October 26th, 1906 — March 1st, 1993
During the serial genre’s post-war era, Terry Frost played chapterplay henchmen more frequently than any of his contemporaries, save his frequent co-star Jack Ingram. Frost’s deep voice, forceful demeanor, and intense glare gave him a bluntly aggressive and self-assured air that suited him well as an active-duty villain, whether he was portraying a subordinate member of the henchman pack or one of the chief action heavies; this straightforward toughness not only made him seem like a fitting opponent for similarly straightforward heroes, but also made him a very good counterweight to more suave and subtle brains heavies.
Terry Frost was born in Bemidji, Minnesota, the son of a logger-turned-saloonkeeper who went into bootlegging during the Prohibition era, and who died when Terry was sixteen. This death left the Frost family finances in a precarious condition, and caused young Frost, circa 1921, to head for the Pacific Northwest in search of logging work; instead, he wound up stranded in Butte, Montana, where a local madam gave him a job reciting poetry to her customers. Frost found this line of work to be a surprisingly profitable one, and spent the bulk of the next two years giving recitations in similar establishments–working his way to Oregon, then to California, then back home to Minnesota; while doing recitations in a Minneapolis “club,” he was spotted by a theatrical producer who gave him a role in a play and started him on an acting career. Frost worked regularly with stock companies and on the vaudeville stage during the second half of the 1920s and most of the 1930s, and also worked as a restaurant chef when acting gigs were scarce. By 1934 (the year of his marriage) he was living in Los Angeles, and was officially listing his occupation as “cook;” he was still residing in LA by 1940, but by that point was working as a restaurant manager. In 1941, he managed to break into the movies, making his screen debut as a minor henchman in RKO’s Tim Holt B-western Cyclone on Horseback.
Also in 1941, Frost made his first serial–Republic’s Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc., in which he played a small part as a Navy-base security guard named Drake, who was first puzzled by the unseen maneuvers of the serial’s invisible villain (the Ghost), then wounded in a confrontation with the Ghost’s men. Frost played a number of similarly small bits in various B-westerns over the next couple of years, and did some stunt work as well; during this early phase of his career, he also appeared in the Columbia serial Batman (1943), in which he had a small but rather amusing role as a male nurse forced to put up with the eccentric behavior of an injured prospector (Charles Middleton). Frost also lent his voice to the 1944 Republic serial Captain America, in which he was briefly heard (but not seen) as a police broadcaster who warned the hero (Dick Purcell) of a bomb that had been planted in his car.
In 1943, Frost began receiving credited roles on a fairly regular basis (while still continuing to take plenty of bit parts). He played the romantic lead in several B-films–The Monster Maker, The Girl from Monterey, Waterfront–for the low-budget outfit called Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), but soon realized (after talking to veteran movie villain J. Carroll Naish) that a career as a screen heavy would be both more steady and more fun; by the mid-1940s, he was regularly portraying badmen, racketeers, and the like in B-westerns and B-crime films for studios like Universal and Monogram. In 1945, he took his first really noticeable serial role in Who’s Guilty (Columbia, 1945), a dull and pointlessly complicated attempt at a chapterplay “whodunit;” he was cast as a crook named Edwards, who was hired as a temporary henchman by the serial’s cloaked mystery villain and his sinister butler/accomplice (Charles Middleton) towards the end of Chapter Eleven. Frost’s character then played a prominent role in the action of the next three chapters, participating in several fights and eventually trying to pull off a kidnapping/robbery on his own; he disappeared from the serial after being apprehended by hero Robert Kent in Chapter Fourteen. Frost’s brusque, vigorous, and unambiguously thuggish performance in this “guest heavy” role provided welcome relief from the less direct evildoing of the aforementioned mystery villain, and from the confusing, quasi-villainous antics of many of the serial’s supporting red-herring characters.
