A frequent member of the henchman team in post-war movie serials, the handsome, muscular, and athletic Marshall Reed looked more like a hero than a villain; in fact, had it not been for his voice–which was far deeper and hoarser than that of the standard leading man–he’d probably have played several heroes in the later chapterplays of both Republic and Columbia. Instead, those studios almost always cast him as a subordinate villain or (much less frequently) a subordinate hero; he was particularly prominent at Columbia, where he brightened several of Sam Katzman’s serial productions with strong villainous performances, despite his non-villainous appearance–using his imposing brawniness and his aforementioned deep voice to give his heavies a vigorous and threatening screen presence.
Marshall Reed was born in Englewood, Colorado, and grew up in Denver; he acted in school plays during his childhood and teenage years, and also learned the basics of horse wrangling through the local YMCA. He retained his youthful interest in the theater after finishing high school, working as a scenery builder/painter for a Denver theater before forming a theatrical company, circa 1935, with the aid of some school friends. This company toured Colorado and Wyoming for two summers; after its dissolution, Reed continued to work with other traveling stage troupes, but also took on a variety of other jobs–from horse-training to mail-sorting–to supplement his theatrical earnings. The 1940 federal census has Reed living in Denver and lists his occupation as “meter reader,” but by 1942 he was out in Hollywood, working at a Lockheed aircraft plant while trying to break into the movies. He did his first film work as a stuntman, not an actor–doubling John Howard in the 1942 Republic mystery film A Tragedy at Midnight; he continued to work as a stuntman and extra in 1943, but started getting minor speaking parts before the year was out, after being recommended for a screen test by Republic cowboy star Bill Elliott. Most of his acting appearances over the next two years were in the B-westerns of either Republic or Monogram; the latter studio gave him his first big role (as a sympathetic young outlaw) in the 1943 Johnny Mack Brown B-western The Texas Kid.
Reed’s first serial, The Tiger Woman (Republic, 1944), gave him a non-speaking bit as a henchman who appeared just long enough to fire a few shots at hero Allan Lane and then get shot himself, and a background bit (also non-speaking) as one of Lane’s oil drillers. However, Republic’s very next serial, Haunted Harbor, awarded Reed fifth billing and a portrait shot during the opening titles, although his role was actually not as substantial as his placement in the credits warranted. As a tough and taciturn sailor named Tommy, one of the two loyal sidekicks of sea-captain hero Kane Richmond, Reed rescued the unjustly-imprisoned Richmond from jail in Harbor’s first chapter, but spent most of the serial’s remaining episodes in the background–providing largely silent backup for Richmond and principal sidekick Clancy Cooper in fights and shootouts before finally receiving another opportunity to take center stage in Chapter Thirteen, by engaging in a furious fistfight with two of the serial’s principal villains; this solo action was his character’s last, however, since he was abruptly killed off at the end of the fight. Adding insult to injury, a scene in which the other good guys lamented Tommy’s death was left on the cutting-room floor; this sudden and pointless exit, combined with his lack of solo screen time and his scanty dialogue, prevented Reed from making much of an impression in Haunted Harbor, although he definitely looked the part of an energetically rugged seaman.
Reed’s prominent billing in Haunted Harbor would seem to indicate that Republic was thinking of building him into a leading man–although the studio returned him to bit-player status in his next serial, Zorro’s Black Whip (Republic, 1944); he appeared briefly in Chapters Three and Four of this outing, as one of the vocal members of a mob bent on lynching hero George J. Lewis. Any future plans that Republic might have had for Reed were upset by his entrance into the Navy late in 1944; he spent about a year in the service, returned to Hollywood near the end of 1945, and picked up right where he’d left off–playing supporting parts in Republic and Monogram B-westerns. In 1946, Reed appeared as a cocky henchman named Dan in the first chapter of The Scarlet Horseman, his first post-war serial and his only Universal chapterplay; his character clashed with fellow-henchman Jack Rockwell over a valuable Comanche artifact, then got gunned down by his ex-colleague. Though small, this part was a bit more individualized than Reed’s previous serial-heavy roles; his swaggering confidence as he confronted Rockwell’s character (“You may be fast with your six-gun, Saunders, but you don’t scare me”) was memorable, and lent an ironically amusing tone to the ensuing scene–in which, despite his boasting, he was easily outdrawn by Rockwell.
