August 13th, 1909 — March 26th, 1990
Tristram Coffin played too many major serial roles to be considered an actual “character actor,” but he nevertheless belongs to a small group of chapterplay regulars whose roles were too varied to allow them to be placed in any more specific category. His three best-remembered serial turns were as two different villainous spies in the heroes’ camp and as a full-fledged hero, but he also played a brains heavy, a couple of prominent henchmen, a wild-card villain, and a scattering of respectable citizens during his cliffhanging career. Nearly all of Coffin’s serial characterizations had one thing in common, though: an aura of strong and possibly sinister intelligence, which gave him a strong screen presence despite his basically low-key and naturalistic acting style. His distinguished but slightly saturnine appearance, coolly self-possessed manner, and smoothly polished voice usually made him come off as the smartest man in the room–and potentially the most dangerous as well.
Tristram Chalkley Coffin was born in Mammoth, Utah; his father, a silver-mine superintendent, was one of the Western offshoots of a New England family whose roots in America stretched back to the 17th-century colonist Tristram Coffin, chief settler of Nantucket. Our Coffin began his professional acting career while he was still in high school–appearing in plays at Salt Lake City’s Wilkes Theater; after completing school, he toured with some Oregon stock companies in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and then returned to Utah, where he worked in local radio before attending the University of Washington. After graduating with a degree in speech, he went to Boston and re-entered the radio profession, working as both an announcer and an actor on East Coast radio stations and eventually landing a regular sportscaster job. Movie scouts from RKO-Radio Pictures “discovered” Coffin in 1938 and brought him out to California; although the studio signed him to a contract, they made virtually no use of him in their films, and by 1939 he had become a Hollywood freelancer.
After leaving RKO, Coffin quickly found a niche at low-budgeted Monogram Pictures, where he regularly played heavies, suspects, and (very occasionally) romantic leads in the studio’s B-level cowboy films, mysteries, and horror movies, from 1939 through 1943. During the early 1940s, he also started playing occasional A-film bit parts, did some West Coast radio work, began appearing frequently in Columbia’s B-westerns, and made multiple appearances in B-westerns and other films for Republic. He played three major serial roles at Republic and Columbia during the early 1940s, as well–although he made his first Republic chapterplay somewhat earlier, in the 1939 serial Dick Tracy’s G-Men. His role in this outing was small; he appeared in a single extended Chapter One sequence as an urbane but shady foreign agent–one of three emissaries who hired the master spy Zarnoff (Irving Pichel) to help their unnamed countries (simply referred to as “the Three Powers”) undermine America’s defenses. His second Republic serial, Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940) gave him even less to do; as Wells, the secretary of a state governor, he had a mere three lines (and was visible only in long-shot) before being killed off-camera by an assassin who invaded the governor’s offices.
Above: Irving Pichel (far left) explains a remote-control sabotage device to his foreign clients in Dick Tracy’s G-Men (Republic, 1939). Said clients are, left to right, Perry Ivins, Tristram Coffin, and Bernard Suss.
Sky Raiders (1941), Coffin’s only Universal serial, featured him in one scene as a capable Coast Guard commander whose cutter rescued hero Donald Woods, heroine Kathryn Adams, and Army general Roy Gordon after their plane crashed at sea, and who engaged in some good-natured Army-versus-Navy banter with the General after the rescue. Holt of the Secret Service (Columbia, 1941) gave him his first big serial role–and his most atypical; as Ed Valden, a member of a counterfeiting gang, he began this outing with the villainous self-assurance that had already become his trademark in B-features, confidently riding herd on a gang of lower-ranking heavies at a mountain hideout, and smilingly but grimly pressuring a kidnapped government agent to turn out bogus bills. However, Treasury agents Jack Holt and Evelyn Brent infiltrated this hideout by posing as a pugnacious pair of married crooks, and soon began disrupting the counterfeiters’ operations–and Coffin quickly became a comically harried figure instead of a threatening one, shouting irritably and gesturing frustratedly as he tried vainly to control his two new associates’ unruly behavior. The mountain hideout governed by Coffin was raided by the authorities in Chapter Four, leaving him to serve as a mere aide-de-camp to higher-ranking villains (Ted Adams, John Ward) in the ensuing episodes, until he was arrested in Chapter Eight and gunned down (by former associates eager to silence him) in Chapter Nine. Coffin showed flashes of smoothness in these later episodes, but mostly remained in a flustered state–due to the repeated browbeatings he received from his superiors, rival villain Joe McGuinn, and hero Holt; one wound up almost feeling sorry for his character, who came off as a typically put-upon middle-management official.
