May 11th, 1902 — January 3rd, 1952
As other B-western and serial historians have observed, Dick Curtis was to Columbia Pictures what Roy Barcroft was to Republic Pictures—the all-purpose villain in the studio’s matinee fare for about a decade. Curtis was physically imposing enough to play thugs, while his crafty, rather Mongolian-looking face made him a convincing boss heavy as well. He played both types of villain in Columbia’s B-westerns, but was practically always a thug in the studio’s contemporaneous serials. Even as a subordinate heavy, however, he used his distinctive face and towering build to good advantage, conveying menace even when his characters were merely standing in the background.
Dick Curtis was born Richard Dye in Newport, Kentucky; there seems to be little information on his early years. He seems to have arrived in Hollywood while still a teenager and worked there as a movie extra and bit player for the first half of the 1920s. He moved to the New York stage later in the decade (he apparently adopted “Richard Curtis” as his stage name at this time). He returned to Hollywood around 1930, just as the talkies were coming in, and resumed his movie career, again working largely in bit roles. While playing a small role in King Kong in 1932, Curtis was badly injured and temporarily sidelined from acting; he didn’t get back into movies until late 1934. In 1935, he graduated from bit roles to sizable heavy parts, working in several Kermit Maynard B-westerns for Conn Productions. Curtis also appeared in his first serial in 1935, The Miracle Rider; he popped up briefly during the modern-day Western’s historical prologue, playing a belligerent trapper named Copley who refused to heed Davy Crockett’s warnings about trespassing in Indian territory and got himself killed as a result.
Curtis played heavies in Westerns and action films for several small studios (Supreme, Conn, Excelsior) over the next couple of years, but it was his films for independent producer Larry Darmour (the Neil Hamilton picture Mutiny Ahead, several Ken Maynard B-westerns) that would most impact his future. In 1937, Darmour moved his production setup into the Columbia fold, and Curtis went along with him, appearing in the feature Two Gun Law and battling Columbia’s B-western star Charles Starrett for the first of many times. Shortly before making Two Gun Law, Curtis had appeared in his second serial, Victory Productions’ Blake of Scotland Yard. A cheaply produced attempt at a British mystery thriller, Blake featured Curtis as Nicky, one of a gang out to steal a powerful “death ray.” Curtis’ character was properly gruff and tough, but was largely a background heavy–and had to be repeatedly but unbelievably beaten up by elderly hero Herbert Rawlinson.
From 1938 to 1944, Curtis would work extensively and almost exclusively at Columbia, only occasionally venturing over to other studios. He could be seen as heavies not only in Columbia’s B-westerns and serials but in their detective films, Blondie comedies, and, most notably, their Three Stooges shorts, where he displayed such a flair for comic villainy that he would repeatedly be cast opposite the slap-happy comedians. Of course, he played more serious roles in his Columbia chapterplays, beginning with The Spider’s Web in 1938. His part here was small, the role of a henchman named Molloy, who was ordered into a mysterious death room by his masked boss “The Octopus,” as a penalty for failure. Curtis reacted with near-hysterical panic and refused to go to his doom, only to be gunned down by the pistol the Octopus concealed beneath his robes.
Mandrake the Magician (Columbia, 1939), featured Curtis as Dorgan, the henchman of another masked villain called the “Wasp.” He had more screen time here than in Spider’s Web, but still only appeared in three chapters overall; his best moments came when Dorgan was allowed to use the Wasp’s prize gadget, a destructive “radium energy machine;” Curtis reacted with positively ghoulish glee at the damage he inflicted on a practice target with the gadget.
Flying G-Men (Columbia, 1939), featured Curtis as the leading henchman, a foreign agent named Korman with a claw-like withered hand. However, though his character was visually striking, he had little to do but take orders from his boss (Forbes Murray) and relay them to the other henchmen; he never ventured out of the villains’ office until Chapter Fourteen, when he was promptly apprehended.
The large-scale frontier cliffhanger Overland With Kit Carson (Columbia, 1939) gave Curtis a much more substantial part. He was featured as Drake, the field commander of an outlaw gang called the Black Raiders and the right-hand man of the mysterious badman known only as Pegleg. Curtis was in fine form in Carson, ordering his underlings around with in tight-lipped military fashion and even assuming Pegleg’s authority occasionally, without consulting his boss. The latter habit got him trampled to death by Pegleg’s trained killer horse Midnight in Chapter Fourteen.
Terry and the Pirates (Columbia, 1940), gave Curtis his only “brains heavy” role in a serial, while simultaneously allowing him to be more comedic than in any other cliffhanger. Terry’s director, James W. Horne, was fond of playing his chapterplays for laughs, and this outing was one of his most risible. Curtis played Fang, a half-caste Oriental tyrant, who was bent on obtaining the sacred treasure of the jungle goddess Mara and kidnapped an American archeologist (father of protagonist William Tracy) to further his ends. Curtis’s facial features were appropriate enough for his role, but he delivered his lines in a high-pitched voice with a sing-song inflection, and adopted rather sleek and effete mannerisms in place of his usual hard-boiled demeanor. The end result was quite funny, but definitely at odds with the menace that the character was supposed to possess.
