April 19th, 1888 — December 4th, 1971
Al Ferguson appeared in chapterplays throughout the entire sound-serial era, almost always as a member of the henchman squad; he was particularly prominent in producer Henry MacRae’s 1930s Universal outings and in director James Horne’s 1940s Columbia efforts. Toughly built, he played the swaggering roughneck to perfection–but also used his crafty face and his cutting, strongly Irish-accented voice to give most of his heavies a shrewd, cynical, and sarcastically humorous manner which made his characterizations both individualized and entertaining.
Alfred George Ferguson was born in Rosslare, Ireland, moved to Canada at an unknown date, and then immigrated to the United States in 1914, settling in California. At some time before this last immigration, he served eighteen months in the British army–which is the only concrete fact concerning his pre-American years that I’ve been able to find. If the Internet Movie Database (a questionable source) is correct in listing Ferguson in the cast of a 1912 Canadian-filmed Selig short, The Whiskey Runners, he must have launched his acting career before his arrival in the States. The quickness with which he found work in the fledgling Californian motion-picture industry would seem to confirm the idea that he had previous thespian experience; by 1916 he was working regularly as a supporting player for the American Film Company of Santa Barbara. He stayed with this outfit through most of the remaining years of the 1910s, but began working with other movie companies during the 1920s–again, chiefly as a supporting actor, although he did have a 1924-1925 stint as star, director, and production manager of a series of Oregon-filmed action features for independent producer J. Charles Davis producer. By the end of the decade he had become more or less typecast as a screen villain, particularly in silent Westerns; he also appeared in many silent serials, including Universal’s Tarzan the Mighty, its followup Tarzan the Tiger (in both of which he portrayed the leading heavy), and The Lighting Express (in which he played his last major heroic role, as railroad detective “Whispering” Smith).
Ferguson survived the coming of sound, and continued to work steadily–and almost exclusively–in Westerns and serials for Universal, Columbia, and various independent outfits during the first half of the 1930s. However, his Irish brogue slightly narrowed his range of roles–as his first sound serial, independent producer Harry Webb’s The Mystery Trooper (1931) made very clear. Trooper, like many of Ferguson’s silent chapterplays, featured him as the “brains heavy”–a scheming French-Canadian trading-post owner named Jean Gregg, who was bent on finding and stealing a lost gold mine. Though Ferguson did an excellent job of smiling slyly and snarling gruffly in this part, his performance was ultimately strangled by the French accent he was forced to adopt; his efforts to give a Gallic inflection to his naturally Hibernian voice made his line delivery sound so labored and cartoonish that his performance became more distractingly weird than sinister.
Later in 1931, Harry Webb turned out a second serial, The Sign of the Wolf, under a new production imprint–and again cast Ferguson as the brains heavy: a crooked businessman named Winslow, who set his sights on a pair of radioactive chains that could turn sand into jewels. This time around, Ferguson was not saddled with an ersatz accent; however, he was also given little to do in this part, with most of his screen time consisting of brief sequences in which he phoned orders to his chief henchman Jack Mower. Ferguson made the most of these token appearances, snarling out orders in crafty and decisive style. In an apparent cost-cutting move, Webb also assigned Ferguson a second role in Wolf as Dick, a member of the henchman pack that backed up Mower throughout the serial; the production crew made some effort to conceal Ferguson’s doubling-up by giving “Dick” a scar and a huge moustache, and by keeping his lines to a minimum. However, Ferguson’s voice was still unmistakable in the few scenes in which his henchman character was allowed to speak–which created the impression that Winslow had adopted an undercover pose in order to mingle with his men, like a ruler in a Shakespeare play.