Coffin regained his villainous dignity in his next, and best-remembered, chapterplay–Republic’s rousing, action-packed Spy Smasher (1942). Here, he was cast as Drake, a television reporter who covered the wartime counter-espionage activities of Naval Intelligence’s Admiral Corby (Sam Flint) and Corby’s mysterious masked ally, Spy Smasher (Kane Richmond)–both of whom were unaware that Drake was actually a Nazi agent, and was using his television equipment to transmit vital information to the Nazi spymaster known as the Mask (Hans Schumm). Coffin spent most of Spy Smasher skirting deftly around the edges of the main action, spying covertly on Corby and relaying the Mask’s orders to underlings, but taking part in no active villainy until the last two chapters. Despite this fairly peripheral role, Coffin didn’t come off as a peripheral character; instead, he made Drake seem like a truly formidable spy–interacting with Corby and other intelligence officials in suavely ingratiating fashion, plotting against them with businesslike coldness, manipulating electronic eavesdropping devices with practiced quickness, and generally creating an impression of alert, competent, and ever-lurking malignity.
Republic’s very next serial, the excellent adventure saga Perils of Nyoka (1942), gave Coffin a part almost identical to his Spy Smasher role; as Count Benito Torrini, an Italian colonial official in North Africa, he pretended to assist Nyoka Gordon (Kay Aldridge) and Dr. Larry Grayson (Clayton Moore) in their search for a lost treasure–but was really working with local bandit queen Vultura (Lorna Gray) and her cohort Cassib (Charles Middleton), who were out to seize the treasure themselves. Torrini did his best to unobtrusively sabotage Nyoka and Larry’s expedition from within, reporting on its movements to Vultura and making seemingly helpful suggestions designed to lead the protagonists into traps; he was eventually killed in one of these traps himself, not long after his treachery was exposed in Chapter Ten. Due to this early exit from the story and to a very large cast of characters, Coffin received less screen time in Nyoka than he had in Spy Smasher; however, he again made his character seem dangerously and expertly duplicitous, whenever he was spotlighted. He maintained a convincing façade of genteel affability when conferring with the protagonists, engaged in surreptitious villainy with easy confidence, and remained unflappably smug and cool even after his Chapter Ten unmasking.
Above: Tristram Coffin hovers alertly behind the assembled members of the archeological expedition in Perils Of Nyoka, as Kay Aldridge translates an important papyrus. That’s Billy Benedict with the monkey on his shoulder, Clayton Moore between Benedict and Aldridge, George Pembroke on the other side of Aldridge, and Forbes Murray on the far right.
In 1943, Coffin joined the Navy, and was stationed in the Aleutian Islands until the end of the war; he came back to Hollywood in 1946, and spent the remaining years of the 1940s on the same course he’d followed during the decade’s earlier years–dabbling in radio, doing occasional A-film bits (principally at Warner Brothers), but devoting most of his time to playing heavies or suspicious characters in B-westerns at Monogram, B-westerns and serials at Columbia, and B-westerns, B-mysteries, and serials at Republic. His first postwar serial was one of Republic’s best later chapterplays, Jesse James Rides Again (1947); for the first and only time in his cliffhanging career, he was cast as the top-ranking villain–an outwardly respectable land developer named James Clark, who knew that a stretch of Tennessee farmland contained hidden oil deposits, and who tried to drive the unsuspecting owners of this farmland from their homesteads by setting a gang of masked raiders on them. His land-grab was thwarted, however, by ex-outlaw Jesse James (Clayton Moore), who eventually discovered both the motive for the outlaw raids and the man behind them. Coffin made a perfect brains heavy in Jesse James; his air of calculating intelligence contrasted neatly with the thuggishness of Roy Barcroft (who played his chief henchman), and he handled the two-faced aspects of his role with his usual aplomb–using a brisk, straightforward man-of-the-world manner to make the good guys think he was a respectable businessman, but becoming grim, sarcastic, and haughtily aggressive whenever he issued orders to Barcroft or rebuked him for his failures.
Federal Agents vs. Underworld Inc. (1949) gave Coffin his last Republic serial-villain role–a one-chapter bit as a crooked lawyer named Frank Chambers, who demanded that federal agents Kirk Alyn and James Dale allow him to confer with his gangster client (Roy Barcroft), but was then caught trying to smuggle a gun to Barcroft; after losing a fistfight and being forced to write a note as part of a plan to trap Barcroft’s boss (Carol Forman), he exited the serial. Coffin’s best moment during this sequence came when the gun was removed from a secret compartment in his briefcase; he delivered the brazenly hypocritical line, “Now, how do you suppose that got in there?” in pricelessly deadpan style.