In 1947, Bill Elliott–who’d become Reed’s personal friend after helping to launch his career–convinced Republic boss Herbert J. Yates to let Reed replace Elliott as the star of Republic’s popular “Red Ryder” B-western series (Elliott was moving on to A-westerns); however, Yates subsequently changed his mind and handed the Ryder series to his own pick, Allan Lane. After missing this shot at stardom, Reed devoted the remainder of the 1940s to playing heavies (chiefly henchmen) and occasional good guys in Republic’s A and B Westerns, and in Monogram and PRC’s B-westerns; he also took several serial roles during this period, most of them small ones. In 1948 he did his first chapterplay work for Columbia serial producer Sam Katzman, appearing very briefly and uttering a few lines as a lunar soldier in the science-fiction chapterplay Brick Bradford. His next serial, Dangers of the Canadian Mounted (Republic, 1948) gave him more screen time than Bradford (but not much more dialogue) as an stalwart RCMP constable who ably assisted Mountie sergeant Chris Royal (Jim Bannon) in several battles with the serial’s villains; though he seemed to be playing the same character throughout the serial, its casting sheets oddly gave him multiple names (Dave, Douglas, Jim, and Williams).
The serial Federal Agents vs. Underworld Inc. (Republic, 1949) gave Reed a bit part as a police detective (O’Hara by name) who tried to arrest villainess Carol Forman but got punched out by her henchman Roy Barcroft. Ghost of Zorro (Republic, 1949), featured him much more prominently as a Western badman named Fowler, who worked with fellow-badman Kilgore (Roy Barcroft again) and conniving blacksmith George Crane (Gene Roth) to keep a telegraph line from reaching a frontier town that had become an outlaw haven–repeatedly tangling with a grandson of the famous Zorro (Clayton Moore) in the process. Though Reed didn’t appear in quite enough chapters of Ghost of Zorro to qualify as a full-fledged action heavy, he still figured in many of the serial’s scenes and gave a good villainous account of himself in each of them, abetting the evildoing of Barcroft’s Kilgore with a confident smirk and a smoothly forceful manner. Later in 1949, Reed auditioned for the role of television’s Lone Ranger–but lost out to his Ghost of Zorro antagonist Clayton Moore, whose masked-hero turn in that serial ensured his casting in the Ranger role.
Above: Alex Montoya (in Indian garb) and Johnny Daheim (far right) get ready to torture the seated George J. Lewis, as Pamela Blake watches with alarm and Marshall Reed and Roy Barcroft watch with approval in Ghost of Zorro (Republic, 1949).
Reed’s final serial of the 1940s was The James Brothers of Missouri (Republic, 1949), in which he was given a small, somewhat comic one-chapter role as a luckless henchman named Dutch–who, while guarding a cave full of stolen goods, was surprised and slugged by hero Keith Richards, and was then slugged again by irate chief henchman Roy Barcroft while apologetically informing the latter of the security breach. The early years of the 1950s found Reed continuing to appear in Western features at Republic and Monogram; he tended to get larger and better roles at the latter studio, regularly playing action heavies in the B-westerns of Johnny Mack Brown and Whip Wilson. He made his last Republic serial in 1950, appearing in several chapters of The Invisible Monster as an alert and capable policeman named MacDuff–who briefly tangled with the villain’s henchmen on his own in Chapter One, and who later returned to support leads Richard Webb and Aline Towne in a couple of additional clashes with the heavies.