Who’s Guilty marked the beginning of Frost’s long association with Columbia’s economical serial producer Sam Katzman, who appreciated Frost’s money-saving willingness to do his own stunts; during the remaining years of the 1940s, Frost balanced frequent appearances in B-westerns (at Monogram, PRC, and Republic) with frequent appearances in Katzman’s chapterplays. The next of these chapterplays was Hop Harrigan (Columbia, 1946), in which Frost played Barry, a member of the henchman squad that obeyed the orders of a criminal known as the Chief Pilot; he received a lot of screen time, but was not given much dialogue. Katzman’s medieval serial Son of the Guardsman (also Columbia, 1946) featured Frost in multiple bit parts as a sympathetic forest outlaw, one of the villainous followers of robber baron Sir Edgar Bullard (Charles King), and one of the equally villainous lackeys of the evil Duke of Hampton (John Merton).
Jack Armstrong (Columbia, 1947) featured Frost more prominently as Jackman, the serial’s secondary action heavy; together with primary action heavy Blair (Jack Ingram), he led the thugs of the megalomaniacal Jason Grood (Charles Middleton) in evildoing, until he bit the dust (after performing a dramatically protracted death stagger) in a Chapter 13 shootout with some renegade henchmen. Frost and Ingram made a good team in Armstrong, Frost’s energetic pugnacity contrasting nicely with Ingram’s sardonic calmness; the duo would re-team in many subsequent Katzman cliffhangers. The Vigilante (Columbia, 1947) cast Frost as Lefty, another backup action heavy; though Ingram played a supporting villain in this serial, he remained largely inactive throughout, leaving Frost and the chief action heavy (stuntman Eddie Parker, who’d taught Frost the stunting ropes several years ago) to provide hero Ralph Byrd with stiff opposition and execute the orders of top villain Lyle Talbot–while grumbling sceptically over Talbot’s cryptic orders, which usually involved stealing one of several “Arabanian” white horses which held the key to a mysterious treasure.
Tex Granger (Columbia, 1948) featured Frost in its earlier episodes as Luke Adams, the lieutenant of frontier crime boss Rance Carson (I. Stanford Jolley); his character gradually got supplanted by Carson’s new henchman, the gunfighter and crooked sherrif Blaze Talbot (Smith Ballew), and was shot by Carson himself in Chapter Six, after being arrested for a stagecoach robbery and angrily threatening to inform on his former associates. Superman (Columbia, 1948) gave Frost a much bigger henchman role as Brock, one of the principal followers of the sinister Spider Lady (Carol Forman); he again served as the subordinate action heavy, and again seconded Jack Ingram (as Anton) for the bulk of the serial–although his character outlived Ingram’s, and even got to have a brief face-to-face confrontation with Superman (Kirk Alyn) in the final chapter, during which Frost gloated with memorable vigor as he overcame the Man of Steel with a box of Kryptonite.
Frost’s final 1940s serial was Bruce Gentry (Columbia, 1949), in which he teamed up once again with Jack Ingram, and once again played a secondary but prominent action heavy–a tough and outspoken thug named Chandler, who relentlessly battled pilot hero Tom Neal on behalf of a foreign agent known as the Recorder, and who also bounced several irritably sarcastic remarks off of his partners in crime. As the 1950s began, Frost continued to work steadily as a villain in B-westerns (principally Monogram features), while taking occasional A-film bits as well. He also began to make regular television appearances, guesting with particular frequency on Gene Autry’s various “Flying A” Western series–while continuing his association with Katzman’s serials.
Frost’s first chapterplay of the 1950s was Atom Man vs. Superman (Columbia, 1950), in which he and Jack Ingram played the two principal henchmen of the mad scientist Luthor (Lyle Talbot). This time around, Frost’s character (Baer) was the lead action heavy–receiving more screen time than Ingram’s Foster, regularly taking the lead (with typical aggressiveness) whenever Luthor’s henchmen battled with Superman (Kirk Alyn again), and reacting with entertaining skepticism and wariness to some of the behavior of his dangerously off-center boss Luthor (“His plans are getting wilder and wilder.”)