Bruce Gentry (1949), Coffin’s first Columbia serial since Holt of the Secret Service eight years earlier, featured Coffin in what was essentially a brains-heavy role, even though his character–a foreign agent named Krendon–was only the lieutenant of the serial’s top villain, a scientific criminal and Cold War traitor known as the Recorder. The Recorder didn’t appear in person until the final chapter, and all of his orders were delivered via recorded speeches which were ostensibly recited by him–but which, in order to completely hide his identity, were really delivered by Coffin, who affected an ersatz Russian accent for the purpose. In addition to supplying his master’s voice, Coffin handled all operational chores for the Recorder–radioing orders to henchmen, sending out remote-controlled flying saucers to wreck the airplanes of pilot hero Bruce Gentry (Tom Neal), and trying to intimidate captive scientist Dr. Benson (Forrest Taylor) into cooperating with the Recorder’s gang. Unlike all of Coffin’s previous major serial-villain roles, his role in Gentry didn’t allow him to interact regularly with the good guys, since his character spent virtually all of his screen time in the Recorder’s secret mountain hideout; however, his scenes inside this laboratory-cave still gave him many good opportunities to be tersely decisive, calmly arrogant, and politely threatening.
Coffin’s next serial was King of the Rocket Men (Republic, 1949), which was built around the novel gimmick of a hero with a flying rocket-suit–and which also boasted the novel casting of Coffin as the hero in question. His character, scientist Jeff King, invented the rocket-suit in collaboration with fellow-scientist Professor Millard (James Craven), and then made fearless use of it, adopting the secret identity of “Rocket Man” in order to combat a mysterious criminal mastermind named Dr. Vulcan, who was trying to steal the atomic weapons that were being developed by King, Millard, and their colleagues at the research foundation “Science Associates.” While Spy Smasher, as aforementioned, is probably the most famous of the serials that Coffin appeared in, Rocket Men is almost definitely the chapterplay for which Coffin himself is best-remembered; serial buffs still argue about whether or not he played successfully against type, but all of them recall him as Republic’s original rocket-man (the studio would reuse the nifty rocket-suit gimmick several times during the 1950s). Your author is one of the buffs who thinks that Coffin’s offbeat casting in Rocket Men was an inspired idea; his mature appearance and his characteristically intellectual demeanor made him a much more convincing scientist-hero than the average serial star; he was most believable when he was discussing or explaining gadgets, cheerfully but shrewdly concealing his secret identity from the villains and the other good guys, and keenly following up clues to Dr. Vulcan’s own secret identity. At the same time, he also conveyed more than enough energy, dignified courage, and physical sturdiness to make him credible as an action hero, whenever it came time for him to fight with Vulcan’s henchmen or take off in his wonderful flying suit.
Above: Douglas Evans (far left) and Mae Clarke watch as Tristram Coffin tries to locate Dr. Vulcan and his lethal “decimator” by means of a “thromium detector” in King of the Rocket Men. Arvon Dale is wearing the headphones.
Coffin stayed on the heroes’ side (though in a strictly advisory capacity) in Radar Patrol vs. Spy King (1949), his final Republic serial and his last 1940s serial as well. As Franklyn Lord, an official of the US government’s “Radar Research Bureau,” he appeared in the first chapter to soberly and compellingly describe the sinister history of the titular “spy king” Baroda (John Merton) to scientist heroine Joan Hughes (Jean Dean), warn her that Baroda was sure to interfere with her efforts to develop a chain of radar stations along the US border, and give her the information necessary for making contact with her bodyguard and partner in the radar project, former OSS agent Chris Calvert (Kirk Alyn). After this scene-setting opening sequence, Coffin dropped out of sight–but resurfaced in Chapter Ten to receive a long verbal report from Dean and Alyn, then reappeared briefly once more in Chapter Twelve to express his satisfaction over the defeat of Merton and the success of the radar project.
