December 29th, 1883 — February 19th, 1965
Forrest Taylor was frequently cast as doctors, professors, officials, and other upright types during the course of a long serial career; his grave and resonant voice, quietly earnest manner, and lean, lined face were ideally suited to such characters. However, Taylor was not limited to respectable parts; his lengthy list of serial credits also contains many turns as cheerful rascals, scheming secondary villains, and maniacal master criminals. An old stage trouper, Taylor made the absolute most of both his respectable and his disreputable roles; he could be flamboyantly hammy but was more typically understated in manner–commanding attention by means of his well-modulated dialogue delivery, his shrewdly thoughtful facial expressions, and subtle bits of physical business (he was particularly fond of removing his glasses and either pointing them at other characters or tapping them on his hand to emphasize his lines).
Edwin Forrest Taylor was born in Bloomington, Illinois, the son of a theater owner. Naturally enough, he began an acting career at a fairly young age; by 1905–the year in which he married his first wife, actress Ada Daniels–he was already touring as far afield as the stages of Silver City, Idaho. Taylor worked for theatrical producer Willard Mack in Utah during the early 1910s and later spent some time in Hollywood–starring and co-starring in short films (chiefly Westerns) for early studios like the Kalem Company or American Film Manufacturing Company from 1915 to 1917. By 1918, he had returned to the stage and was heading an acting troupe that played the theaters of the western states; his 1918 draft registration form lists his residence as Bannock, Idaho, his occupation as “theatrical manager” and his place of business as “Northern Utah and Southern Idaho.” He took prominent roles in many Broadway plays during the late 1910s and early 1920s, but still continued to work with his own Western stage company; he also made a few more movie appearances during the latter half of the 1920s.
By 1932, Taylor was no longer a leading man and had disbanded his theatrical troupe; he settled in Hollywood and began working as a minor character player in the new talking pictures. His first sound-era part of any note was the heavy’s role in Riders of Destiny, a 1933 B-western turned out by low-budget producer Paul Malvern; virtually all of Taylor’s other 1930s acting assignments, large and small, would come from similar B-movie and chapterplay producers–including Nat Levine (Mascot Pictures), Trem Carr (Monogram), A. W. Haeckel (Supreme), and Sam Katzman (Victory). Many of his 1930s screen roles were also–like his Riders of Destiny turn–villainous, among them his first serial part, a small bit as an unnamed but very self-assured henchman in The Miracle Rider (Mascot, 1935).
Above: Forrest Taylor tells Tom London (far left) and Edmund Cobb that it was worth blowing up one of their boss’s trucks in order to (apparently) do away with hero Tom Mix in The Miracle Rider (Mascot, 1935).
Shadow of Chinatown (Victory, 1936) gave Taylor his first substantial serial role; he was cast as Captain Walters, a police detective investigating a terroristic campaign against Chinatown merchants–a campaign orchestrated by crazed Eurasian inventor Victor Poten (Bela Lugosi). Mystery novelist Martin Andrews (Herman Brix) also looked into the Chinatown crimes at the urging of reporter Joan Whiting (Joan Barclay), and continually kept one investigative step ahead of Walters–much to the irritation of the policeman, who snapped and scowled at the two amateur sleuths throughout the serial, gruffly discounted the information that they provided, and even (absurdly) suspected Andrews of involvement in the crime wave. Taylor played his character’s perpetual grouchiness to lively and amusing effect in Chinatown, but also managed to seem both intelligent and sternly authoritative enough to avoid coming off as a completely incompetent bungler.
Above: Herman Brix and Joan Barclay realize that Bela Lugosi (standing, disguised as a waiter) has poisoned the wine at a dinner party, while the less observant Forrest Taylor prepares to drain his glass in Shadow of Chinatown.