Frost followed Atom Man with Pirates of the High Seas (Columbia, 1950), an entertaining chapterplay that was filmed mostly on Catalina Island. The “pirates” of the title were a band of modern-day sea hijackers, captained by Shark Wilson (Marshall Reed) and controlled by crooked island governor Frederick Whitlock (Gene Roth); Frost, of course, was cast as Carter, one of the pirates. He was a little less prominent in Pirates than in his three previous serials, since the serial’s large array of secondary free-agent villains reduced the henchman pack’s screen time; still, he was given many lines–and many opportunities to take part in fights and shootouts with hero Buster Crabbe.
Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion (Republic, 1951), Frost’s first non-Columbia serial in ten years, wasted him in a one-chapter bit as an nameless background henchman–but his next chapterplay, Mysterious Island (Columbia, 1951), gave him the most colorfully offbeat part of his serial career. This weakly-plotted adaptation of a Jules Verne novel featured Frost as a marooned ex-pirate named Ayrton, who at different times sided with both the heroes (a band of castaways led by Richard Crane) and the villains (a pirate band led by Gene Roth). Ayrton tended to behave in such unpredictable and illogical fashion, frequently acting against his own interests, that he came off as mentally deranged; the character’s insane air was accentuated by Frost’s memorable, scene-stealing, and highly quirky performance. He played the schizophrenic “wild man” to the hilt–fawningly trying to convince heroes and villains alike of his trustworthiness, glowering maniacally and screeching feverishly as a preface to leaping on people, and furtively scurrying around the island like a manic ape.
As the 1950s continued, television work began to consume more of Frost’s time, causing his serial appearances to become more sporadic; many of his serial roles started becoming smaller, as well. His next chapterplay, Captain Video (Columbia, 1951), actually let him play a good guy for a change, albeit very fleetingly; as one of the titular hero’s far-flung squad of heroic “Video Rangers,” he popped up briefly on a futuristic view-screen to give Video (Judd Holdren) a report on hurricane damage. He was back to villainy in Blackhawk (Columbia, 1952), in which he made a series of token appearances as the unnamed aide-de-camp of a mysterious Communist spy leader; his chief duty here was to announce incoming telephone calls to the unseen spymaster and then stand at attention (sometimes with a rather amusingly impatient expression) while the latter engaged in long-distance abuse of the henchmen on the wire. His screen time in The Lost Planet (Columbia, 1953) was also scanty; he popped up in the last chapter as one of a group of human “robots” whom the heroes freed from the villains’ mind-control helmets.
The Great Adventures of Captain Kidd (Columbia, 1953) gave Frost his first big serial role since Mysterious Island; this downbeat and surprisingly true-to-historical-fact outing cast him as a real-life seaman named William Moore–a gunner serving under British privateer Captain Kidd (John Crawford). Frost’s Moore, along with other members of Kidd’s crew, joined Kidd’s treacherous first mate Buller (George Wallace) in a conspiracy to seize Kidd’s ship and turn it into a pirate vessel, and continually tried to undermine and injure the captain; as in real life, he was eventually fatally injured by Kidd after revealing his mutinous colors (in Chapter Nine). Frost did an excellent job of making Moore seem viciously and sullenly resentful of his captain, and spit out his final defiance of Kidd (taken more or less verbatim from the historical record) with impressive venomousness.
Above: “If I be a scurvy dog, it’s you who has made me one!” Terry Frost hurls back an insult at John Crawford (in black coat, facing Frost) in The Great Adventures of Captain Kidd (Columbia, 1953). John Hart is behind Crawford.
Gunfighters of the Northwest (Columbia, 1953) cast Frost in his largest sympathetic serial part–although he only received a handful of scenes. As a helpful, solemn, and taciturn half-breed Indian named Wildfoot, he appeared in a couple of Gunfighters’ chapters to assist the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in negotiations with hostile Blackfoot Indians, and on two occasions managed to surreptitiously but effectively rescue hero Jock Mahoney from death at the hostiles’ hands.
