December 12, 1911 — April 23, 1963
One would have expected Don C. Harvey’s rangy build, slight drawl, deep voice, and rugged face to effectively type him as a serial henchman. However, he was actually one of the least typecast and least predictable of post-war serial supporting actors–varying his voice, demeanor, and sometimes even his appearance depending on the role. A regular in the Columbia serials of Sam Katzman, Harvey played both brains and action heavy roles ranging across the villainous spectrum (from thuggish to smugly superior to crafty to power-crazed), as well as the occasional good guy. The only constant across Harvey’s chapterplay roles was the skill he played them with; even in less than stellar serials, he was never less than good and was usually excellent–quietly adding individualized and entertaining touches to parts that many actors would have been tempted to simply walk through.
Don Carlos Harvey was born in Marquette, Kansas. Since his family background appears to have been Anglo-American, not Spanish, I would guess that his parents named him for the Verdi opera Don Carlos. He grew up in Council Grove, Kansas, where he got his first taste of acting in high school plays and also played high school football. He attended business college in Hutchinson, Kansas, graduated in 1932, and returned to Council Grove. There, he was spotted by the manager of a local touring theatrical company, the Model Players, while performing during amateur night at Council Grove’s Stella Theater. Harvey spent most of the rest of the 1930s on the Midwestern theatrical scene–as a leading man with the Model Players (and eventually its manager), a member of other repertory companies, and a performer on the Chautauqua circuit (the rural tent-show alternative to vaudeville). In 1939, Harvey and his wife, Jean Bartness (formerly his leading lady in the Model Players), settled in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where Harvey hosted an amateur night program and other entertainment events at various city theaters, while working as an announcer on the radio station KSOO during the first half of the 1940s. Harvey joined the Midwest tour of a Mae West play in 1946 and stayed with the tour all the way to California; he and his wife subsequently relocated to Hollywood, where Harvey continued his radio career and began making movie appearances as well.
Harvey’s experience with live performing in stage and radio doubtlessly recommended him to lower-budgeted independent film producers, who were always in need of actors capable of handling dialogue with a minimum of retakes. In 1947 and 1948 he played an assortment of henchmen, policemen, and other supporting characters in B-films for independent outfits like Pine-Thomas, Reliance, and Lippert Productions, and in 1949 he made his serial debut in one of the notoriously economical Sam Katzman’s Columbia serials, the lackluster Batman and Robin. Harvey figured prominently in the first six chapters of this serial as Nolan, the chief henchman of a masked villain known as the Wizard. Harvey gave the character a lazy, complacent air that made it seem as if Nolan thought he was a lot smarter than he actually was; he was entertainingly self-satisfied and sarcastic when warning lower-ranking henchmen not to ask too many questions about the mysterious Wizard, but became amusingly nervous, surly and flustered when rebuked by his ill-tempered boss. The Wizard tired of Nolan’s defeats at the hands of Batman (Robert Lowery) by Chapter Six, and ordered him liquidated in that episode. Rather surprisingly, Harvey was not granted the courtesy of an on-screen death scene; he was last seen standing unhappily in the background while the Wizard gave orders for his removal. This elimination of Nolan, unlike most other betrayals of one serial villain by another, had no real bearing on the main plot of the chapterplay, while the actor who took over action-heavy duties, Lee Roberts, was unbilled–as opposed to Harvey himself, who had been listed sixth in the credits. These circumstances create a definite impression that Nolan’s elimination was not in the original script and was belatedly added because Harvey, for some reason, was unable to finish filming the serial.
Above: Batman (Robert Lowery) swipes a package of diamonds from a dozing Don Harvey in Batman and Robin (Columbia, 1949). Below: Harvey tries to explain the absence of the diamonds to the hooded Wizard, while Greg McClure (left) and John Doucette look unsympathetic.