Taylor’s next serial was The Fighting Devil Dogs (Republic, 1938), in which he played Benson, the butler of a scientist (Hugh Sothern) assisting the US Marines in a hunt for a megalomaniacal villain called the Lightning. Taylor’s chief function here was to smile in suave and sly fashion as his character went about his household duties or eavesdropped on the good guys; his dignifiedly shifty behavior was intended to make the audience suspect him of being the Lightning himself, but he was cleared in the serial’s final episode. Dick Tracy Returns (Republic, 1938), released a few months after Devil Dogs, gave him a much smaller role; he appeared in a single scene as the calm but concerned Navy Commander Grant, who sought Dick Tracy’s (Ralph Byrd) help in recovering a stolen piece of Navy technology. He played another one-chapter part, albeit a much larger one, in The Lone Ranger Rides Again (Republic, 1939); as Judge Miller, he figured prominently in Ranger’s second episode–presiding over the trial of a homesteader (who’d been framed for murder by cattlemen) with fairness, firmness, and self-assured smoothness.
The Oregon Trail (Universal, 1939) featured Taylor as Daggett, an astute and sneaky henchman to crooked fur trader Sam Morgan (James Blaine); he remained in the background for most of the serial’s running time, but received some good individualized moments–particularly a semi-repentant death scene and a earlier sequence in which he pretended his boss had been kidnapped, in order to trick the hero (John Mack Brown) into a trap. The Phantom Creeps (also Universal, 1939) gave him another background henchman role as Black, a member of a spy ring trying to purloin the inventions of mad scientist Dr. Zorka (Bela Lugosi); his screen time here was much more limited than in Oregon Trail, though he did a good job of registering nervousness and desperation when confronted by the deranged Lugosi in Chapter Nine; his character was put out of action by one of Zorka’s gadgets shortly thereafter. Taylor followed these two heavy turns with a non-villainous single-chapter role in Dick Tracy’s G-Men (Republic, 1939); as an aircraft engineer named Stevens, he crisply and authoritatively described his engineering department’s security measures in order to help Ralph Byrd’s Tracy get a line on a spy.
Taylor continued his career as a character actor throughout the 1940s, freelancing at Republic, Universal, Columbia, Monogram, and other studios; he worked principally as a supporting actor in B-westerns and serials, but also played many bits in A-films. Most of his chapterplay work during the first few years of the decade was in the Columbia serials of director James W. Horne (who had worked with Taylor in the silent era); Horne, a director of many excellent comedies during the 1920s and 1930s, was fond of emphasizing humor in his serials, and consistently elicited comically over-theatrical performances from his actors–Taylor among them. Taylor’s first Horne-directed chapterplay (and first 1940s serial) was Terry and the Pirates (Columbia, 1940), in which he was cast as planter Allen Drake–the father of the heroine (Joyce Bryant), the staunch ally of the heroes (William Tracy and Jeff York), and one of the few settlers in the Far Eastern district of Wingpoo who dared oppose villainous half-caste warlord Fang (Dick Curtis). Drake spent much of his time complaining to the corrupt local governor about Fang’s depredations or trying to rouse his timid fellow-planters to action against the warlord; though more restrained here than in subsequent Horne serials, Taylor still played his character in extremely hammy style, consistently displaying a furiously and exaggeratedly indignant attitude towards Wingpoo’s lawless element.
Deadwood Dick (Columbia, 1940), a well-done Western that was one of Horne’s least comedic serials, gave Taylor an uncredited but very meaty role as the Skull, a mysterious outlaw boss bent on ruling the Dakota Territory; he wore the villain’s robes and mask and provided his voice, but didn’t otherwise appear in the serial (another actor being unmasked as the Skull in the final episode). The unseen Taylor’s depiction of this villain was highly theatrical but strikingly sinister nonetheless; his vocal performance–which sounded commanding, cunning, and crazed by turns–matched the black-cloaked Skull’s visual appearance perfectly, and helped to make the character one of Columbia’s most memorable serial mystery villains.
