April 16th, 1917 — November 25th, 1999
Gangly, shock-headed, and skilled in humorously deadpan facial expressions, William “Billy” Benedict could win laughs from movie audiences without uttering a word. He was also adept at handling verbal humor and could toss off routine comic lines with a quirky energy that made them much funnier than they would have sounded on paper. Simultaneously effervescent and awkward, Benedict lent appealing comic relief to many features, TV shows, and serials–among them two of Republic Pictures’ best chapterplays.
Billy Benedict was born in Haskell, Oklahoma. He studied drama and dancing while in high school, and, like many other Okies in the days of the Dust Bowl, migrated to the West Coast in the early 1930s. He initially came to California to study ballet, intending to pursue a career as a dancer, but found readier work as a movie actor, beginning with a bit in the 1935 Fox comedy $10 Dollar Raise. Benedict’s appearance promptly typed him as a comic character actor, and throughout the 1930s he took innumerable bit parts as quirky or impudent telegraph boys, caddies, bellhops, copy-boys, and youthful bumpkins. His comedic bits during these years were usually noticeable, but small and uncredited, although he did play a major role (one of three likable slum kids) in the Universal drama Three Kids and a Queen; this film would later influence much of his 1940s career.
Another of Benedict’s larger 1930s parts came in the excellent Universal serial Tim Tyler’s Luck; this 1937 chapterplay featured Benedict in an uncharacteristically non- comic role as Corporal Spud of the Ivory Patrol. The Patrol was a Mountie-like police force battling ivory poacher “Spider” Webb (Norman Willis) in Africa; they also aided the serial’s hero, Tim Tyler (Frankie Thomas), in his search for his missing scientist father, who had been kidnapped by Webb. Benedict’s role in Tyler was largely a background one, but he managed to be quite convincing as a capable jungle trooper.
Above: Frances Robinson, Frankie Thomas (back to camera), and Jack Mulhall kneel around the injured Al Shean in Tim Tyler’s Luck (Universal, 1937). Standing are J. Pat O’Brien, Billy Benedict, and (back by the horses) Tom Steele.
In 1938, Universal launched the “Little Tough Guys” film series, which centered around a group of street kids who were obvious imitations of the “Dead End Kids” concurrently starring in social melodramas at Warner Brothers. Apparently recalling Benedict’s earlier street-kid turn in Three Kids and a Queen, Universal cast him as “Trouble,” one of the eponymous Tough Guys in the series’ second entry (Little Tough Guys in Society). He played the role in several more Tough Guys films over the next two years, while continuing in minor parts in other films. His second serial was Republic’s top-notch 1940 Western chapterplay Adventures of Red Ryder; he appeared briefly as a tough young rancher named Dan Withers, who, along with his father, was gunned down by land-grabbing outlaws in the opening chapter.
Benedict continued playing uncredited character bits into the early 1940s, while simultaneously playing some major roles in serials, beginning with the 1941 Republic serial Adventures of Captain Marvel. This cliffhanger starred Frank Coghlan Jr. as Billy Batson, a youthful radio broadcaster who was given the power of transforming into the mystic being Captain Marvel (Tom Tyler) in order to keep an ancient atom-smashing device out of the hands of a masked criminal called the Scorpion. Benedict appeared as Whitey Murphy, Batson’s stumbling, cheerful, but helpful pal, who was unaware of his friend’s dual identity but who provided both Batson and Captain Marvel with help in the battle against the Scorpion. Well-acted and fast-paced, with excellent special effects, Captain Marvel remains one of Republic’s biggest serial successes. Benedict contributed to said success, providing funny but unobtrusive comic relief throughout the serial; he was also properly serious whenever Whitey had to take a hand in fistfights or gunfights.
Junior G-Men of the Air (Universal, 1942), featured Benedict in an amusing but miniscule bit as another character named Whitey–a crony of the serial’s comic co-hero Huntz Hall; Benedict grudgingly allowed himself to be wheedled into loaning his car to Hall and his friends (who needed it to race to a battle with a gang of Japanese saboteurs) and then vanished from the scene. Also in 1942, Benedict appeared in his last Republic serial, Perils of Nyoka. This serial, another one of Republic’s best, dealt with the adventures of an archeological expedition searching for the “Lost Tablets of Hippocrates” in the North African desert; Benedict was cast as Red Davis, the expedition’s mechanic, station wagon driver, and all-around handyman. As the slangy, happy-go-lucky Red, Benedict provided several enjoyable comic moments, particularly in his scenes with his pet monkey Jitters and his verbal interchanges with dignified English archeologist George Pembroke. He also participated ably in the action when necessary, reliably assisting heroine Kay Aldridge and hero Clayton Moore in their battles with villainous Arabs. It was also his character who single-handedly unmasked a treacherous expedition member; Benedict’s modulated comedy playing made such a display of intelligence on Red’s part seem quite credible.
