August 24th, 1889 — December 5th, 1963
Over the course of a career that lasted almost fifty years, Tom London amassed an incredibly long list of serial, feature, and television acting credits. He portrayed a widely varied assortment of character types–bullying thugs, cagy slickers, upright lawmen, rascally sidekicks, solid citizens–with unvarying believability; his thin and deeply-lined face made him look both shifty and tough enough to be an effective heavy, while his pleasant, Southern-inflected voice and genial smile made it equally easy for him to play sympathetic roles. The majority of his screen appearances were in B-western features, but his serial filmography is quite substantial as well; not counting stuntmen, the only actor who appeared in more chapterplays than London did was his frequent co-worker, the similarly prolific Edmund Cobb. Like most serial character actors, London played bits far more often than major parts–but was always immediately recognizable–and always entertaining–even in a walk-on role.
Tom London was born Leonard Clapham in Louisville, Kentucky. He went on the road as a traveling salesman before he was out of his teens, working the East Coast and the Midwest before abandoning this career for a job with Chicago’s Selig Polyscope Company–one of the earliest American movie studios; he initially worked as a prop man for Polyscope, but soon took on other duties with the company, among them that of equestrian stuntman. When Polyscope’s owner, William Selig, shifted the studio’s base of operations from Chicago to California in 1909, young Clapham appears to have temporarily returned home to Kentucky, but by the early 1910s had rejoined the Selig outfit on the West Coast. In 1915 he left his behind-the-scenes job at Polyscope and began seeking acting work, winning one of his first credited parts in the Universal silent serial The Purple Mask (1916). Though his film work was temporarily suspended by Army service during World War 1, he would appear in many Universal productions over the next five or six years of his acting career–taking supporting parts in several more of the studio’s serials, playing heavies in their Western shorts and features, and starring in a series of Mountie shorts.
Though he retained his ties to Universal, Clapham started freelancing more during the 1920s, appearing in Westerns, serials and occasional non-Western features for a multiplicity of studios. Though he played the leading man in the 1922 Arrow chapterplay Nan of the North, he became firmly typed as either a supporting good guy (as in the 1926 Pathe serial Snowed In) or a villain (as in the 1928 Universal serial The Mystery Rider) in almost all of his subsequent silent-film ventures. London (he dropped Clapham for this stage name around 1926) experienced no difficulties in transitioning to sound; he continued to find steady work as a supporting actor in serials and Westerns (and a bit player in non-Western features) during the first half of the 1930s. Universal’s second all-talking chapterplay, Spell of the Circus (1930), gave him his first sound-era serial role (and one of his biggest); he was cast as principal villain Butte Morgan–a scheming circus manager determined to take over the show he worked for, by forcing the circus owner’s daughter (Alberta Vaughn) to marry him. Circus, like several other early Universal sound serials, has sadly been “lost” since the 1930s–making it impossible to give any further account of London’s interesting-sounding villainous characterization.
Above: Francis X. Bushman Jr. (in circus-cowboy regalia) confronts Tom London in Spell of the Circus (Universal, 1930). Alberta Vaughn is holding onto Bushman’s arm; child actor Bobby Nelson is on the far left.
The Galloping Ghost (1931) was the first of many chapterplays London made for Mascot Pictures. He played a henchman named Mullins, one of the principal agents of a crooked gambling ring; he and fellow-henchman Ernie Adams repeatedly chased and fought famed athlete Red Grange (playing himself)–who was trying to expose their attempts to fix college football games. Though the fourth man on Ghost’s villainous depth chart (behind Adams, chief heavy Walter Miller, and mysterious mad doctor Theodore Lorch), the serial gave London many good opportunities to behave in nasty, sly, and jittery fashion–scowling grimly when battling Grange, smiling smugly and craftily when plotting with Adams, and becoming visibly jumpy whenever he was berated by Miller.
Above: Ernie Adams (left) and Walter Miller show the embarrassed Tom London that Red Grange has just tricked him into revealing information with a “red-hot poker” that was actually an ice cube in The Galloping Ghost (Mascot, 1931).