The Green Hornet Strikes Again (Universal, 1940) gave Taylor a bit as a gangster named Snipe, who snarled and sneered energetically during a brief scene in which he confronted a squealer. Taylor was back at Columbia later the same year for his third Horne serial, The Green Archer; though this cliffhanger was one of the wackiest of Horne’s chapterplays, Taylor’s own characterization was more down-to-earth than in his other Horne efforts. As Parker Howett, the father of heroine Valerie (Iris Meredith), he did little but periodically consult with hero Spike Holland (Victor Jory) and worry over the fate of his other daughter Elaine (Dorothy Fay), who was being secretly held prisoner by villain Abel Bellamy (James Craven). Taylor played this background part fairly straightforwardly, but still gave his character a touch of the overblown indignation he had displayed in Terry and the Pirates; he also did a good job of acting slickly enigmatic in occasional scenes in which Howett was suspected of being the Green Archer, a mysterious avenger who periodically aided Spike and Valerie.
The Spider Returns (Columbia, 1941), like Deadwood Dick, featured an unseen Taylor as its mystery villain, the Gargoyle; as in the earlier serial, he wore the heavy’s costume and delivered his lines until it came time to unmask the Gargoyle as another character in the final episode. However, this villain (who was saddled with an unimpressive and excessively gaudy costume) was much less visually intimidating than Dick’s Skull–which might have had something to do with Taylor and director Horne’s decision to play the character strictly for laughs. As the Gargoyle, Taylor eschewed the threateningly cunning note he had brought to his performance as the Skull, and instead portrayed the villain in highly comic fashion–gesticulating over-emphatically, shouting bombastically at the good guys, rebuking his bungling henchmen with apoplectic fury, and generally handling his lines in a ranting style that was not at all menacing but was quite funny.
Sea Raiders (Universal, 1941) gave Taylor his first important non-Horne serial role of the 1940s. He played a minor but recurrent (and pivotal) part as Fenwick, the timid inventor of a new type of torpedo who was forced into helping a gang of foreign naval raiders sink American ships. Throughout Raiders, Taylor alternated between expressing bitter regret over his involvement in the villains’ schemes and explaining scientific gadgetry to chief villain Reed Hadley with fearful obsequiousness; his character redeemed himself in the final chapter by showing the good guys how to destroy Hadley’s submarine, before Hadley could torpedo the heroes’ ship.
The Iron Claw (Columbia, 1941), the most completely comic of all James W. Horne’s serials, also spotlighted Taylor more thoroughly than any of his other Horne chapterplays had. As Anton Benson, the rapacious head of the wealthy Benson family, he drove most of the serial’s action through his frantic attempts to hold onto a salvaged cache of Spanish gold, despite attacks by gangsters, his equally greedy relatives–and the titular mystery villain, whom he was often suspected of being. Benson wasn’t the Claw, but caused as much trouble for the serial’s reporter hero as the villain did; the ruthless old man was willing to do anything–from regularly feigning paralysis to setting up death traps–in order to keep “his” gold safe. Taylor’s acting in this part was outrageously over the top, but was also highly entertaining; he adopted a querulous-sounding voice, a demented cackle, a incredibly irritable manner, and an air of senile craftiness that made his cartoonish miser’s antics both hilarious and memorable.
King of the Texas Rangers and Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. (both Republic, 1941) gave Taylor small one-chapter roles as (respectively) a cheerfully folksy records-office clerk who was held up and slugged by the villains, and a sly crooked butler who participated in a slam-bang fight with the hero. Perils of the Royal Mounted (Columbia, 1942) was Taylor’s final serial collaboration with James Horne; he once again turned in a hammy but very amusing performance as a phony backwoods preacher named Hinsdale–who served as an agent for villain Kenneth MacDonald throughout the serial, and spent most his time sneakily spying on the Mounties, flying into whining panics whenever MacDonald’s schemes were in danger of defeat, and unctuously and hypocritically lecturing unruly townspeople on meekness and forbearance.
