May 26th, 1893 — August 22nd, 1964
Of all frequent serial and B-western henchmen, Charles Stevens was the smallest and the scrawniest—but what his characters lacked in brawn, they made up for in enthusiastic duplicity. Stevens was unequaled when it came to playing shifty, crafty villains; his croaking voice, wizened face, and memorable facial expressions (ranging from sly to terror-stricken) made him one of the most colorful and interesting of chapterplay henchmen. Treacherous as Stevens’ heavies were, there was something almost endearing in the whole-hearted, rather childlike glee with which they tackled their sneaky deeds, and in the equally childlike confusion and panic that they displayed when they realized their conniving had blown up in their face.
Charles Stevens was born in Solomonsville, Arizona; his father was a prominent Arizonan official, while his mother was an immigrant from Mexico. He seems to have worked as a cowboy, then a Wild West show performer, before arriving in Hollywood around 1915. He spent the rest of the 1910s as an extra and bit player (and probably as a wrangler as well), usually playing Orientals, Mexicans, Indians, or similar ethnic types. Around 1920, he became good friends with Douglas Fairbanks Sr.; for the rest of the decade, he would play major or minor roles in practically all of Fairbanks’ movies—most notably D’Artagnan’s (Fairbanks) comic servant Planchet in The Three Musketeers and its sequel The Iron Mask. The Fairbanks association brought Stevens more character parts in other silent films–including several silent Westerns; when the sound era dawned, his voice—an odd but very American-sounding Southwestern drawl with distinctive guttural inflections —caused him to be restricted largely to the Western genre.
Stevens spent most of the 1930s playing Mexicans, Indians, or half-breeds in both A (The Big Trail, Viva Villa) and B (Buck Jones’ The California Trail, George O’Brien’s Mystery Ranch) pictures; his roles in the B-westerns were typically bigger than his ones in more prestigious features. A fluent Spanish speaker, he also played some prominent parts in the Spanish-language versions of Hollywood films produced for Latin-American release during the early 1930s. Occasionally, he would play a bit or a small character role as a Hindu, Chinese, or other foreign character in non-Western films like The Lives of a Bengal Lancer; his first serial role in The Perils of Pauline (Universal, 1934), was in this vein. As a Chinese named Lee, the servant of Oriental master criminal Dr. Bashan (John Davidson), Stevens had almost no lines here, and little to do but skulk around in the background, obey the orders of Davidson and action heavy Frank Lackteen, and get into fights; he dropped out of sight entirely after the serial’s plot left the Orient behind in Chapter Nine.
Stevens wouldn’t appear in another serial till 1937; another Universal release, Wild West Days gave him a much meatier role than Perils of Pauline had. His character, the cunning half-breed Buckskin Frank, was the leading henchman of a gang of claim-jumpers and cattle rustlers called the Secret Seven, and repeatedly spearheaded their attempts to seize a ranch property bearing valuable platinum deposits. Stevens played his character as tough and self-assured, despite his size—coolly and casually beating his fellow thugs in a knife-throwing contest, bristling aggressively when his mixed ancestry was mentioned, confidently doing business with the unpredictable local Indians, and fearlessly and tirelessly attacking hero John Mack Brown. Stevens was so distinctive in the part that Universal would repeatedly cast him as slightly differing versions of his Buckskin Frank character in many future Western chapterplays.
Flaming Frontiers (Universal, 1938), another John Mack Brown serial, cast Stevens as Breed, an outlaw who began the serial as a background follower of crooked frontier businessman James Blaine. However, Breed assumed much greater prominence after committing a murder in Chapter Seven which was blamed on the heroine’s brother (John Archer). In order to keep Archer alive and seize his gold mine, Blaine tried to throw Stevens to the wolves, and Stevens responded by becoming a free-agent henchman—first working for Blaine’s rival Charles Middleton, then trying to grab a share of the gold mine for himself. Breed was a decidedly more cowardly character than Buckskin Frank, and the part allowed Stevens to run a vivid gamut of emotions. He was highly enjoyable to watch as he continually veered from self-confident swaggering to abject fear; in fact, he came close to stealing the second half of the serial.
Red Barry (Universal, 1938), gave Stevens his second and last non-Western serial role. As in Perils of Pauline, he played a Chinese—one Captain Moy, assisting Chinese agent Wing Fu (Cyril Delevanti) in recovering valuable bonds stolen from the Chinese government and taken to America. Stevens led Delevanti’s band of henchmen throughout the serial, battling with police detective Buster Crabbe, gangster Frank Lackteen, and a gang of Russians led by Edna Sedgwick—but the serial’s huge cast of heroes, villains, and semi-villains left him with little screen time. While Stevens was not officially a villain in Barry (his leader Delevanti agreed to cooperate with the American authorities before the serial’s end), his character was pretty ruthless in the pursuit of his goal—particularly in his best scene, in which he happily explained to detective Hugh Huntley that his death would be made to look like “velly unfortunate accident” unless he surrendered the bonds.