London played an even larger henchman role in The Lost Special (Universal, 1932); as Dirk, a shady nightclub manager who served as the lieutenant of crooked businessman Sam Slater (Frank Glendon), he spent most of the serial commanding a gang of modern-day train robbers in a series of clashes with amateur-detective heroes Frank Albertson and Ernie Nevers (who were trying to locate a shipment of gold stolen from the titular train). London received as much screen time in Special as chief villain Glendon did, and made his heavy seem both distinctive in his own right and a good contrast to Glendon’s character; his Dirk came off as resourceful (confidently ordering lesser henchmen around) and shrewd (successfully masquerading as a down-to-earth private detective at one point), but also maintained a cautious and slightly nervous manner when discussing strategies with his much more smug and self-confident boss.
Clancy of the Mounted and The Phantom of the Air (both Universal, 1933) featured London in minor but recurring roles as (respectively) a stalwart Mountie named MacGregor and a capable Border Patrol radioman called Jim. In both serials, he good-naturedly provided star Tom Tyler with occasional assistance; he received more to do in Mounted (in which he frequently rode out on assignments) than in Air (in which he stayed at the Border Patrol’s base). The Whispering Shadow (Mascot, 1933) gave him a less likable part as an (initially) slick henchman named Dupont; he spent the early chapters of the serial as a background henchman, then figured prominently in two later episodes–donning a beard and an ersatz foreign accent to commit a murder that the hero was blamed for, and later displaying convincing panic when he was interrogated by the police, pressured into squealing, and electrocuted by his unforgiving boss (the Shadow of the title) at the end of the seventh chapter.
Gordon of Ghost City (Universal, 1933) featured London in a memorable cameo as a legendary and feared (by the villains) range detective named Pat Campbell, who was recruited to aid hero Buck Jones in tracking down a rustler gang, but was shot in the back by the cattle thieves before he could go into action; London gave this short-lived character a quiet self-assurance that made his supposed fame believable, and handled his death scene in genuinely moving fashion. London was back to villainy in The Wolf Dog (Mascot, 1933); as Brooks, one of the two chief henchmen of a crooked shipping magnate (Hale Hamilton), he persistently combated a heroic inventor (George J. Lewis), the rightful owner of the shipping line (Frankie Darro), and a courageous “wolf dog” (Rin Tin Tin Jr.)–played his part with a furtive cunning that contrasted well with the swaggering and blustering of his co-henchman Stanley Blystone.
The Perils of Pauline (Universal, 1933) gave London a brief bit as a Marine guarding an American embassy in a war-torn Oriental city; The Vanishing Shadow (Universal, 1934) featured him in an equally small role as a friendly policeman. He had more screen time in Burn-‘Em-Up Barnes (Mascot, 1934) as a shady and rather bellicose oil speculator named Parsons; he entered the serial in Chapter Ten to reproach chief villain Edwin Maxwell for his delay in finalizing their scheme for seizing control of valuable oil land. His character then took an active part in the serial’s evildoing during its last three episodes (encouraging Maxwell to double-cross his chief henchman, sabotaging the hero’s brakes), only to be plugged by Maxwell in the final chapter, after sneeringly and belligerently threatening to expose the villain (who was planning to leave him “holding the bag”).
Mystery Mountain (Mascot, 1934) and The Miracle Rider (Mascot, 1935), two Western chapterplays set in modern times, both gave London recurrent roles as subordinate outlaws (“Morgan” in the former and “Sewell” in the latter). In Mountain he appeared throughout the serial as a member of the henchman pack, remaining largely in the background; he received much more dialogue in Rider, briefly becoming the center of the plot when he was captured and questioned by hero Tom Mix and broken out of jail by the villains–only to be returned to jail in Chapter Seven and drop entirely out of sight (after spinning some lies for the heroes) in Chapter Eight. In both serials, London did a fine job of veering between sneering toughness and shifty alarm; his sly, falsely reluctant fake “confession” to the hero in Miracle Rider was particularly well-done.
The Roaring West (Universal, 1935) also cast London as a mean and shifty member of the henchman pack, a badman named Butch who, along with many other owlhoots, bedeviled hero Buck Jones in order to seize a gold claim for rustler boss Walter Miller. Mascot’s final serial, The Fighting Marines (1935), featured London in a somewhat more prominent part as Miller, one of the lieutenants of a criminal called the Tiger Shark; he served as a memorably brusque and aggressive action heavy whenever Marine heroes Grant Withers and Adrian Morris were battling the Tiger Shark’s men in mainland America (another group of heavies took over opposition duties in the scenes set on the Shark’s tropical island stronghold).