Overland Mail (Universal, 1942) gave Taylor a nice character bit in its first chapter; as a bewhiskered and talkative frontiersman (named Taylor!), he engaged in some colorful palavering with sidekick Don Terry, tossing around terms like “polecat” and “shootin’ scrape” with gusto. Unfortunately, his character made a quick exit shortly after his entrance, getting shot in the back while warning the hero (Lon Chaney Jr.) of a bomb that had been planted aboard a stagecoach. Perils of Nyoka (Republic, 1942) featured Taylor in another brief but good character role as an Arab who translated some ancient tablets for the villains and was knocked out after requesting payment for his services; his excellent speaking voice brought proper gravitas to the archaic, dramatic-sounding inscription he read aloud from the tablets (“In the shrine of the evil birds, where sacrifice was made to the ancient gods, there repose great riches…”).
King of the Mounties (Republic, 1942) cast Taylor in a single-chapter bit as a stationmaster who was overpowered by train-wrecking saboteurs but rescued by Mountie hero Allan Lane, while Valley of Vanishing Men (Columbia, 1942) gave him some sporadic scenes as a kindly frontier doctor imprisoned with other settlers in an outlaw gold mine; his character calmly tended to his overworked fellow-captives and tried to dissuade them from making rash and foredoomed escape attempts. Taylor devoted his acting energies to feature-film work in 1943, but returned to the serial genre in 1944 with an enjoyably quirky performance in Columbia’s The Desert Hawk. He appeared in several of the later chapters of this Arabian Nights swashbuckler as a storekeeper and money-lender named Ali Agra, a nervous but very crafty character who helped the hero (Gilbert Roland) organize a resistance against a usurping Caliph–not so much from a love of justice as from a fear that the taxing ruler would seize his gold.
Above: Forrest Taylor goes about his business in King of the Mounties (Republic, 1942), unaware that spies are about to invade his train station. Bradley Page is the villain peering through the ticket window.
Haunted Harbor (Republic, 1944) featured Taylor as Dr. Harding, a physician practicing among the natives of the Malaysian islands; he and his daughter Patricia (Kay Aldridge) were rescued from a shipwreck in the first chapter by sea captain Jim Marsden (Kane Richmond), who was fleeing from the law after being framed for murder by a mystery man known as Carter. After his character’s introduction, Taylor spent most of the next two chapters off-screen, recuperating from the shipwreck; the doctor then took center stage in Chapter Four, but was killed off before that episode’s end–after recognizing island mine-owner Kane (Roy Barcroft) as an ex-convict named Carter, the killer that Marsden was searching for; Harding’s death then provided motivation for heroine Patricia to join in Marsden’s hunt for the villain. Taylor played this small but important role with a good combination of dignity and acuteness; his sharp, thoughtful questioning of an increasingly uncomfortable Barcroft was particularly good.
Taylor was more roguish in his next serial, Black Arrow (Columbia, 1941); he appeared in three chapters of this Western outing as a colorfully shady rancher called Prescott, who allowed some outlaws to use his barn for a safe-cracking job. When the titular Indian hero (Robert Scott) showed up to interfere, Taylor loudly and hypocritically proclaimed his innocence, causing his irritated cohorts to leave him to die in a barn fire with Scott; however, Taylor saved the hero’s neck (and his own) by leading an escape through a trapdoor, and exited the serial without receiving any punishment more severe than the loss of his barn. Zorro’s Black Whip (Republic, 1944) featured Taylor in completely villainous mode as a henchman named Becker, who posed as the survivor of a fictitious attack on a wagon train as part of a scheme to mislead a sheriff’s posse. His character was eventually plugged by hero George J. Lewis, but not before Taylor was given opportunities to convincingly feign a state of near-collapse (calling dramatically for water), enthusiastically chuckle over the success of his charade, and confront the Sheriff with smug aggressiveness after revealing his true purposes.
Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945) gave Taylor the most prominent of his many Republic serial roles; as Professor Forrest, the inventor of an unfinished “radio-atomic power transmitter,” he was imprisoned by modern-day pirate Captain Mephisto (Roy Barcroft), who wanted to use the powerful device to seize control of world industry. The Professor’s daughter Claire (Linda Stirling) and detective Lance Reardon (Richard Bailey) searched for him throughout the serial, while the Professor himself steadfastly resisted Mephisto’s attempts to make him to complete his work on the transmitter. Though Taylor spent almost all of Mystery Island a prisoner inside the villain’s dungeon-laboratory, he still received plenty of good scenes–during which he believably explained science-fictional gadgets, intently and craftily hatched escape plans, and confronted his captor in courageous and dryly contemptuous style (“I am neither frightened nor impressed by your piratical swashbuckling”).
The Master Key (Universal, 1945), featured Taylor as a hospital doctor who solemnly and solicitously attended on the deathbed of the heroine’s brother in one episode, and reappeared in a later episode to minister to an amnesiac scientist and intelligently discuss possible Nazi infiltration of the hospital with G-man hero Milburn Stone. Federal Operator 99 (Republic, 1945) gave him a one-chapter role as Otto Wolfe, the wheelchair-bound former mouthpiece of a deceased gangster–and the only man who knew the location of the gangster’s hidden loot. Master criminal Jim Belmont (George J. Lewis) convinced Wolfe to reveal this information, using veiled threats but promising to split the aforesaid loot; Wolfe was subsequently shot by one of Belmont’s henchmen–but lived long enough to squeal to the law and thwart the double-crossing villain’s plans. Taylor played this wily lawyer with a dryly cynical and coolly shrewd manner that made his bargaining scene with Belmont very memorable–and made his character seem like quite a vivid personality, despite the brevity of his time on screen.
Taylor’s serial appearances diminished considerably in the second half of the 1940s; though he continued to take plenty of roles in features, he would only make six chapterplays in all during the post-war era–beginning with The Crimson Ghost (Republic, 1946). This serial cast him as Professor Van Wyck–one of four university scientists who backed criminology professor Duncan Richards’ (Charles Quigley) attempts to recover a stolen atomic weapon from the titular villain. Van Wyck, like his three colleagues, soon came under suspicion of being the Crimson Ghost himself; Taylor handled the professor’s red-herring behavior with aplomb, balancing dignity with a gruffness and sinister slyness that made him seem a likely villain candidate–until his character was cleared by being killed off in Chapter Ten.
The Black Widow (Republic, 1947) gave Taylor a small one-chapter role as a smooth and shady lawyer named Bradley, who helped to set up villainess Carol Forman’s escape from jail. Superman (Columbia, 1948) featured him in a more important part as scientist Professor Leeds–who served as a means of introducing the extra-terrestrial mineral Kryptonite into the serial. Leeds invited reporter Clark Kent (Kirk Alyn) to witness his analysis of a recently-discovered meteorite that contained Kryptonite–and discovered that Kent was Superman (and that Kryptonite was Superman’s one weakness) when the reporter fainted after being exposed to the meteorite. Leeds promised to keep Superman’s secret, and to destroy the Kryptonite sample once he’d finished studying it, but his treacherous assistant got wind of the meteorite’s powers and sold the information to Superman’s enemies; Leeds was subsequently killed when a group of thugs invaded his museum to steal the Kryptonite. Taylor’s shocked reaction when Clark Kent apparently “died” in his office, and the gravely intelligent manner in which he discussed the meteorite’s potentially lethal effects with Superman, helped to effectively sell the Kryptonite gimmick; he also did a good job of conveying restrained but exuberant scientific excitement over the discovery of the rare meteorite.
Above: Forrest Taylor prepares to open a box containing a Kryptonite sample, unaware of the effect the mineral is already having on Kirk Alyn’s Superman (Columbia, 1948).