Also in 1950, Reed took the first of several major Columbia serial roles, playing action heavy Shark Wilson in Pirates of the High Seas. The skipper of a high-tech pirate craft (a combined cruiser/submarine) plying the waters around the Pacific island of Taluha, Wilson plundered local shipping on behalf of Taluha’s corrupt governor (Gene Roth), and also spearheaded the governor’s efforts to beat hero Buster Crabbe to a fortune in diamonds. One of Columbia’s best post-war chapterplays, Pirates gave Reed his first really prominent serial part, and he filled it very effectively; his authoritative voice and extremely self-assured bearing lent him an intimidatingly military air as he ordered around his crew of modern-day pirates, while his muscular build made him an appropriate and believable physical opponent for Pirates’ star–former Olympic athlete Buster Crabbe–in the serial’s many fistfight scenes.
Above: “Prepare to submerge.” Marshall Reed orders Lee Roberts (left) and Rusty Westcoatt to get their pirate cruiser ready for its transformation into its submarine form in Pirates of the High Seas (Columbia, 1950).
Pirates of the High Seas firmly established Reed as a member of Sam Katzman’s serial stock company; all his remaining chapterplays would be Columbia releases. His next serial outing for Katzman was Mysterious Island (Columbia, 1951), a dull, absurd, and plotless effort loosely adapted from Jules Verne’s novel of the same name. Island cast Reed as secondary hero Jack Pencroft, who joined with Union engineering officer Cyrus Harding (Richard Crane) and other Northerners in a balloon escape from Confederate Richmond; the balloon drifted off course and deposited its passengers on an uncharted island, where they spent most of their time being chased around by natives, pirates, and invaders from the planet Mercury. Reed, like the other actors in Island, was not given much to do besides fight with or run from various antagonists, but he did play Pencroft with a combination of toughness and wry humorousness that made him rather likable–particularly when he was reacting with surprised skepticism to the many bizarre hazards that the castaways encountered.
Reed was back on the villains’ team in Blackhawk (Columbia, 1952), a Cold War espionage serial that starred Kirk Alyn as the leader of the “Blackhawks,” a paramilitary squad of spy-fighters who took on a Communist spy ring headed by Laska (Carol Forman); as Aller, Laska’s chief henchman, Reed executed kidnappings, acts of sabotage, and other crimes with steely determination and maintained a smugly unflappable confidence despite being repeatedly foiled by the Blackhawks. His character also showed himself quite willing to talk back to his boss Laska, and even–in one genuinely strange scene that might have been unscripted–cordially referred to her as “baby,” an act of familiarity that drew Reed’s Aller a cold rebuke (which didn’t seem to phase him any more than the Blackhawks did).
By 1952, the theatrical B-western was in its death throes, due to television competition; Reed–like most other B-western actors–resultantly began to concentrate chiefly on TV acting, and started appearing frequently on The Range Rider, The Gene Autry Show, The Adventures of Kit Carson, The Cisco Kid, and many other early television Westerns. Sam Katzman would continue to turn out Columbia serials for a few more years, however, and Reed would play notable roles in four of them. The first of these was the well-done Western chapterplay Son of Geronimo (Columbia, 1952), which starred Clayton Moore (on hiatus from the Lone Ranger) as Jim Scott, a cavalry officer trying to make peace with the fierce Apache leader Porico (Rodd Redwing). Reed was cast as principal villain Rance Rankin, an opportunistic Eastern lawyer who took over a Western outlaw gang, hatched a plan that would allow him to profit from the Apache wars, and continually sabotaged Scott’s mission–all the while pretending to be a friend to both Scott and Porico. Reed’s first and only serial brains heavy was a memorably distinctive figure; the actor himself would later name Rankin as his favorite chapterplay role. The lawyer was “a suave character and real tricky” (to quote Reed himself), but–unlike the typical villainous “slicker” type–was also ready and able to physically battle his opponents whenever suavity and trickiness were not usable strategic options. Whether he was telling lies with resonant-voiced conviction, coolly gunning down his enemies, calmly but arrogantly explaining his plans to his associates, or scientifically pummeling an outlaw who refused to accept his leadership, Reed played his unusual role to the hilt and helped to make Rankin come off as an exceptionally formidable villain, one who combined the cunning of a brains heavy with the activity and daring of an action heavy.