Ferguson’s turns for Harry Webb would be his last brains-heavy characterizations of the sound-serial era; over the next few years, he settled firmly into henchman mold, in the chapterplays of Mascot and Universal. At Mascot, his first serial outing was The Hurricane Express (1932), in which, as a henchman named Sandy, he teamed with three other top-notch henchmen–Charles King, Glenn Strange, and Ernie Adams–to repeatedly battle leading man John Wayne on behalf of a mysterious railroad saboteur known as the Wrecker. Adams played the leader of the henchman pack in Express, but Ferguson was still a prominent participant in the serial’s many action scenes, and got several good chances to snarl gruffly and grin crookedly as he conferred with his colleagues and confronted or threatened Wayne, heroine Shirley Grey, and the serial’s other protagonists.
The Lost Special (1932), Ferguson’s earliest surviving sound serial for Universal (he possibly appeared in a lost Universal chapterplay from the same year, The Airmail Mystery) featured him as a member of another band of railroad-related criminals. His character, Peter Gavin, served as the secondary action heavy, the lieutenant of chief henchman Jim Dirk (Tom London); Dirk and Gavin led the serial’s other henchmen in the hijacking of an entire train and its shipment of gold, and then did their best to stop hero Bob Moore (Frank Albertson) from locating the train or discovering that the mastermind behind the robbery was respectable mining-company official Samuel Slater (J. Frank Glendon). Special gave Ferguson one of his biggest and best serial-henchman roles; his sardonic boisterousness contrasted effectively with London’s more reserved and furtive demeanor, and he was also spotlighted nicely in the serial’s final scene–in which he simultaneously conveyed resentment, fear, and pride as he confessed to the assembled good guys just how he and his cohorts had pulled off the hijacking of the titular gold-carrying “special.”
Clancy of the Mounted (Universal, 1933) gave Ferguson a one-scene bit as a trapper named Dogard, while The Three Musketeers (also 1933), his second and last Mascot serial, featured him much more prominently as an Arab named Ali, the servant of heroine Ruth Hall and a secret member of a North African revolutionary group known as the Devil’s Circle. When the Circle’s masked leader El Shaitan murdered Hall’s brother (Lon Chaney Jr.), Ferguson’s Ali did a bit of impromptu forging and succeeded in pinning the killing on the hero (John Wayne). At first, the serial also hinted that Ali might be El Shaitan himself, but he was revealed as a mere underling by the serial’s halfway point; still, he did plenty of damage in his subordinate capacity, eventually becoming an active henchman of El Shaitan’s after the exposure of his skullduggery cost him his position in the heroine’s household. Though his accent didn’t exactly fit his character, Ferguson did a credible job in Musketeers nonetheless; instead of attempting an ill-advised fake accent (as in Mystery Trooper), he simply downplayed his brogue enough to keep his lines from sounding too jarring. He handled the non-verbal acting aspects of his role with aplomb, particularly when he was foxily peering around corners in classic red-herring style; his very dark hair and his prominent nose also made him a reasonably believable Middle Easterner, from a visual standpoint
Later in 1933, Ferguson was back at Universal, playing a henchman named Al in The Phantom of the Air; he stayed in the background for most this serial, hanging around the villains’ airfield headquarters and occasionally sending his associates off on airborne raids with a spin of the propeller and a shout of “contact.” However, he briefly became pivotal to the plot in Chapter Ten, in which he joined the serial’s more prominent henchmen in a raid on the laboratory of inventor William Desmond, got into a fight with hero Tom Tyler, and was accidentally shot by his own boss LeRoy Mason–who then added insult to injury by ignoring the wounded Ferguson’s exhausted please and abandoning him in order to make his own getaway. The justifiably bitter Ferguson avenged himself, however, by telling the heroine (Gloria Shea) that the supposedly honest Mason was the secret leader of the villains; after thus setting Phantom’s climactic action in motion, he dropped out of the serial (the script didn’t make it clear if his character died or was merely arrested).
