the first time, you’ll like this new edition even more. The author has expanded the original text by more than 50 percent, to include new insights, new information, and new discoveries in Laurel & Hardy history, never before published. (Which Laurel & Hardy comedy of the 1940s was withheld from release for almost four years? Which “forties” movie was their all-time biggest hit? Which movie was almost shut down by federal intervention?) You’ll read much more about Stan and Ollie’s unrealized projects, including five more feature films, two TV series, and two Broadway shows. A must-read for Stan and Ollie’s fans everywhere, Laurel & Hardy: From the Forties Forward is better than ever!
“What a marvelous book! I read it straight through, getting happier by the minute to think that more and more material is being set into history about the boys. The writing is so lucid — and that in this day of film books that aren’t is high praise. Really wonderful!” — JOHN McCABE, Laurel & Hardy’s authorized biographer
“Scott MacGillivray has accomplished something that most historians can only dream of doing: overturning the conventional wisdom… he rewrites the book on the movie-comedy team.” — BOSTON HERALD
“All the world’s admirers of Laurel & Hardy will now forever be indebted to Scott MacGillivray for providing so much new information about two of the world’s most beloved figures.” — STEVE ALLEN
“Displays a knowledge and affection for its subject that one would be hard pressed to find in most academic texts.” — CLASSIC IMAGES
“To write a book about screen performers as well covered as these two and still present a wealth of heretofore unpublished information is quite an accomplishment.” — FILM QUARTERLY“MacGillivray takes great pains to provide the context necessary to reassess these films after so many years of knee-jerk dismissal and neglect… His book will remain the definitive study of the late years of the Laurel and Hardy phenomenon.” — ARNE FOGEL, Minnesota Public Radio
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You don't think of "leading men" in a Laurel & Hardy movie. With Stan and Ollie as the center of attention, the male leads consisted of either a traditional "juvenile" role or an incidental romantic presence.
Only rarely did we see an actor who shared equally in Laurel & Hardy's dialogue, plot situations, and comic routines. In the 1930s, it was Dennis King (The Devil's Brother). In the 1940s, it was Bob Bailey (Jitterbugs and The Dancing Masters).
Robert Bainter Bailey was born on
Bob Bailey answered the call from
Bailey worked so well with Laurel & Hardy that he was hired for their next film, The Dancing Masters. His role of "Grant Lawrence," boy inventor, was neither as demanding nor as prominent as his work in Jitterbugs, but he tried his best with low comedy. In the aftermath of a ginger-ale-spraying sequence, Bailey's half-sheepish, half-snarling "I got my pants wet!" is a comic highlight.
Bob Bailey had superb dialogue skills
but limited visual "business"; his few moments of facial mugging
in The Dancing Masters are amusing but
mechanical, as though he was uncomfortable in broad comedy. 20th
Century-Fox took the hint and turned him into "Robert Bailey,"
promising young dramatic actor. Throughout 1944 Bailey had
moderate to minor roles in five 20th Century-Fox features. He
lacked the chiseled profile and rugged physique of the typical
In 1955 CBS Radio revived one of its
popular detective series, "Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar," and cast
Bob Bailey in the lead. The role had been played in the
hard-boiled gumshoe tradition by
In late 1960, CBS moved production of
"Johnny Dollar" to
After this film, Bailey suddenly
withdrew from show business and settled into a solitary private
life, apart from family and friends for many years. In the
1970s, reunited with his daughter Roberta Goodwin, he lived
comfortably in a
Bob Bailey was a skilled dramatic actor who made two funny movies almost by accident. We salute his contributions to the world of Laurel & Hardy.
Copyright © 1998 by Scott MacGillivray. Acknowledgment is made to John Gassman and Roberta Goodwin for background information.
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