Whatever the reasons for Harvey’s early exit from Batman and Robin, he was back on the serial screen later that same year, playing another major henchman role in Adventures of Sir Galahad (Columbia, 1949). This somewhat muddled but offbeat and entertaining Arthurian pastiche pitted George Reeves as Galahad against invading Saxons and a mysterious British traitor known as the Black Knight; Harvey played Bartog, the lieutenant of the Saxon King Ulric (John Merton), who later switched allegiance to the Black Knight and became that villain’s chief accomplice. Harvey’s authoritative, stage-trained voice and bearing allowed him to pull off this period role with complete conviction, and he made the most of what was easily his best serial showcase. Unlike in Batman and Robin, he remained a prominent player throughout the chapterplay, and also got to play a much more astute character than he had in that first serial. As the opportunistic Bartog, he displayed both dignified haughtiness and dignified obsequiousness in his dealings with various kings and knights, while also giving the character an air of crafty cynicism which conveyed that there was always self-centered scheming going on below Bartog’s well-mannered surface.
The remainder of the 1940s and the early 1950s found Harvey continuing to play supporting parts in B-features for Monogram, Eagle-Lion, Katzman’s Columbia-affiliated outfit, and other low-budget studios. Beginning in 1950 he also started taking roles in somewhat slicker B-Westerns for Republic, in-house Columbia producer Colbert Clark, and Gene Autry’s “Flying A” production company. Additionally, he began appearing on TV shows, like Dick Tracy and The Cisco Kid, during the early 1950s. His next serial was Atom Man vs. Superman, one of the best Katzman chapterplays, thanks in large part to unusually strong characterizations. The serial was dominated by Kirk Alyn, Noel Neill, Tommy Bond, and Pierre Watkin as Superman and his Daily Planet friends on the one side, and by Lyle Talbot’s intimidating Luthor on the other, although Harvey made the most of his supporting part as Albour, Luthor’s calmly confident scientific accomplice. Harvey spent most of his screen time operating gadgets in Luthor’s laboratory and engaged in little active henchman work, but he made his character memorable by conveying a respectful, understanding attitude towards Luthor that contrasted interestingly with that of the other henchmen, who regarded their mad-scientist boss with a combination of skepticism and fear. Harvey in turn treated these other henchmen with aloof condescension, proudly, and somewhat ominously, reminding one of them that Luthor was “the greatest scientist in the world, and we’re in it with him to the end.”
Harvey was wasted in Don Daredevil Rides Again (Republic, 1951), his only non-Katzman serial; he played a miniscule non-speaking bit as a background saloon patron in the first chapter, standing by the bar as a gunfight brewed, then hurriedly rushing to cover in anticipation of the shooting. He was back at Columbia for his next chapterplay, the clumsy but enjoyably silly Captain Video (1951). This serial, like Atom Man vs. Superman, cast Harvey as a lab-bound scientist, but this time he was on the good guys’ side–as Gallagher, the unflappable aide of interplanetary crimefighter Captain Video (Judd Holdren). Harvey’s chief function here was to explain the workings of impossible gadgetry and to use it to execute repeated deus ex machina rescues of Video and his sidekick the Ranger (Larry Stewart). Harvey performed these tasks with low-key but scene-stealing aplomb, reciting absurd technobabble with poker-faced conviction, and conveying a subdued but invariable cheerfulness that made Gallagher more than a little reminiscent of humorous, quietly omnipotent characters like Jeeves or the later comics version of Alfred Pennyworth.
As the 1950s continued, Harvey began concentrating more and more on television work, appearing frequently on series like The Gene Autry Show, The Range Rider, The Adventures of Kit Carson, Buffalo Bill Jr., Annie Oakley, The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, and The Roy Rogers Show, as lawmen, outlaws, slickers, and even some comic types. He continued to work in features for Columbia and other studios, usually in small parts, and also continued as a Katzman serial regular. His next chapterplay outing was Blackhawk, a flawed serial with strong action scenes in which, as in Captain Video, he was on the good guys’ team. However, he had very little to do; as Olaf, one of the members of an international paramilitary squad of spy-fighters, he got to don a snappy uniform and race around chasing Communist agents in company with his fellow “Blackhawks,” but was given virtually no individualized bits and functioned as a largely silent background figure. Although his character had a Swedish accent in the comics on which Blackhawk was based, Sam Katzman nixed the idea of any of the cast members trying to give a foreign flourish to their lines–unfortunately, since Harvey showed himself adept at varying his voice and accent in other roles, and could doubtlessly have used a Swedish dialect to make his character stand out a bit more if given the chance.
