July 2nd, 1903 — October 13th, 1947
A frequent serial and B-western heavy, LeRoy Mason never played the bizarre and flamboyant menaces that his peers Roy Barcroft and Henry Brandon did, but he was memorably sinister in his own way. He had the tough looks necessary to play henchmen, the shrewd manner required to play the chief villain, and the acting talent needed to play two-faced but apparently trustworthy heavies. In the role of the double-dealing schemer, Mason could be positively cheerful and pleasant, dispelling the suspicions of the heroes with seemingly good-natured glibness. He could also be sneeringly harsh and chillingly grim when his characters revealed their true colors, or when he played a more aboveboard villain. All of Mason’s villainous characterizations, however, were marked by an air of smirking, almost swaggering, self-confidence; his heavies hardly seemed to consider failure as a possibility.
LeRoy Mason was born in Larimore, North Dakota. His occupations prior to his acting career are unknown, but given the enormous number of Westerns he appeared in and his apparent skill as a rider, it’s possible they included ranch work. The 1920 US Census shows him as still residing in North Dakota, but by 1926 he working in Hollywood. He began his career as a heavy, playing the villain in several silent westerns (The Arizona Streak, Tom and his Pals, and other titles). However, he quickly advanced to romantic leads while still playing an occasional villain; his most notable role of the 1920s was a co-starring part (as a courageous English lord) in MGM’s 1928 silent Technicolor epic The Viking (which starred Donald Crisp). When sound arrived, however, Mason’s voice, with its flat and harsh Midwestern inflections, barred him from further heroic roles. His career more or less ground to a halt in 1930, and he did little screen work over the next two years. By 1932, Mason was again appearing steadily in films, reestablished as strictly a screen villain and working chiefly in B-westerns, serials, and other low-budget fare.
One of Mason’s earliest 1932 outings was his first serial, The Last Frontier (released by RKO but produced by Van Beuren Studios). This chapterplay was a lively but disjointed and rough-hewn production that starred Lon Chaney Jr. as a frontier newspaper editor who doubled as a mysterious avenger called the Black Ghost–spending most of his time trying to stop an outlaw gang from smuggling guns to the Indians. Said gang was led by Richard Neill and Francis X. Bushman Jr., while Mason, as an outlaw named Buck, served as the duo’s leading henchman. He had little to do besides receive orders and fight with Chaney for most of the serial, but was spotlighted a little more in Frontier’s last few episodes, becoming Neill’s chief co-conspirator after Bushman developed a conscience and started trying to pull out of the gang. Mason handled this background role with the same tough and sneering self-assurance that characterized most of his later, meatier serial-villain turns; his evil grin after shooting Bushman in the back was particularly notable.
In 1933, Mason took his first major serial role in Universal’s The Phantom of the Air. Tom Tyler, a frequent antagonist of Mason in his early silent westerns, starred in Phantom as a Border Patrol pilot who was out to track down a gang of airborne smugglers. Mason was Mort Crome, an importer who was the secret head of the smuggling ring; Crome was also determined to get his hands on a remote-controlled plane developed by inventor Tom Edmunds (William Desmond), but neither of his criminal enterprises met with success. Phantom was a straightforward and enjoyable aviation thriller, and Mason was well cast as the smooth Crome, seeming debonair enough to flirt with heroine Gloria Shea on the dance floor and rough enough to participate in his henchmen’s aerial raids.
The mid-1930s saw Mason continuing his heavy career, largely in B-westerns, although he briefly returned to heroic roles in 1935-1936, co-starring with child actor Frankie Darro in three low-budget action films for Conn Productions. Outside of these films, however, he continued as a B-movie heavy, and began a long relationship with the newly-formed studio Republic Pictures by playing the villain in their Gene Autry vehicle Comin’ Round the Mountain. Around this time, a gunshot mishap while working on a Republic film cost him the sight in his right eye; the studio’s boss Herbert Yates subsequently tried to keep Mason working steadily to compensate him for the injury.
In 1937, Republic cast Mason in his third serial, The Painted Stallion, a solid Western adventure with excellent location shooting. This covered-wagon saga featured him as Alfredo Dupray, the deposed Spanish governor of the New Mexico area, who sought to maintain his position as the local tyrant despite the onset of an American wagon train headed by Clark Stuart (Ray Corrigan)–but who was continually thwarted in his attempts to wipe out the interfering pioneers, being opposed both by Stuart and by a mysterious girl called the Rider of the Painted Stallion. Although the Midwestern-accented Mason was somewhat miscast as a Spaniard, he otherwise did an excellent job of portraying a political-military despot–sneering arrogantly at enemies and henchmen, lying to the good guys with polished smoothness, and hatching plans with soldierly self-assurance.
Mason’s fourth serial was Jungle Menace, released a few months after Painted Stallion. Menace was Columbia Pictures’ first serial, an amazingly slow-moving serial with a lopsided storyline and an enormous cast headed by real-life animal handler Frank Buck. The storyline had to do with rubber piracy in the Asian jungle; much of the lopsidedness arose from the writers’ treatment of Mason’s character, a murderously tough rubber-plantation foreman named Murphy who was secretly one of the pirates. Buck’s character, Frank Hardy, was the nominal hero, but actually had much less screen time than Mason’s Murphy–who basically drove the serial’s action, through his efforts to avoid exposure, his flight from justice once exposed, and his bitter feud with his villainous superiors (who tried to have him eliminated as a security threat); it was Murphy, not Hardy, who confronted and destroyed the leaders of the rubber pirates at the end–though from vengeful motives, not heroic ones. This strange handling of the Murphy character completely threw off the serial’s narrative balance, making it interestingly offbeat but very unsatisfying; however, it also gave Mason an unusually meaty villainous role, once which he played with plenty of flair–grinning and snarling with intimidatingly ferocious vigor as his uncontrollable and near-indomitable character stalked violently through the serial.
