Tuesday, September 14, 2010

An Actor's Life: Kevin McCarthy

“They're here already! You're next!”

Kevin McCarthy, who passed away on September 11th, was a journeyman actor who worked constantly from his uncredited debut in Winged Victory (1944) right up until earlier this year when, at the age of 96, he starred in the short film Drawback. He is and always will be best remembered for playing Dr. Miles Bennell in the original version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) for which the line quoted above is his best (and probably only) remembered line of dialogue. Journeyman actor he may have been, but his talent always shone through in whatever he did. A committed stage actor, his filmed credits were mostly guest shots on TV shows. His first was The Ford Theater Hour (1949), but many other shows he guested on from the 1960s through the 1990s are still remembered today: The Twilight Zone (1960), Ben Casey (1961), The Fugitive (1966), Burke's Law (1966), The Man From Uncle (1966), The Invaders (1967), Mission: Impossible (1971), Columbo (1973), Hawaii Five-O (1976), Flamingo Road (1980-1982 – he had a role for the show's entire run), Matlock (1989) and Murder, She Wrote (1992). There were dozens of others – shows you've heard of and ones nobody but agents and trivia buffs remember.

Dana Wynter and Kevin McCarthy
He made other feature films too, such as the first adaptation of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1951) where his turn as son Biff was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar (he won a Golden Globe for the role as Most Promising Male Newcomer of 1951). He was also in several films for his Number One Fan, director Joe Dante (Piranha (1978), The Howling (1981), Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), Innerspace (1987) and Matinee! (1993). And there was his fun cameo – playing again a still-running Dr. Miles Bennell screaming the same line of dialogue – in Philip Kaufmann's sublime 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But now he's gone, and it seems somehow, I don't know, wrong. He was always supposed to be around, popping up here and there on TV and films. Heck, he was only 96. I thought he was going to live forever.

As an actor, in films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, he captured the texture of a man of the 1950s, trying to do right by the people in his life, yet ultimately failing. (In the original ending, there was no save-the-day framing device, and the last line is him screaming "You're Next!" as he stumbles, ignored, down the highway.) He often played characters like this: men who were good and kind, but that wasn't always enough in a world that -- after World War II, the Korean War and the Communist Witch Hunts, -- could easily flatten anybody at anytime. His was a voice of desperation that wasn't being heard in time.

In later years, he was someone I always anticipated to turn in a comfortably professional performance. He may have been trained in the Method, and was a close friend of the tragic Montgomery Clift (he was first on the scene and called police after Clift's disfiguring car accident), but for the most part on the big or small screen he was always Kevin McCarthy, in the way that Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy were always essentially 'Cary Grant' and 'Spencer Tracy'. And 'Kevin McCarthy' was always someone I was happy to spend an hour or two with regardless of the show. Perhaps not a great actor, but he was a solid talent who kept working right until the end. As they used to say in the Old West, “He died with his boots on.”

 -- David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is about to launch his first novel, The Empire of Death, at an event in Toronto on Tuesday, October 19, 2010. Details to follow.

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