Harvey got a better chance to stretch his acting muscles in Gunfighters of the Northwest (Columbia, 1953), a meandering Mountie serial partially redeemed by lovely location shooting and a strong cast. The heavy of this serial was a cloaked mystery man known as the Leader, bent on creating an outlaw army to take over Canada; Harvey played a storekeeper named Otis Green, who was one of the characters suspected of being the mysterious villain, and who was indeed exposed as the Leader in the last chapter. Katzman, who preferred not to spend extra money on hiring additional actors to dub his mystery villains’ voices, also had Harvey play the Leader throughout the serial–but Harvey did his best to disguise the fact that the Leader was Green, by using his naturally resonant and authoritative voice in his Leader scenes, then switching to a higher-pitched, rustic, easygoing voice in his appearances as Green, while also slowing his movements to make the storekeeper seem more elderly than the vigorous Leader. Harvey’s scenes as the Leader did not give him the opportunity to be very menacing, as the character typically spent his time giving vague orders and somewhat unconvincingly claiming that his organization was enjoying great off-screen success. However, his scenes as the folksy but enigmatic Green were very enjoyable, and gave a glimpse of the type of vocal and physical transformations that Harvey must have frequently pulled off in his repertory theater days.
Harvey concentrated mostly on television and occasional feature work for the next few years, then made a brief return to the serial genre in 1956, appearing in Katzman’s last two Columbia chapterplays (which were also the last two American theatrical serials). The first of these, Perils of the Wilderness, was an embarrassing mishmash which combined stock footage of 1930s-style airplanes and 1880s-style Indians on the warpath in a storyline that was never remotely believable or remotely interesting. Harvey was cast as Kruger, one of the lieutenants of land-grabbing outlaw leader Kenneth MacDonald. Since Katzman opted not to pay for any interior sets, MacDonald spent almost the entire serial sitting on the porch of a wilderness shack, while Harvey spent almost all of his screen time sitting with him and discussing increasingly discouraging reports of their gang’s generally unsuccessful activities. Harvey managed a few good impatient snarls at lower-ranking henchmen, but even he was unable to do much with this thankless role; he and MacDonald both came off as glum and dispirited, as well as completely unthreatening, villains–although their somber ruefulness was wryly amusing at times, playing like a sort of commentary on the dreadful nature of the serial in which they were trapped.
Harvey’s, and Katzman’s, final serial, Blazing the Overland Trail, was also a sloppy hodgepodge of stock footage, but its basic storyline was less ridiculous than that of Perils of the Wilderness, and it also gave Harvey a much better role than Wilderness–as Rance Devlin, a megalomaniac plotting to conquer America’s frontier territories and create a Western empire for himself. To allow room for the extended, cost-saving stock footage sequences, most of the serial’s new scenes were brief, but Harvey took full advantage of his periodic appearances as Devlin, enthusing about his plans for conquest with a memorable combination of dignity, arrogance, and feverish insanity. He maintained such an air of crazed self-confidence that it was even possible to take his character somewhat seriously as a threat, even though it was obvious he could never actually accomplish anything on the serial’s minuscule budget.
Harvey spent the remainder of the 1950s appearing on numerous TV shows, both Western and non-Western, as well as taking a few feature-film bits. In the 1960s he became almost exclusively a television actor, and played a recurring role on Rawhide as an unruly cowhand named Collins while guesting on many other series such as Laramie and Maverick. He was still an active performer in 1963, when he suffered a heart attack and passed away in Los Angeles, at the age of only fifty-one.
When actors like Jack Ingram or Anthony Warde showed up on the chapterplay screen, audiences undoubtedly smiled in anticipation of watching those players deliver yet another version of their usual, familiar characterization. The variety of Don Harvey’s roles precluded him from ever evoking similar anticipatory enjoyment, but his appearance in a serial was nevertheless a guarantee of an entertaining characterization–even if you could never be sure just what that characterization would be.
Acknowledgements: My main sources for this article were Western Clippings’ profile of Don Harvey and a Sioux Falls newspaper retrospective of his career.