During the second half of the 1930s, London continued to play many major roles in serials and B-westerns, but also started taking more bit parts than he had during the earlier years of the decade. His next three serials were cases in point: The Clutching Hand (Stage and Screen, 1936) gave him a scattering of scenes as one of a group of rowdy, rebellious, and crooked sailors, while The Phantom Rider (Universal, 1936) featured him briefly in two later chapters as a treacherous cowpoke named Tex–who tipped some outlaws to the location of a load of gold and slyly distracted his fellow ranch-hands with a game of penny pitch until the gold thieves could sneak in to seize the ranch. Columbia Pictures’ inaugural serial, Jungle Menace (1937), featured him in several scenes as a stern and astute police detective.
London returned to prominence in Radio Patrol (Universal, 1937); his character, a sneeringly confident but sneakily cautious hood named Lewis, figured as one of the leading henchmen throughout the serial. He was much more sympathetic as a beleaguered railroad construction-crew foreman (O’Shea by name) in his first Republic serial, Zorro Rides Again (1937), but only appeared in one sequence. The Mysterious Pilot (Columbia, 1937), released only a few days after Zorro, cast London as another prominent henchman–a tough, self-interested, and cool-headed aviator named Kilgour, who was one of several villainous characters retained by a crooked politician (Kenneth Harlan) to track down a potentially dangerous murder witness (leading lady Dorothy Sebastian) in the Canadian northwoods.
The Lone Ranger (Republic, 1938) cast London as Sgt. Felton, one of a band of renegade troopers bleeding the citizens of Texas dry on behalf of a tyrannical finance commissioner (Stanley Andrews). John Merton was the troopers’ field commander, but London was his right-hand man and as such got to participate in a lot of villainy. London once again emphasized shiftiness in his characterization, which seemed particularly appropriate for the plundering, hyena-like heavy he was playing.
London appeared in about half of the chapters of The Fighting Devil Dogs (Republic, 1938) as Wilson, a high-ranking henchman of a would-be world conqueror known as the Lightning; he ransacked laboratories, commanded the villain’s submarine, led jungle bandits into battle against the US Marines, and performed other acts of villainy to further his boss’s plans. He was a less active henchman in The Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok (Columbia, 1938); as an outlaw named Kilgore, he largely confined his activities to carrying reports to head villain Robert Fiske.
London’s remaining 1930s serial roles were all small ones; he played a policeman in The Spider’s Web (Columbia, 1938), appeared as an unnamed henchman in a single sequence in Mandrake the Magician (Columbia, 1939), and took another one-chapter henchman role as an outlaw named Pete (who was double-crossed and slugged by treacherous chief henchman Jack C. Smith) in The Oregon Trail (Universal, 1939). His first two serial roles in 1940 were also minor ones; he popped up briefly in The Shadow (Columbia, 1940) as a truck driver (appearing just long enough to be hijacked, then slugged by the villains after a fight), and was only a little more prominent as a badman called Webb in Winners of the West (Universal, 1940)–appearing just long enough to worry over the success of an ambush plan and get plugged in the arm by hero Dick Foran.
Deadwood Dick (Columbia, 1940) featured London as a prominent member of the henchman pack, Jake by name; he took a hand in most of the serial’s gunfights and horseback chases and also handled a few offbeat comic bits (such as enthusing over a hearty breakfast) with aplomb. Junior G-Men (Universal, 1940) gave him a one-scene bit as a policeman named Kearney who broke up a fight between a kid gang and the titular young detectives, while The Green Hornet Strikes Again (also Universal, 1940) featured him in an even smaller bit as a henchman who planted some explosives to blow up a building; the two last-named chapterplays were London’s final serial outings for Universal, the studio that had been his principal employer for many years during the silent era.
The early years of the 1940s found London devoting most his acting energies to both large and small roles in various studios’ B-westerns and serials, just as he had during the 1930s. His next two serials, The Green Archer (Columbia, 1940) and The Spider Returns (Columbia, 1941) both featured him in bits as honest police detectives—although his detective in the latter outing spent his brief screen time posing as a crook. Spy Smasher (Republic, 1942) cast him as a genuine crook, a fifth-columnist named Crane in the service of a Nazi agent called the Mask. As the serial’s secondary action heavy, he helped to spearhead many of the villains’ attacks on American defenses; though London was by now over fifty, he showed little diminishment of athleticism or energy as he raced around warehouses and plants and leaped into battle with the hero (Kane Richmond).
