November 20, 1890 — April 20, 1973
Best-remembered by film buffs for his larger-than-life performance as the brash adventurer Carl Denham in the classic King Kong, Robert Armstrong delivered many other excellent performances over the course of a Hollywood career stretching from the 1920s to the 1960s. Throughout that career, he specialized in energetic and sardonically humorous portrayals of hard-boiled cops, reporters, military men, promoters, and racketeers; he was adept at giving such tough-talking characters a hidden softer side, but could also play cold-blooded villains very effectively. Among the films in which Armstrong utilized his talents were four 1940s Universal serials; in two of these chapterplays, he played ruthless and double-dealing heavies so strongly that he avoided being lost amid the somewhat overcrowded villainous lineups favored by Universal–while, in his other two serials, he turned in two of the genre’s best supporting-hero performances, making his characters so thoroughly believable and well-rounded that the stereotyped term “sidekick” seems somewhat inadequate to describe them.
Robert William Armstrong was born in Saginaw, Michigan. The census of 1900 lists his father’s occupation as “Boat Captain,” but by 1910 the Armstrong family had moved to Seattle, Washington; the 1910 census identifies the elder Armstrong as a “Mining Operator,” while young Robert’s occupation is given as “student.” Later census records indicate that Robert completed four years of college; he evidently followed his father into the mining industry after graduation, since his 1917 draft registration has him living in Washington state and working as a representative of the Cordova Copper Company. Armstrong served in the army during World War 1, achieving the rank of second lieutenant in the 361st Infantry. He must have pursued a theatrical career soon after his discharge, since by 1920 was living in New York City and working as an actor. Some studio publicity material claims that he began his acting career when he abandoned law school on the eve of graduation to go on the West Coat stage, but the timeline of the official records makes this doubtful, unless this earlier acting stint predates his work with Cordova Copper. During the 1920s, he worked on the New York stage and also toured with stock companies as far afield as North Carolina; in 1925, he teamed with his friend and fellow-actor James Gleason to star in a boxing play called Is Zat So, written by Gleason. This production proved popular, and after a tour on Broadway Armstrong and Gleason took it to England in 1926, where it met with similar success. On the heels of this hit, Armstrong headed out to California and received his first film role, a major part in the 1927 silent Cecil B. DeMille boxing drama The Main Event. He followed up this debut with starring and co-starring turns, usually as scrappy, streetwise characters, in other Hollywood features for DeMille, Fox, MGM, and the Pathé Exchange during the late 1920s. His stage experience and his snappy dialogue delivery allowed him to transition easily into the sound era, and his career did not miss a beat during the early 1930s. He continued playing leads and co-leads in features at Fox and MGM, worked frequently at Universal, Paramount, and Warner Brothers, co-starred in a radio show with James Gleason, and appeared in multiple features for RKO (which had acquired his previous employer Pathé); it was RKO that cast him in the immortal King Kong, which was released in 1933.
Armstrong, always a somewhat unconventional star, was beginning to age into a character actor by now, and King Kong would prove one of his last major-studio starring features. Except for a reprise of his Denham role in the quickly-made sequel Son of Kong and co-starring parts in a couple of 1934 Paramount features, most of his leading roles during the remaining years of the 1930s would be for independent producers or smaller studios such as Columbia, Republic, and Monogram; however, he continued to play major supporting roles in the bigger studios’ A-films (such as Warner Brothers’ 1935 feature G-Men). He also kept appearing on radio during this period. Armstrong’s film roles in general became scarcer in the late 1930s, which indicates that he may also have been staying active on the stage (his self-identification as a “stage and screen” actor on both the 1930 and 1940 census supports this conjecture). He spent most of 1940 and 1941 playing supporting roles (and at least one top-billed part) in B-films for Republic and Universal; he also made the first of his Universal serials at this time–the 1941 release Sky Raiders. An entertainingly offbeat chapterplay with an unusually well-written script, this serial placed more focus on the character development and interactions of its protagonists than it did on their battles with the villains–and gave Armstrong the biggest and most multifaceted of his serial roles. He was cast as Ed Carey, the wartime lieutenant, peacetime right-hand man, and best friend of Captain Robert Dayton (Donald Woods), a former World War 1 flying ace heading an aircraft development corporation. Carey was always ready to bluntly upbraid the swashbuckling Dayton over the captain’s fondness for risking his neck in airborne daredevilry, but was also always ready to help him protect their company from the machinations of foreign spies. Carey was also smitten with Mary Blake (Kathryn Adams), who in turn carried a torch for the seemingly oblivious Dayton. Armstrong took this unusually complex part and ran with it, making his intelligent and outspoken “sidekick” a three-dimensional character. He registered jaunty affability and angry frustration by turns in his interactions with Woods, veered between breezy flirtatiousness and quiet affection in his scenes with Adams, and displayed tough, stern self-confidence when faced with danger.