Ferguson appeared in all four of Universal’s 1934 serial releases–and played recurring henchmen in each of them. The first Universal chapterplay of the year, Pirate Treasure, featured him as a waterfront crook who went by the colorful (if rather inexplicable) name of Portuguese Joe; his character put both himself and his speedy motorboat at the service of a gang of treasure-seeking villains, and figured as a prominent supporting henchman for most of the serial–engaging the hero (Richard Talmadge) in a lengthy one-on-one fight in one sequence, patiently lying in wait to shoot Talmadge in another, and serving as the action heavy’s (Ethan Laidlaw) chief aide-de-camp in many scenes. Next came The Vanishing Shadow, which cast Ferguson as Stroud, one of the thugs who carried out the orders of grafting politician Wade Barnett (Walter Miller); he received plenty of screen time here, regularly assisting chief henchman Richard Cramer in clashes with hero Onslow Stevens, but was given little dialogue. However, he did receive one memorably quirky and amusing scene, in which he and fellow-henchman Edmund Cobb cheerily guzzled down their boss’s bootleg liquor–unaware that Stevens, whom they were supposed to be guarding, was making an escape.
Above: Edmund Cobb (far left), Ada Ince, and Walter Miller watch Onslow Stevens (light suit, wearing invisibility-control device) get roughed up by (left to right) Richard Cramer, Monte Montague, and Al Ferguson in The Vanishing Shadow (Universal, 1934).
Ferguson played a Western outlaw named Madden in his third 1934 Universal serial, The Red Rider; though Walter Miller (as chief villain Jim Breen) and Richard Cramer (as his bandit cohort Joe Portos) received the lion’s share of villainy in this excellent chapterplay, Ferguson appeared throughout the serial, was given some choice sarcastic lines, and handled them in delightfully crusty style. Most of these remarks were made at the expense of Miller’s Breen, whose self-serving behavior ultimately caused Ferguson’s Madden (and Breen’s other henchmen) to join with Cramer’s Portos in a rebellion against Breen. Tailspin Tommy, the last Universal cliffhanger of 1934, featured Ferguson in most of its middle episodes as Curly, a tough and smirkingly self-assured pilot-henchman who took part in a couple of attempted airmail robberies and a kidnapping, before getting annihilated by an out-of-left-field earthquake at the end of Chapter Nine.
Ferguson kept his consecutive-serial streak at Universal going into 1935, playing another recurring henchman (Al by name) in the studio’s first serial of that year–the rugged, pulp-magazine-flavored The Rustlers of Red Dog. The titular outlaw band was led by Harry Woods, while Ferguson’s character was one of its many members; like most of the other subordinate “rustlers,” Ferguson had little to do but look picturesquely rough-hewn and roguish (a task he handled easily), back up Woods in shootouts with hero John Mack Brown, and occasionally utter a quick line of dialogue. Universal’s next 1935 serial, The Call of the Savage, provided yet another henchman role for Ferguson in its last three chapters; he played one of the border guards of the hidden jungle city of Mu, made a couple of attacks on the heroes and villains who intruded into the city, and smilingly assisted the evil Prince Samu (John Davidson) in his efforts to liquidate both the outsiders and the rightful princess of Mu (Dorothy Short).
During the second half of the 1930s, Ferguson continued to devote much of his time to Western roles–in both A and B titles–but also began appearing in non-Western features more frequently than he had during the earlier years of the decade. His serial work slacked off precipitately after 1936, however–probably because of the shakeup that hit Universal’s serial department. The ousting of Universal’s president Carl Laemmle in that year sent waves throughout the studio, one of which temporarily toppled Henry MacRae, Universal’s chapterplay overseer since the silent era, from his position as head of the serial unit–and effectively dissolved the cliffhanger stock company that MacRae had built up. The Adventures of Frank Merriwell and Flash Gordon (both Universal, 1936) would be Ferguson’s last serials under the old MacRae setup; the former gave him a small sympathetic role as a pugnacious lumberjack named Big Tom, who was assigned to guard a treasure chest and engaged a group of villains in a fistfight. Flash Gordon returned him to evildoing, giving him a recurring background role in its earlier episodes as the evil Ming the Merciless’s (Charles Middleton) laboratory assistant; his chief job here was to alertly monitor Ming’s “spaceograph” and make occasional brief reports to the tyrannical ruler.