Bruce Gentry (Columbia, 1949) cast Taylor as a scientist named Dr. Benson, who, like his Professor Forrest in Manhunt of Mystery Island, was kidnapped by villains and forced to help perfect a potentially dangerous gadget–in this case, a flying saucer. Taylor displayed heroic firmness and stubborn dignity when periodically threatened by the heavies, but had far fewer opportunities to do so than in Mystery Island; he spent a good deal of his screen time in Gentry off-stage, and made no escape attempts. There turned out to be a good reason for this; in the final chapter, Benson was revealed as the Recorder, the secret boss of the spy ring that had supposedly kidnapped him; he had pretended to be an unwilling prisoner in order to preserve his respectable cover. Taylor easily carried off his character’s unexpected switch from victim to villain, adopting a coldly ruthless demeanor when his duplicity was finally exposed.
The earlier years of the 1950s found Taylor, though rapidly approaching seventy years of age, still working steadily as a character player in A films, B films, and early television shows like The Cisco Kid; he also appeared in two more serials during this time. The first of these was Don Daredevil Rides Again (Republic, 1951), a Western chapterplay that gave him a single scene as a gruffly outspoken rancher named Taylor, the father of hot-headed secondary hero Gary Taylor (Robert Einer); the indiscreet Gary and his equally indiscreet parent engaged in an over-loud saloon conversation about some hidden money–a discussion that the villains advantageously eavesdropped on.
Taylor concluded his serial career with a major role in The Lost Planet (Columbia, 1953), a low-budgeted and incredibly cheap-looking science-fiction epic; he was cast as Professor Dorn, a scientist held prisoner by the power-mad Dr. Grood and forced to lend his expertise to Grood’s various schemes for conquering the universe. Though officially Grood’s captive, Dorn continually managed to outwit him; the good professor used his technological savvy to save the hero (Judd Holdren) time and again, and calmly ignored Grood’s repeated threats–being secure in the knowledge that the mad doctor couldn’t afford to eliminate him. This peculiar dynamic between Grood and Dorn came to seem decidedly ridiculous as the serial progressed; Taylor obviously realized this, and played his part with a combination of his usual dignity and more than a touch of subtle humor–smiling sarcastically as he brushed off Grood’s henchmen and wielding innumerable gadgets with cool confidence. He also managed to make his long-winded and nonsensical explanations of said gadgets’ powers and abilities (“I’ll have to risk using cured cosmonium, reflected from Dornite metal; its infrangible ray may conceal the plane”) sound natural, assured, and even somewhat believable. All in all, his knowing performance was one of the more entertaining aspects of this decidedly sub-par chapterplay.
After the B-Western and serial genres faded into oblivion in the middle of the 1950s, Taylor concentrated chiefly on television work, but made occasional acting appearances in A-films during the second half of the decade. From 1957 to 1959 he was a regular on the short-lived Western show Man Without a Gun, in which he played the town doctor; most of the other TV shows he appeared on were also Westerns (Maverick, Whispering Smith, Bonanza), although he also popped up on non-Western series like Lassie or M Squad; he most typically played doctors, ministers, and other benevolent types on both species of show. He retired to his home in Garden Grove, California in the early 1960s, and passed away in that city’s hospital in 1965.
A familiar acting presence in the chapterplay genre for almost twenty years, Forrest Taylor was equally at home in all of the principal serial sub-genres (the urban crime story, the Western, the exotic adventure tale, and the science-fiction saga), and was extremely adept at portraying everything from rogues to raving maniacs to men of rectitude. While there were other serial supporting players as prolific and as versatile, none of them combined those two qualities to as great a degree as Taylor did; the length of his serial career, his variegated gallery of large and small characterizations, and the expert stagecraft he brought to each of his entertaining performances made him the quintessential chapterplay character actor.
Acknowledgements: My thanks to the Old Corral’s page on Forrest Taylor, which gathers much information and many pertinent Taylor-related links together (and which also has some interesting photos of him as a young leading man). Boyd Magers’ Western Clippings biographical page on Taylor was also of great help to me.