Frost had less to do in his next serial, Riding With Buffalo Bill (Columbia, 1954), which gave him a pair of bit parts–first as a townsman fatally wounded by outlaws, then as a loud-mouthed railroad worker. His role was hardly any larger in Adventures of Captain Africa (Columbia, 1955), even though he was one of the serial’s nominal chief villains; this dreadful mishmash of stock footage from three previous Columbia chapterplays featured Frost as Greg, the leading henchman of a Soviet spy named Boris (Lee Roberts). Greg and Boris, however, appeared in less than half of the serial’s total episodes, and served mainly to provide quick bridges to stock-footage sequences.
Frost made another of his rare Republic-serial appearances in King of the Carnival (1955), that studio’s final chapterplay. As a circus roustabout and counterfeiter named Travis, he formed one-half of this serial’s undermanned henchman squad, joining with fellow roustabout/counterfeiter Daley (Keith Richards) to engage acrobat/T-man Bert King (Harry Lauter) in a series of inconclusive and repetitive clashes. Carnival’s severely overworked heavies never really got a chance to do much more than make repeated and futile attempts on the hero’s life; as a result, even Frost’s customary gruffness and aggressiveness wasn’t enough to make Travis seem particularly menacing.
Above: Keith Richards (far left) catches his breath, Terry Frost glares at Harry Lauter (far right), and Robert Shayne demands to know why the three have been fighting in King of the Carnival (Republic, 1955).
Frost’s final chapterplay was the second-to-last move serial ever made, Perils of the Wilderness (Columbia, 1956). Like Captain Africa, this title was a poorly-constructed medley of stock footage–although Frost had a much bigger role than in Africa; as a Canadian outlaw named Baptiste, he handled action-heavy duties for chief villain Kenneth MacDonald–and, unlike MacDonald, co-hero Richard Emory, and several other actors who (understandably) sleepwalked through this last-gasp serial, actually bothered to turn in a real performance. He played his part with the same vigor and dogged ferocity he’d brought to his earlier serials, whether he was combating the heroes (Emory and Dennis Moore) or emphatically arguing with his boss MacDonald.
Like practically every other serial actor of his generation, Frost worked chiefly in television after the chapterplay genre passed away in the mid-1950s, and only rarely ventured back to the big screen. He appeared on virtually every extant Western show during the late 1950s and early 1960s, and popped up on many non-Western series as well; from 1955 to 1957, he also played a recurring role as one of Broderick Crawford’s men on Highway Patrol. Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, he got out of the film business long before the end of his life; his final theatrical film was (fittingly) a Sam Katzman production, a 1962 feature called The Wild Westerners, while his last television appearance came in a 1966 episode of Gunsmoke. After leaving the screen, he first taught an acting course at a Pasadena college for about a year, then spent nine years traveling the world as a cruise-ship tour guide, then did a last round of stage acting (on the West Coast) during the late 1970s. Frost retired in the early 1980s, but made frequent trips to Western and serial conventions during that decade–where he proved himself an indefatigable and highly entertaining raconteur; he died in Los Angeles in 1993.
Though Columbia’s post-war serials were too frequently uneven, the henchman pack regularly featured in those serials was one of the stronger lineups of its kind; Terry Frost was one of the linchpins of this lineup, delivering solid and distinctive performances in small roles and large ones, in good serials and bad ones. Ruggedly down-to-earth, but capable of entertainingly lively histrionics, he always managed to make his gruff, tough, and assertive presence felt in one way or another.
Acknowledgments: My sources for this piece were Gregory Jackson’s 1976 interview with Terry Frost in issue #8 of Serial World magazine, the Frost pages at Western Clippings and at the Old Corral (which collects and summarizes a lot of useful official-document info), and another interview with Frost–linked from the Corral page, and conducted by Jan Alan Henderson.