Ferguson made his first Republic serial appearance in 1937, receiving a good one-scene role in Dick Tracy as a henchman who glibly posed as “John Henderson, Bureau of Aeronautics” in order to steal some airplane plans, but was verbally trapped and then exposed by ace detective Tracy (Ralph Byrd). He was a genuine government operative in Secret Agent X-9 (1937), his first post-shakeup Universal serial, and his last 1930s cliffhanging outing for that studio; he appeared briefly in two episodes as a G-man named Dyer, getting to energetically and aggressively participate in the “grilling” of an apprehended suspect in the second of the two chapters.
The Spider’s Web (Columbia, 1938) gave Ferguson a one-scene role as a crooked garage-manager who engaged a fellow-henchman in conversation and unwittingly provided eavesdropping hero Warren Hull with some useful information; Flying G-Men (1939), another Columbia serial, featured him in two episodes as a spy-ring member who took part in a couple of fights with the titular heroes. Small though these two roles were, they marked the beginning of the next major phase of Ferguson’s serial career; James W. Horne, the co-director of both Web and G-Men, would become Columbia’s sole serial director in 1940, and would bring back Ferguson for many more chapterplays.
The early 1940s found Ferguson appearing in B-westerns for various studios (chiefly RKO and Monogram), playing bits in occasional A-features, and taking larger roles in the aforementioned Horne/Columbia serials. The first of these was Deadwood Dick (Columbia, 1940), which gave Ferguson his biggest cliffhanging role since Tailspin Tommy; as an unshaven outlaw named Mike, one of the leading members of the serial’s henchman pack, he delivered a knowingly rambunctious and highly entertaining performance that fit nicely with the serial’s larger-than-life, Western dime-novel tone.
The Green Archer (Columbia, 1940) was Ferguson’s next serial for Horne; unlike Deadwood Dick, but like most of Horne’s other solo serials, Archer was a disjointed blend of action and comedy that came off as a spoof instead of a straight adventure. The serial’s heavies–variously bumbling, grumbling, and jumpy–were almost all played for laughs, Ferguson’s character (a henchman-pack member named Butch) among them; he easily adjusted to the serial’s comic tone, reacting to the attacks of tireless hero Spike Holland (Victor Jory) and the furious tirades of hysterical chief villain Abel Bellamy (James Craven) with an amusing combination of nervousness and exasperation. His irritable growling when he was nagged by Bellamy’s loud-mouthed toady Dinky (Kit Guard) was also very enjoyable (“Shut up, dimwit; we ain’t takin’ anything from you.”)
Above: Al Ferguson (seated second from right) and the other henchmen in The Green Archer (Columbia, 1940) share a laugh at the expense of Kit Guard (standing). Constantine Romanoff is on the far left, and Chuck Hamilton is next to him.
Ferguson again served as one of James Craven’s leading henchmen (again called Butch) in Columbia’s next serial, White Eagle (1941); like Green Archer, this outing was more spoof than anything else–although Ferguson played things straighter than he had in Archer, handling his part in his usual tough and crafty style and calmly disregarding most of Craven’s shrill rantings; however, he did indulge in some over-the-top (but entertaining) histrionics in the serial’s penultimate episode, in which he flew into a frenzied panic when confronted by hero Buck Jones and was pressured into a confession of guilt (after which Craven shot him down). After a brief return to Universal’s serial department to play a non-speaking bit as a rural deputy in Sky Raiders (Universal, 1941), Ferguson rejoined James Horne and James Craven for the 1942 Columbia serial Captain Midnight–another piece of Horne spoofery in which Dave O’Brien (as the title hero) and Craven (as spymaster Ivan Shark) vied for overacting honors, while Ferguson (as a prominent recurring henchman named Gardo) displayed comic grouchiness and wariness in his dealings with both of them.