Stevens was back to the frontier in The Oregon Trail (Universal, 1939), again playing a henchman named Breed in the service of James Blaine, and again opposing John Mack Brown. This time, Blaine was trying to stop settlers from breaking up his fur-trading empire in the Oregon Territory, and employed Stevens, co-action-heavy Jack C. Smith, and various outlaws and Indians to repeatedly attack a newly-arrived wagon train. Stevens’ character here fell somewhere in between his Buckskin Frank and his earlier Breed on the cowardice scale; more deferential around his boss than the former, he was tougher than the latter, while fully as sneaky as either of them.
Winners of the West (Universal, 1940), featured Stevens as yet another half-breed outlaw—named Snakeye this time. As in his three preceding Western outings, he commanded the henchman pack, served as liaison between the villains and the Indians, and made innumerable underhanded attempts to murder the hero (railroad builder Dick Foran). Towards the end of the serial, Snakeye fell out with his boss King Carter (Harry Woods), and made a narrow escape from Carter’s office (Stevens’ expression when he realized his expendability was priceless). He then tried to incite the Indians to massacre both Carter’s gang and the railroad crew. Despite some impressive prevarication on Stevens’ part, the Indians refused to go on the warpath, due to the nearby presence of a cavalry detachment; however, they broke the peace long enough to kill the unfortunate little troublemaker Snakeye.
Stevens would continue to work in Hollywood’s A and B films throughout the 1940s, but spent as much (or more) time working as a film actor in Mexico. He returned to the serial genre in 1942, taking his last major chapterplay role in Universal’s Overland Mail. He was cast as Puma, yet another half-breed, who partnered with outlaw Harry Cording in ram-rodding the forces of corrupt entrepreneur Noah Beery Sr.–who was trying to take over a profitable stage line. Overland Mail was the last and probably the best of Universal’s traditional Western serials, and allowed Stevens one more excellent opportunity to play his usual character—boasting of his fearlessness to his followers (“The Puma takes orders from no one!”), cringing in the presence of his boss, slyly duping an Indian chief into believing hero Lon Chaney Jr. killed his son, and indulging in other familiar behavior.
As the 1940s advanced, Stevens still worked in B-movies, but also started receiving some of the best A-film character parts he had been given since the silent era, possibly because of his brief but pivotal turn as the drunken Indian Charlie in John Ford’s 1946 film My Darling Clementine. He had noticeable sympathetic roles in–among others–Return of the Bad Men (RKO, 1948) and The Walking Hills (Columbia, 1949), and took one of the biggest villainous parts of his feature-film career in the 1950 MGM Western Ambush.
The 1950s found the aging Stevens switching almost entirely to non-villainous roles, usually as Mexican peasants or elderly Indian chiefs; he followed the same route in most of his appearances on the TV shows of the decade (Range Rider, Adventures of Kit Carson, and many others). Two of his most notable fifties reversions to his earlier form came in his last two serials, Gunfighters of the Northwest (Columbia, 1953) and Man with the Steel Whip (Republic, 1954). In the first, he figured noticeably in the earlier chapters as an untrustworthy half-breed named Cariboo, who stirred up the Blackfoot Indians on the orders of an outlaw group called the White Horse Rebels and on his own account; though advanced in years, Stevens still displayed plenty of his characteristic craftiness, and it was a disappointment when his character dropped out of sight after Chapter Six.
Man with the Steel Whip gave Stevens a brief but appropriate chapterplay swan song; he made a one-chapter cameo as Blackjack Sam, yet another half-breed who had helped to organize some renegade Indians for attacks that the villains were blaming on a peaceful tribe. Hero Richard Simmons took Stevens prisoner off-camera and brought him into the saloon to confess his friends’ trickery in front of the townspeople; Stevens cleared the good Indians, but was then plugged by fellow renegade Lane Bradford before he could name his leader.
In the second half of the 1950s, Stevens became almost exclusively a television actor, appearing on Zorro, Maverick, Rawhide, Bronco, and many other Western shows, usually as sympathetic or comic characters. His final film appearance, however, came in the big-screen feature The Outsider, where he played the father of Pima Indian World War 2 hero Ira Hayes (Tony Curtis). Around the time of Outsider’s release in 1961, Charles Stevens retired from acting, passing away three years later in Los Angeles.
Charles Stevens won some good roles in features towards the end of his screen career, but it was his serial appearances that gave him his meatiest sound-era roles. Like Jack Ingram in the Columbia serials of 1945-1954, Stevens in the Universal serials of 1937-1942 essentially played the same character each time; however, he played that character so well that it was always a pleasure to see him go through his paces—throwing knives at heroes, stirring up the Indians, double-crossing his leaders, and generally making himself a nuisance to everyone on screen, while simultaneously delighting the audience.
Acknowledgements: My thanks to the pages on Stevens at the Old Corral and Western Clippings for biographical information; my thanks also to commenter “Mike” (see below) for helping to clarify some of the facts of Stevens’ ancestry.