Reed was purely an action heavy–though a very prominent one–in his next serial, Gunfighters of the Northwest (Columbia, 1953); this uneven Mountie saga pitted heroes Jock Mahoney and Clayton Moore against the “White Horse Rebels,” an outlaw group determined to seize control of Canada. The rebels’ supreme leader was a black-clad mystery man who periodically appeared to issue orders, but left the field commandership of his henchmen to Reed’s character Gale Lynch–who thus served as the serial’s de facto chief villain. Reed directed the movements of the White Horse Rebels with the same military poise he’d displayed in Pirates of the High Seas and the complacent coolness he’d shown in Blackhawk, and again came off as a strong antagonist.
The Great Adventures of Captain Kidd (Columbia, 1953) gave Reed what amounted to a good “guest villain” spot; he appeared in three chapters of this offbeat pirate-themed serial as ruthless buccaneer Captain Culliford, who bedeviled heroes Richard Crane (as a British naval officer) and John Crawford (as Kidd) and struck a shaky temporary alliance with the serial’s principal heavy–Kidd’s treacherous first mate Buller (George Wallace), who eventually double-crossed and killed Culliford in Chapter Ten. Reed played this colorful part with flair, giving Culliford a combination of sinister politeness and sneering aggressiveness that suited the fancily-dressed but violent and murderous pirate perfectly.
Reed’s final serial was Riding With Buffalo Bill (Columbia, 1954)–which cast him as Buffalo Bill Cody himself, and finally gave him the starring role that had eluded him for the past ten years. Unfortunately, this long-awaited heroic turn was part of a decidedly subpar serial, a low-budget and thinly-plotted Western crammed with stock footage from the earlier Columbia chapterplays Deadwood Dick and Valley of Vanishing Men; alternately costumed to look like Don Douglas (Deadwood Dick’s star) and his friend Bill Elliott (Vanishing Men’s star), Reed spent much of his time in Buffalo Bill merely serving as a bridge to recycled action scenes that were poorly matched with the serial’s new footage. Said new footage didn’t show Reed to best advantage either; instead of allowing his Cody to take complete charge of the action, the script had ostensible sidekick Rocky Ford (William Fawcett) devise most of the good guys’ strategies, and also forced Cody to delegate many heroic duties to second lead Reb Morgan (Rick Vallin). However, Reed still did a good job of balancing ruggedness and geniality in Buffalo Bill–good enough to show that he easily could have handled hero duties in a better serial, had he been given the chance.
In 1954, Reed landed a regular role as San Francisco police detective Fred Asher on the TV series The Lineup, which ran until 1960; though he played third fiddle to the show’s stars Warner Anderson and Tom Tully, he appeared in almost every episode of the show (and in the 1958 Lineup movie), and only found time to make a couple of appearances on other series during the second half of the 1950s. After The Lineup went off the air, Reed spent the 1960s and the early 1970s playing small guest roles on Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, Bonanza, Dragnet, as well as occasionally appearing in feature films–when he wasn’t working at his old set-building occupation; during the 1960s he designed scenery, arranged lighting, and even directed plays for the Hollywood theatrical group the Masquers Club, while also serving on their board of directors. His screen appearances began to diminish in the early 1970s, and by 1976 he had permanently retired from acting, although he continued to work as a set designer; in 1980 he suffered a stroke at his home in Hollywood and died at the hospital.
In an interview with the magazine Serial World (see the Acknowledgments), Marshall Reed frankly admitted that, although “80-90 percent of the stuff I did was as a heavy,” he preferred heroic parts and would definitely have liked to be “the star, the leading man.” However, though villainous roles might not have been his cup of tea, he never handled them in grudging or lackluster fashion; instead, he delivered consistently solid and commanding performances that bolstered many a movie serial during the genre’s latter days.
Acknowledgements: Gregory Jackson’s above-mentioned 1977 interview with Marshall Reed, published in Serial World #9, provided all of the Reed quotes–and much of the information–used in this article. The Old Corral and Western Clippings pages on Reed also provided me with important info.