Ferguson’s last Horne serial was Perils of the Royal Mounted (Columbia, 1942), an ostensibly serious but hopelessly silly Northwestern adventure that starred Robert Kellard; Ferguson was cast as a noisy swaggerer named Mike, one of the chief henchmen (until his demise in Chapter Eleven) of unscrupulous trader Mort Ransome (Kenneth MacDonald). Ferguson’s performance in this serial was so broadly blustery that it was impossible to take him seriously as a threat, but he was still a lot of fun to watch–particularly when he loudly trying to blame his own gang’s depredations on the local Indians or sneeringly but gleefully insulting Kellard (“The big laugh around here is you redcoats.”)
Horne’s death in 1942 caused Ferguson’s serial appearances to taper off again. Although he continued to alternate feature film work (primarily in the B-westerns and horror films of Universal and the B-westerns of Monogram) with chapterplay assignments through the middle years of the 1940s, all of his serial roles from 1942 through 1945 were minor ones; the first of these roles was a background bit as a member of a civil-defense team of farmers in Don Winslow of the Coast Guard (Universal, 1942). He had a better role in his next serial, The Phantom (Columbia, 1943)–in which he figured in the first chapter as a durable and canny henchman who took a shellacking at the hands of the Phantom (Tom Tyler) and the teeth of his dog Devil, but still managed to steal a valuable artifact for his boss “Singapore” Smith (Joe Devlin).
Captain America (Republic, 1943) gave Ferguson a quick bit as a police detective, while The Tiger Woman (Republic, 1944) cast him in an equally miniscule henchman role; The Master Key (Universal, 1945), gave him a noticeable single scene as a hijacked trucker, and The Royal Mounted Rides Again (also Universal, 1945) featured him in a two-line walk-on as a townsman who delivered a note to the hero. In 1946, he made his first serial for Columbia’s new chapterplay producer Sam Katzman–who would give Ferguson nearly all of his remaining genre assignments. Said serial, a would-be swashbuckler titled Son of the Guardsman, was a pretty weak effort, but it awarded Ferguson a nice sympathetic character part as a grizzled yeoman named Lynn, one of the followers of the Robin-Hood-like forest outlaw Allan Hawk (Jim Diehl); the role allowed him to be gruff and jovial by turns, and also gave him a chance to be customarily crafty (when temporarily pretending to throw in with the villains) without being actually villainous. His old-world accent also made him a more credible medieval rustic than some of the other players in the serial.
Son of Zorro (Republic, 1947), Ferguson’s last Republic serial, gave him several brief scenes as one of outlaw leader Roy Barcroft’s cohorts; he was gunned down while assisting Barcroft in a shootout at the end of Chapter One, but then returned (presumably as a different character, although he wore the same outfit) in a couple of subsequent episodes, first stirring up a lynch mob against hero George Turner, then engaging in another gun battle. After Zorro, Ferguson became exclusively a Katzman actor as far as serials were concerned; his second outing for the producer was The Vigilante (Columbia, 1947), which showcased him its first chapter as the leader of a stolen car ring smashed by the hero (Ralph Byrd) before the plot’s main action began. Before getting thrashed and jailed, he received a good villainous scene in which he sardonically questioned and grimly threatened Byrd’s sidekick (Greg Offerman Jr.).
As the 1940s wound to a close and B-films began dying out, Ferguson still made occasional B-western appearance, but found himself working principally as a bit player in multiple studios’ A-films–and as a character actor in Columbia’s serials. The next of these was Brick Bradford (Columbia, 1948), in which he played a rascally, quick-tempered, but not unlikable eighteenth-century buccaneer named Stevens, who was rescued from hostile natives by time-traveling hero Kane Richmond and his sidekick Rick Vallin, and then assisted them in a treasure hunt (amusingly puzzling over Vallin’s use of 20th-century slang along the way), before biting the dust in a battle with the same natives.