Perils of the Royal Mounted (Columbia, 1942) featured London in a quasi-sympathetic part as a trapper named Gaynor–who periodically tried to stir up the townspeople against the peaceful local Indians and the Mounties protecting them, but who also lent good-natured aid to Mountie hero Robert Kellard from time to time; London couldn’t make any sense of this inconsistently-written character, but he handled both his bouts of belligerency and his spells of joviality with gusto. The Secret Code (Columbia, 1942) cast him in a much smaller but far less schizophrenic role, as a watchman at a weather station invaded by spies; he appeared long enough to be overpowered by the heavies and place a call to the police (after being rescued by the hero).
The Valley of Vanishing Men (Columbia, 1942), gave London another prominent villainous role as an outspoken and aggressive owlhoot named Slater, one of the chief henchmen of an ambitious Western outlaw (Kenneth MacDonald); as in Spy Smasher, the middle-aged but indefatigable actor handled all the racing and chasing required of an action heavy with remarkable ease. Daredevils of the West (Republic, 1943) featured him in a one-scene bit as a badman named Miller, who surprised hero Allan Lane in a blacksmith shop and was put out of action after a vigorous brawl.
Above: Tom London is taken into custody by irate townsmen in The Valley of Vanishing Men (Columbia, 1942). Star Bill Elliott is on the far left, Michael Vallon on the far right, and secret villain Robert Fiske directly behind London.
London played his last major henchman role in Batman (Columbia, 1943); he figured noticeably throughout as Andrews, a member of a pack of saboteurs in the pay of a Japanese agent. Batman would also be London’s last Columbia serial for quite a while; the month of its release (July), he signed a four-year “Term Player” contract with Republic Pictures that kept him working exclusively at that studio (principally in its B-westerns) until July, 1947. During this four-year Republic stint, London would almost entirely abandon heavy roles; though he was still in good enough shape to play active heavies (and occasionally did so), his hair was becoming too gray and his face too wrinkled to allow heroes to regularly slug him around without looking like bullies. He began concentrating on turns as sheriffs (frequently playing the town lawman in Republic’s Red Ryder B-western series), fatherly ranchers, grizzled sidekicks (as in several of Sunset Carson’s mid-1940s B-westerns), and other characters better-suited to his increasingly venerable appearance.
London’s first chapterplay role under his Republic contract was The Masked Marvel (1943), in which he popped up briefly as a cheerful trucker drugged by Axis spies. Captain America (also 1943) gave him his final serial-henchman part; he had a single scene as a gangster named Mack, who posed as an affable garage proprietor to deceive Dick Purcell, but was quickly gunned down after the hero discovered his deception. The Tiger Woman (Republic, 1944) featured him in a few scenes as a riverboat captain named Dumont—who, through no fault of his own, met a violent demise late in the serial when the explosives shipped aboard his vessel by the villains were detonated in a collision with a motorboat.
London made a short-lived appearance in the first chapter of Zorro’s Black Whip (Republic, 1944) as a genteel and easygoing federal commissioner who was gunned down by the villains in the serial’s first extended action scene, and lived just long enough to exhort hero George J. Lewis and heroine Linda Stirling to continue his fight to bring statehood to the Idaho Territory. He had even less screen time but better luck as Professor Crawford in Federal Operator 99 (Republic, 1945); he was kidnapped by criminals and brutally beaten when he refused to decode some important plans, but was happily rescued by G-man hero Marten Lamont.
The Phantom Rider (1945) gave London his biggest Republic serial role since the signing of his Term Player contract, but it was (unfortunately) a role physically unsuited to him. He was cast as Ceta, a villainous Indian medicine man who was suborned by the villains to turn his people against the idea of an Indian police force that threatened to spell an end to the heavies’ schemes. London was energetically sneaky and surly in the part, but looked and sounded so utterly unlike an Indian that his recurring scenes (which were luckily infrequent) simply didn’t work.
London took a small but pivotal first-chapter role in King of the Forest Rangers (Republic, 1946) as a garrulous old backwoodsman and amateur archeologist named Tom Judson. His character stumbled onto an ancient blanket that held a clue to an old Indian treasure sought by the villains, and was quickly murdered before he could inform others of his discovery; however, the investigation of his death by Forest Ranger Steve King (Larry Thompson) eventually led to the heavies’ downfall.