Armstrong balanced stage and screen acting (in New York and probably on the West Coast as well) for the remainder of the 1940s. His screen work was limited but consistent; he averaged about four or five movies a year from 1941 to the end of the decade, appearing in multiple B-films and occasional A-films (including John Ford’s The Fugitive and Elia Kazan’s The Sea of Grass) at Republic, Universal, RKO, and several other outfits, as well as in three more Universal serials. The first of these was Gang Busters (Universal, 1942), which gave him his second and last serial supporting-hero role. Universal’s single best 1940s chapterplay, Gang Busters was a combination of cops-and-robbers action with horror and science-fiction elements, pitting police detective Bill Bannister (Kent Taylor) against a gang of racketeers apparently brought back from the dead by the vengeful mad scientist Dr. Mortis (Ralph Morgan). Armstrong, as Bannister’s trusty partner Tim Nolan, had less screen time and was less mercurial than in Sky Raiders, but again turned in a strong characterization; he was utterly convincing as a down-to-earth veteran cop, a role he had played so often in features. As Nolan, he visited crime scenes, questioned suspects, and reacted to mysterious happenings with grimness, sarcasm, and gruffness, while also–as in so many of his feature films–effortlessly making his hard-bitten character seem kind-hearted, despite his general toughness. His offhand but cordial rapport with his investigative partner Taylor, reporter heroine Irene Hervey, and police chief Joseph Crehan made it seem as if his character had truly been working with their characters for years; he even showed a convincing flash of wry regret–most unusual in a serial protagonist–after having to gun down a henchman, while simultaneously conveying a matter-of-fact acceptance of the necessity of the shooting.
Armstrong’s next serial was the heavily propagandistic but entertaining wartime outing Adventures of the Flying Cadets (Universal, 1943). Here, he started out as an apparent good guy again–an aircraft engineer named Arthur Galt, previously a member of an expedition which had searched for the fabled Lost Caves of An-Kar-Ban in Africa. The expedition members were being targeted by a killer known as the Black Hangman, who wanted the valuable helium deposits contained in the Caves; the serial’s protagonists, a group of young would-be aviators led by Johnny Downs, believed that Galt was in danger from the Hangman–but the audience soon learned that the engineer was actually the Hangman himself. Galt’s goal was to sell the helium deposits to the Nazis, after he had eliminated everyone else aware of the secret of An-Kar-Ban. His plans were complicated not only by the heroes but by double-dealing Nazi agents, who wanted to obtain the helium deposits without having to pay Galt for them. Armstrong split chief-villain duties in Cadets with Eduardo Ciannelli (as the principal Nazi spy), as well as with several lesser heavies, but drove most of the serial’s action and more than held his own in the evildoing department, even when sharing the screen with the more naturally sinister Ciannelli. His confident, fast-talking authoritativeness made Galt’s repeated deceptions of the heroes entirely believable, while the same confident authority made his character come off as frighteningly smug and ruthless when disposing of his enemies.
Armstrong’s final serial was The Royal Mounted Rides Again (Universal, 1945), an excessively talky chapterplay revolving around the murder of a mine owner, the subsequent struggle for control of the victim’s hidden gold vein, and the Mounties’ resulting investigation. Armstrong was cast as a villainous saloon owner named Jonathan Price, who plotted to seize the gold while alternately collaborating with and double-crossing the serial’s other principal villain (Milburn Stone). Although Armstrong ultimately outmaneuvered Stone and the serial’s various additional heavies, and emerged as hero Bill Kennedy’s ultimate antagonist in the final chapter, he spent more time on the sidelines than in his other serials, almost never venturing outside of his character’s saloon (all of his scenes were almost certainly shot in one or two long sessions). However, Armstrong still made the most of his screen time, exuding a snakelike craftiness and wariness when parrying the Mounties’ inquiries or keeping tabs on the other characters, and exercising his talent for sardonic humor when cracking insulting jokes at the expense of Stone’s impetuous character.
Above: “Stay put, will ya? Those guns make me nervous.” Robert Armstrong mocks Milburn Stone (far left) after Stone has been disarmed by Armstrong’s henchman Danny Morton in The Royal Mounted Rides Again.
Armstrong closed out the 1940s with the memorable John Ford/Merian Cooper production Mighty Joe Young, a fresh variation on the Kong story which would be Armstrong’s last high-profile feature film. Most of his 1950s screen roles would be television guest appearances, although he still made sporadic feature appearances during the decade, principally at Republic and Allied Artists. He also co-starred on the early live television soap opera The First Hundred Years in 1951 and 1952, and played a regular recurring character (a grizzled Nevada sheriff) on the 1956-1959 Rod Cameron TV show State Trooper. Armstrong continued working on television, and in occasional features, during the early 1960s; he was showcased particularly effectively in several Perry Mason episodes, especially the 1962 episode “Case of the Playboy Pugilist,” which featured him as a tough but fatherly veteran fight trainer–a nice callback to the prize-fighting stories in which he had enjoyed his first stage and screen successes. Armstrong retired in 1964, and spent his latter years in quiet retirement in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles; he passed away in 1973.
Good as Robert Armstrong was in both of his serial-villain turns, those roles could have been played equally well by many other serial players; few serial regulars, however, could have played Armstrong’s serial-sidekick roles as effectively as he did. Although his Sky Raiders and Gang Busters characters were better-written than the serial norm, lesser actors could easily have been overstressed the gruff, sentimental, solemn, or comic aspects of the parts, to a dull or annoying extent. However, Armstrong’s skill for balancing all these aspects in a single characterization allowed him to fully realize both characters and bring them to vivid life, just as he so often did in his feature roles.
Acknowledgements: The federal census records, Armstrong’s military draft form, his veterans benefit application, the Internet Broadway Database, and the Radio Gold Index website provided me with a good deal of the information in this article. My other principal source was an biographical memoir of Armstrong written by actor James Lydon (Armstrong’s co-star on The First Hundred Years and one of his closest off-screen friends), obtained by Tom Weaver and published in Weaver’s book A Sci-Fi Swarm and Horror Horde (McFarland & Company, 2010). I also consulted the Virtual Archive’s collection of publicity-magazine pages relating to Armstrong.