Curtis took time out from his busy Columbia schedule to play a bit in Universal’s 1941 chapterplay Sea Raiders; he played an antagonistic but non-villainous ship’s officer who gruffly put stowaways Bill Halop and Huntz Hall, the serial’s juvenile leads, to work swabbing decks. He subsequently brushed off the boys’ warning of a torpedo attack, and was resultantly sunk along with his ship.
Curtis appeared in no more chapterplays until 1943, when he popped up briefly in Batman and played a larger role in The Phantom, both Columbia releases. In Batman he played a quisling named Croft who was working for a Japanese spy ring, and was quickly blown up in his hideout after a tussle with Batman (Lewis Wilson). The Phantom featured him in three chapters as Tartar, an Asiatic mountain despot whose kingdom the Phantom (Tom Tyler) was forced to visit in order to help an archeological expedition. Tartar proved to be autocratic and draconian, but not unjust, and parted amicably with the Phantom after the hero had subdued Tartar’s trained gorilla and cleared himself of murdering one of the ruler’s men. Curtis played this Oriental warlord in a much more swaggering and rugged manner than he had Fang, and seemed to have a lot of fun with the colorful and ultimately likable character.
The Phantom was one of Curtis’ last 1940s Columbia vehicles; in 1944 he seemed to drift away from the studio and began working more in the B-films of Universal, Republic, and other outfits. Universal’s 1944 chapterplay Mystery of the Riverboat featured him in the first chapter as Clay Cassard, a murderous Louisiana “shanty-boat” dweller who did henchman work for a crooked geologist (Ian Wolfe); shortly after murdering a scientist on his boss’s orders, he was confronted by the hero (Robert Lowery), engaged in a fight, and was drowned at the beginning of Chapter Two when his boss rammed the titular boat into his shanty to prevent his own exposure. Curtis had even less to do in Universal’s The Master Key (1945) and The Scarlet Horseman (1946), taking single-chapter bits as a crooked doctor in the former and a crooked freight-hauler named Macklin in the latter; Key gave him the better showcase of the two, allowing him to creepily enthuse over the hero’s (Milburn Stone) skull structure when the latter was impersonating a wounded henchman. In Horseman, on the other hand, he was only given a brief opportunity to chat with a couple of other heavies before being murdered off-stage.
Lost City of the Jungle (1946), one of Universal’s last serials, gave Curtis a bigger role as Johnson, one of the agents of international spy Sir Eric Hazarias (Lionel Atwill). Curtis got to perform plenty of nasty deeds in this outing, while also providing occasional humor through his character’s thick-wittedness and serving as a convenient repository of over-complicated exposition delivered by fellow villains John Mylong and George Lynn.
Also in 1946, Curtis teamed with Lost City of the Jungle’s star Russell Hayden and several other Hollywood personalities to develop a tract of California prairie land that Curtis had purchased several years ago. Curtis and his co-investors dubbed the site Pioneertown and began renting the land’s locations to B-western producers. Curtis’ involvement in the Pioneertown corporation apparently curtailed his film work, as he appeared in only a handful of movies over the next three years. He left the corporation sometime around 1949, and his acting schedule concurrently became busier. He worked in several Republic B-westerns in the early 1950s, and played television heavies on The Gene Autry Show, The Range Rider (both filmed at Pioneertown, incidentally) and other series. He also returned to Columbia for a few more Stooges shorts and a 1951 serial, Roar of the Iron Horse. One of the best chapterplays turned out by Columbia’s tightfisted new serial producer Sam Katzman, Roar featured Curtis in a noticeable background role as Campo, the devoted foreman of a crooked rancher called the Baron (George Eldredge). Curtis and his boss gave some problems to railroad-building hero Jock Mahoney, but corrupt railroad contractor Jack Ingram was the real enemy of both factions. The Baron was wounded in a confrontation with Ingram in Chapter Fourteen, and he and Campo took their revenge in the final chapter, mowing down Ingram but dying themselves in the combat. Curtis was typically intimidating in his role, but his character’s admirable if misguided loyalty to the Baron also allowed him to win more audience sympathy than usual.
Curtis’s final serial, Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion (Republic, 1951), cast him in a much nastier light. As Regan, the leader of a group of gangsters hijacking truckloads valuable nuclear equipment for sale to foreign powers, Curtis obeyed the orders of an unseen mystery boss but was nevertheless the serial’s de facto chief villain, superintending all the bad guys’ tussles with hero Walter Reed. This would be Curtis’ last extended villain role, and he made the most of it, smirking and bullying his way through standard henchman activities with more energy than most 1950s serial performers displayed.
Curtis underwent brain tumor surgery late in 1951, but the treatment apparently proved unsuccessful, and he died in California’s Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in the first month of 1952. His final films, among them a pair of Columbia comedy shorts and the independently-produced Western Rose of Cimarron, were released after his death.
Dick Curtis’s serial roles were only occasionally as meaty as his parts in B-westerns and comedy shorts. However, he still occupies a prominent place in the memories of chapterplay fans, thanks to his size and ugliness, and the flair with which he utilized those qualities to create some memorably menacing heavies.