Mason spent another the next six years working almost entirely in B-westerns for Republic, RKO, Columbia, and other studios, generally playing heavies but occasionally winning a sympathetic supporting part. His only serial during this period, Overland With Kit Carson (Columbia, 1939), gave him one such sympathetic role; he played a hustling fur trader named Baxter who helped hero Bill Elliott combat a band of outlaws headed by a mystery man named Pegleg. Baxter was suspected of being Pegleg himself by both Elliott and the audience at several points in the serial, but he ultimately proved to be entirely trustworthy, if decidedly sharp in his business practice.
In 1943, Republic Pictures, already Mason’s most frequent employer, signed him to a “Term Player” contract; his remaining films would all be Republic B-westerns, A- westerns, and serials, along with an occasional non-Western feature–in all of which he was almost invariably a heavy. His first serial as a Republic contract player was 1944’s Captain America, in which he played a crooked chemist who was caught manufacturing poison by hero Dick Purcell and gunned down in the first chapter. However, he had a larger role in the 1944 cliffhanger The Tiger Woman. This jungle adventure starred Linda Stirling as the title character, the white queen of a South American tribe. Mason was Fletcher Walton, a crooked lawyer who was attempting to drive Stirling’s tribe from their lands on behalf of a crooked oil company and also plotting to seize the girl’s inheritance for his own benefit; he had managed to discover that the Tiger Woman was really a long-lost heiress named Rita Arnold. Tiger Woman was an action-packed and exciting serial, and while Mason handled little of the active villainy, he was an impressive “brains heavy” nonetheless, smoothly pretending to assist the heroes when convenient, smugly outlining plans to his duller-witted associate Crane Whitley, and battling hero Allan Lane with an air of genuinely murderous determination when exposed.
Mason’s next serial was 1945’s Federal Operator 99; he played Morton, a henchman of gangster George J. Lewis and only appeared in two scenes, his most memorable moment being a telephone conversation in which he deceived hero Marten Lamont with some false information. In 1946, he played the chief villain in the serial The Phantom Rider, an unnamed outlaw leader who spent the entire serial posing as Indian Agent Fred Carson. “Carson” was the head of a gang that was using an Indian reservation as its headquarters; the local law was unable to enter reservation land to pursue the gang, which allowed them to plunder the surrounding territory at will. When a local doctor (Robert Kent) joined forces with the Indian chief’s educated son (George J. Lewis) to organize an Indian police force that could drive the outlaws from the reservation, the phony Indian Agent pretended to lend them all possible support while trying to crush their project on the sly. A good serial, Phantom Rider allowed Mason to do as he had done in Tiger Woman: confidently plot with diffident accomplices, genially pose as the heroes’ friends, and perform nasty acts of violence when cornered.
In 1946, Mason made two serials, the first being King of the Forest Rangers, in which he played a crooked gambler named Halliday. He appeared in only one chapter, attempting to trim farmer Ernie Adams in a card game on behalf of the villains; he was exposed, beaten up, and arrested by hero Larry Thompson and disappeared from the serial. His other 1946 chapterplay, Daughter of Don Q, featured him as antique dealer Carlos Manning, another wily brains heavy. Manning came into possession of an old Spanish land grant that bestowed some valuable California real estate on the descendants of an old-time Spanish don. Manning, one the descendants, set out to eliminate his unknowing fellow claimants with the help of various thugs, only to meet with serious interference from one of them, socialite Dolores Quantero (Lorna Gray). Mason took part in almost no active villainy in Don Q, spending all his screen time inside his character’s antique shop, but once again played his role with suitable slickness and menace–cold-bloodedly ordering murder after murder, smugly looking forward to the eventual success of his land-grab scheme, and convincingly feigning concern for the good guys’ safety. Don Q, a lively and enjoyable serial overall, would prove to be the last cliffhanger in which Mason co-starred.
Mason played three more minor roles in Republic’s serials, however, all in 1947. In Jesse James Rides Again, he appeared as a pompous and cowardly oil buyer named Finlay, while in The Black Widow he made a one-chapter appearance as Dr. Godfrey, a crooked scientist in the pay of the title villainess. Finally, in G-Men Never Forget (filmed in 1947, released in 1948), he dubbed the lines of chief villain Roy Barcroft in the opening chapter; Barcroft’s character was an escaped racketeer who underwent plastic surgery to resemble the police commissioner and then began to imitate the Commissioner’s voice; Mason provided the voice of the pre-surgery Barcroft. Mason was slated to play another serial brains heavy in Adventures of Frank and Jesse James, but, sadly, he suffered a heart attack while filming the Monte Hale B-western California Firebrand in 1947 and died at the young age of 45.
Though he figured prominently in several popular cliffhangers, LeRoy Mason never played a really “iconic” serial villain of the mad-scientist or masked-menace variety. But while Mason’s individual roles may not be too keenly remembered by serial buffs, the Mason screen persona definitely is; his smug, shrewd, and grinningly confident villainous portrayals always made a strong impression on matinee audiences.
Acknowledgements: My thanks for several pieces of information–particularly on Mason’s 1920 census status and his Republic contract–goes to the Old Corral’s page on LeRoy Mason.