In 1940, low-budget producer Sam Katzman had recruited some of the former Dead End Kids and Little Tough Guys and launched a new series of delinquency melodramas at Monogram Pictures. The stars of this new series were billed as the “East Side Kids,” and in 1943 (as aforementioned), Benedict became a recurring cast member in the series, beginning with Clancy Street Boys; however, he tended to play different characters from film to film. In the same year, he appeared as one of the title characters in Universal’s interesting wartime serial The Adventures of the Flying Cadets; the other cadets were played by Bobby Jordan (also an East Side Kid), Ward Wood, and star Johnny Downs. The cadets were a quartet of reformed street kids studying to become Air Force pilots; wrongly accused of several murders perpetrated by a spy called the Black Hangman, they journeyed to Africa to clear themselves and thwart the Hangman’s plans for selling an important deposit of helium to the Nazis. Though Benedict was saddled with the unflattering sobriquet of “Zombie” Parker, his character was once again funny but helpful; his offhand delivery of wisecracks and his cheerfully clumsy demeanor helped to leaven the serial’s propaganda-heavy script.
Billy appeared in several more East Side films, while continuing his string of uncredited comic bits in other pictures. In 1945, East Side Kids producer Sam Katzman left Monogram to become Columbia Pictures’ serial producer; he hired several of his Monogram regulars, Benedict among them, to fill out the cast of his inaugural Columbia cliffhanger, Brenda Starr, Reporter. Starr gave Benedict the last and most buffoonish role of his serial career; he was cast as Pesky, a bumbling newspaper copy-boy with a “cart-before-the-horse mind” that caused him to get all verbal instructions precisely backwards. Needless to say, Pesky repeatedly sent people to the wrong places when asked to relay messages, and as a result caused frequent trouble for Brenda (Joan Woodbury)–although this strange quirk also permitted him (in the final chapter) to figure out a coded message that had stumped the other characters. Benedict made this rather absurd and potentially irritating character more funny than many other serial comics would have; he played Pesky with an unshakably good-natured and confident air that made him seem less like a pitiful and annoying idiot and more like a comic eccentric who inhabited his own peculiar mental world.
In 1946, Monogram restarted the East Side Kids series as the “Bowery Boys” series; while comedy had frequently crept into the earlier and ostensibly serious series, the new one was officially a comedy series, centered around the comedy team of former Dead End Kids Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall (with whom Benedict had appeared in Junior G-Men of the Air). Beginning with the first Bowery Boys films, Live Wires, Benedict became a series regular as Whitey, an amusingly slow-thinking and naive member of Gorcey and Hall’s band of pals. For the rest of the 1940s, Benedict worked principally in the Bowery Boys films, making his final appearance as Whitey in the 1951 Bowery picture Crazy Over Horses. Upon his departure from the series, Benedict began to pursue a new line of work as a builder of miniature sets for movies; however, he still maintained a sporadic career as a character actor in 1950s TV shows, among them Dick Tracy, Dragnet, and Maverick. The 1960s saw Benedict making additional TV appearances (on Dennis the Menace, Petticoat Junction, The Rifleman, and many others), and occasionally playing small parts in features like Harlow and Lover Come Back. He continued this pattern throughout the 1970s, turning up on shows like Little House on the Prairie and Barnaby Jones. Along with a host of former screen notables (including his old costar Huntz Hall), he played a cameo role in Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood; this 1976 comedy was his last theatrical feature. The indefatigable Billy kept making occasional TV guest appearances into the 1980s, basically retiring after playing a part in the 1988 made-for-TV movie Bonanza: The Next Generation–however, he continued to appear in TV commercials over the next several years. Beginning in the 1970s, he had been a frequent and popular guest at serial conventions, and stayed in contact with cliffhanger fans until he passed away in Los Angeles in 1999.
In his lengthy feature-film career, Billy Benedict was rarely given prominent roles; however, he could extract humor from his many bit parts with the aid of a few owlish facial expressions, a comically awkward movement, or a well-delivered one-liner. This ability to be funny without having to take over a scene suited him well in his larger serial roles, allowing him to contribute physical and verbal humor to serials without interrupting the chapterplays’ action. Unobtrusive as they seemed, however, Benedict’s humorous characterizations enhanced the serials he appeared in; even classic chapterplays like Captain Marvel and Perils of Nyoka would have been a little less entertaining had Billy Benedict not been involved in them.
Above: Billy Benedict with Captain Marvel costar Frank Coghlan Jr. (far right) and Republic cameraman Bud Thackery (center) at the 1973 serial fan gathering “HoustonCon.” (Serial directors William Witney and Spencer Bennett and serial stuntman George DeNormand are in the back row).
Acknowledgements: I am indebted to film scholar Tom Weaver’s Internet Movie Database biography of Benedict for much of the biographical information in this article, and to Benedict’s 1999 obituary in the Dallas Morning News.