Due to a clerical error, London was unbilled in Son of Zorro (Republic, 1947), but was featured prominently throughout as a fatherly storekeeper named Daniels—who genially encouraged hero George Turner in his crusade against a corrupt county administration, but who was revealed to be the secret boss of the county’s criminal element in the final chapter. London, with his talent for being both friendly and shifty, was perfectly cast here; he was completely convincing when beamingly expressing his approval of the hero’s activities, and just as believable when he suddenly became furtive and mean in the serial’s climactic scene.
London’s final Republic serial was Jesse James Rides Again (Republic, 1947), in which he played the wheelchair-bound but unfailingly chipper farmer father of leading lady Linda Stirling; his character (understandably) did relatively little in the serial, but added a nice touch to the proceedings—gamely taking part in a gun battle when outlaws attacked his farmstead, cheerfully adding his input to the good guys’ strategizing sessions, and impishly teasing his daughter about her romantic interest in Jesse James’ (Clayton Moore) sidekick Steve Lane (John Compton).
Although his exclusive contract with Republic expired in mid-1947, London continued to work chiefly in that studio’s B-westerns during the closing years of the 1940s, while also appearing in cowboy films for other outfits like Monogram. He made his last two serial appearances in 1948 and 1950, in two Columbia chapterplays—the first of which was Superman. This outing gave him a colorful bit as a rascally old codger who helped Lois Lane (Noel Neill) gain unauthorized access to a partially caved-in mine; when another shaft collapsed and trapped the girl reporter, London’s character frantically tried to get help but was ignored by the police due to a past habit of turning in fake accident reports; Clark Kent (Kirk Alyn) paid heed to him, however. London was delightful in this pathetic but rather comic role, particularly when frustratedly exclaiming “So you think I’m crazy too, huh? Well, I’ll find someone–I’ll find someone!” after Kent pretended to disbelieve his story (in order to get the old man to rush off in irritation, allowing him the privacy to change into Superman).
London’s final serial was Cody of the Pony Express (Columbia, 1950), a pedestrian Western chapterplay which he did his best to enliven in the role of an Army scout named Doc Laramie; his character served as a comical but capable sidekick to co-heroes Jock Mahoney (as an undercover Army officer) and Dickie Moore (as young Bill Cody). The still-nimble London was able to believably keep pace with the serial’s youthful leads in gunfights and chases; though his screen time was a bit limited, he also provided many welcome touches of humor, through his affable bantering with the two heroes and his droll and good-natured grumbling about Army life.
The early 1950s found London appearing in several more B-westerns (most of them for Gene Autry’s Flying A Productions) and a couple of A-westerns (including High Noon); however, he would spend most of the decade (and the earlier years of the 1960s) working as a television character actor. He began his TV career with multiple appearances on Flying A television series like The Gene Autry Show and The Range Rider, and soon branched out to other shows; he appeared on Western series ranging from The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin to Bat Masterson, almost always playing sheriffs, dignified elder citizens, or cheerfully disreputable old geezers; he also found time to play parts on a few non-Western shows and in occasional features. His screen appearances only ended with his death, which came to him in Hollywood in the winter of 1963.
Serial buff William Cline, who met London when the actor was making a personal-appearance tour in the South in 1950, ventured to ask the hardy performer just how many movies he’d made, and received a funny and truthful response: “I could no more tell you that than I could tell you how many pairs of socks I ever wore. When I’m on call, I go to work and do what the director says, and then I go home.” However, while London talked of movie-making in the same way a factory worker might speak of his mundane daily shift, he never once delivered a mechanical or routine performance; over the course of his long career, he played each of his innumerable roles with assurance, energy, and sincerity. His serial parts only comprised about a tenth of his screen work, but they—like all his other roles—benefited immeasurably from his consummate character-acting professionalism.
Acknowledgements: My thanks to the terrific pages on London at Chuck Anderson’s Old Corral and Boyd Magers’ Western Clippings websites, which provided me with most of this article’s biographical data and the information on London’s Republic contract. The London quote comes from William C. Cline’s book In the Nick of Time (MacFarland, 1984).
A note: Those following the link to the Western Clippings page will see that it mentions London working on the 1954 serial Gunfighters of the Northwest; any footage he shot for this chapterplay must have wound up on the cutting-room floor, since he doesn’t appear in the finished serial (which is why it’s not mentioned in the main article).