Tex Granger (Columbia, 1948) gave Ferguson a sympathetic and unusually respectable role as Del Richards, a disgruntled rancher who was victimized by outlaws and by a land-grabbing shyster (I. Stanford Jolley), but who took an active role in forming a vigilante group that fought the local crooks, regularly assisting hero Robert Kellard in his battle to clean up the territory. Ferguson gave this character a proper air of stubbornness and indignation, but also showed convincing affability in interchanges with Kellard, heroine Peggy Stewart, kid sidekick Buzz Henry, and other good guys.
Ferguson made a seeming appearance in The James Brothers of Missouri (Republic, 1949), but never actually set foot on the Republic lot; the studio simply cribbed Ferguson’s first-chapter gunfight footage from Son of Zorro, and had stuntman Tom Steele redub his dialogue in order to tie the stock shots into the new serial’s plot. Ferguson’s next real serial, his last of the 1940s, was The Adventures of Sir Galahad (Columbia, 1949), a King-Arthur-themed serial that featured him in a noticeable background role as a Camelot guardsman, who stood at attention in Arthur’s (Nelson Leigh) throne room throughout the serial–and eventually revealed himself as a participant in Sir Mordred’s (Leonard Penn) conspiracy against the King, when he assisted Mordred in an attempt to torture Galahad (George Reeves).
Ferguson kept taking feature-film roles during the 1950s, but–unlike most other serial actors–made very few television appearances. He seems to have temporarily severed his connection with Katzman during the early years of the decade, but did return to the producer’s Columbia serials in 1953, playing a very small bit as a panicky sailor in The Great Adventures of Captain Kidd. He followed this walk-on with a (slightly) larger one-chapter henchman role as an unnamed outlaw in Riding With Buffalo Bill (Columbia, 1954)–in which he took part in the kidnapping of an old prospector (William Fawcett), was wounded by the heroine (Shirley Whitney), and grouchily gave some information to one of the heroes (Rick Vallin) after being captured. Amusingly, he “appeared” later in the same episode as another henchman, in stock footage borrowed from Deadwood Dick. He was so visible in this reused sequence (and in several others) that he was undoubtedly paid for the footage’s reuse; he probably shot his one bit of new footage while picking up his check from Katzman.
In 1956, Katzman brought Ferguson back for more extensive work in the last two movie serials ever produced, Perils of the Wilderness and Blazing the Overland Trail (both Columbia, 1956). Both outings were concocted almost entirely from stock footage, and both used Ferguson to provide a visual link between old and new shots. Wilderness, which drew much of its stock from Perils of the Royal Mounted, featured him as a henchman-pack member with the same name (Mike) and costume as his character in that earlier serial, while Blazing the Overland Trail cast him as a recurring henchman named Fergie, dressing him in his old White Eagle outfit in order to provide a bridge to borrowed scenes from that serial. Other notable 1930s serial henchmen (Bud Osborne, Harry Tenbrook) appeared in these two outings for similar stock-matching purposes, but Ferguson definitely came off as the most energetic of the reunited old-timers; in his new scenes, he still displayed much of the same slyness and bravado that had marked his earlier turns.
Spirited though Ferguson appeared in Wilderness and Blazing, he seems to have decided to hang up his guns not long after appearing in those two last-gasp serials; he made a handful of additional film and TV appearances during the remaining years of the 1950s, and retired circa 1960. He continued to live in the Hollywood area after his retirement, and died in a Burbank hospital in 1971.
Like his contemporaries and frequent co-stars George Chesebro, Bud Osborne, and Charles King, Al Ferguson was such a quirkily colorful screen presence that he not only stood out from the common throng of serial henchmen, but also took on almost an endearing quality at times. Though most of his hard-bitten and scheming characters were far from exemplary, his wily and acerbically droll personality made him great company for chapterplay audiences, during all three decades of the talking serial’s life.
Acknowledgements: I derived the date of Ferguson’s emigration from the 1920 federal census, while the information about his birthplace, his British army service, and his employment by the American Film Company comes from his World War 1 draft-registration form. The Old Corral’s Al Ferguson page (which also links the aforementioned documents) gave me valuable info, about his temporary residence in Canada, his stint as a leading man, and his place of death.