Coffin remained a frequent supporting player in Monogram and Republic’s films during the early years of the 1950s, and also took many large and small parts in the features of Warner Brothers, Universal, Lippert, and other outfits. He made only two 1950s serials, both of them for Columbia producer Sam Katzman; the first was the above-average 1950 outing Pirates of the High Seas, which gave him his last prominent serial role–an appropriately slippery one that made a good cap to his chapterplay career. Coffin’s character in Pirates was Walter Castell, an agent of the “United Peace Organization” hunting for a Nazi war criminal named Von Hausdorf and for some lost Nazi loot–five million dollars’ worth of diamonds. The trail led to the Pacific island of Taluha, and Castell journeyed there with sea-captain hero Jeff Drake (Buster Crabbe); there, both men found themselves battling Taluha’s crooked governor (Gene Roth) for the valuable diamonds–and also ran into opposition from a mysterious cloaked killer. This killer eventually turned out to be Castell–who was actually Von Hausdorf himself, and who had only posed as a Nazi-hunter in order to recover the diamonds. Coffin, whose character’s true identity wasn’t revealed to the audience until Pirates’ thirteenth episode, was able to make “Castell” seem thoroughly respectable for most of the serial–providing Crabbe and his sidekick Tommy Farrell with apparently upright, courageous, and thoughtful assistance in their many battles with the Governor’s henchmen. Once he was exposed, he easily returned to the imperturbably crafty and polished villainy of his earlier serial roles, as he suavely tried to make terms with Roth and endeavored to play him off against Crabbe. The only part of Coffin’s Pirates performance that fell flat was his delivery of the cloaked Von Hausdorf’s thankfully few lines, before his unmasking; he tried to use a German accent and a gleefully gloating tone to disguise his voice, but was unable to give either the accent or the gloating the hammy gusto needed to put them across.
Coffin’s final serial was Captain Video (Columbia, 1951), in which he made a brief appearance as an eminent scientist named Professor Anton Dean, whose assistance was sought by the interplanetary crime-fighter Video (Judd Holdren). The Captain brought an extraterrestrial robot’s mechanical brain to Dean for analysis, but found the scientist had been kidnapped and scientifically quick-frozen by agents of the robot’s master, the evil Vultura (Gene Roth)–who then proceeded to do the same to Video. Video’s assistant Gallagher (Don Harvey) managed to rescue both the Captain and Dean, but was unable to prevent the villains from recovering the robot brain; the grateful Dean was still able to give the Captain some helpful guesses about the automaton, however. Coffin got to be both sinister (when playing a Vultura-created hologram of Dean) and likable (when playing the real Professor) in this small role, and also did a stellar job of making his character’s pseudo-scientific speculations about the robot sound convincing.
As the 1950s continued, Coffin became increasingly active in television, and all but ceased appearing in feature films. He made innumerable appearances on the small screen throughout the decade–playing a fair share of villains on many early Western shows and on The Adventures of Superman, but also portraying plenty of trustworthy official types (as on the short-lived private-eye series The Files of Jeffrey Jones, in which he had a recurring role as a police detective). In 1957, he landed the starring role of Arizona Ranger captain Tom Rynning in the Western series 26 Men, which ran until 1959 and effectively set the seal on his transition to screen respectability. After 26 Men went off the air, he returned to character work on television and (very occasionally) in feature films, now almost always playing doctors, diplomats, army officers and other responsible authority figures, on shows ranging from 77 Sunset Strip, to The Beverly Hillbillies. His screen appearances became more sporadic during the latter half of the 1960s, and by 1970 he had all but retired, although he did make a handful of appearances in made-for-TV movies and theatrical features after this date. Coffin took up painting during his retirement years, and also connected with many fans of his movie work, both at conventions and in one-on-one interviews; he passed away at his home in Santa Monica in 1990.
Eternally confident and collected, Tristram Coffin seemed to project astuteness and authoritativeness almost effortlessly, whether he was abetting villainy or opposing it. His reliably excellent but characteristically unobtrusive acting could easily have relegated him to the ranks of forgotten serial players–had he not been fortunate enough to appear in several of the genre’s best-loved titles; his underhanded skullduggery in Spy Smasher and Perils of Nyoka and his high-flying heroics in King of the Rocket Men have justly made him as quite as famous to chapterplay buffs as many more emphatically theatrical actors.
Above left: Tristram Coffin silently processes some important information in Perils of Nyoka (Republic, 1942). Above right: Tristram Coffin prepares to fly into action for the first time in King of the Rocket Men (Republic, 1949).
Acknowledgements: My main sources for this article were Gregory Jackson’s 1977 interview with Tristram Coffin, published in Serial World #10, and Tom Weaver’s Internet Movie Database biography of Coffin. The federal census records, the Radio Gold Index site, and the Old Corral’s Coffin page were also helpful.