February 8th, 1902 — March 2nd, 1996
Lyle Talbot, a leading man turned character actor, spent the bulk of his career in B-films, serials and television, specializing in both honestly and hypocritically respectable types. In his cliffhanger outings, as in his other film work, he played both duplicitous heavies and stalwart supporting characters, using his booming but cultured voice and dignified bearing to good advantage in either case. His assured dignity made him an admirable “brains heavy;” his hypocritical villains would dupe the heroes with a blend of suaveness and joviality, and then outline their plans to their followers in a smugly authoritative manner that admitted of no questions. Talbot figured in some of the better later serials and uplifted some not-so-good ones with his low-key but commanding performances.
Lyle Talbot was born Lysle Henderson in Pittsburgh. His parents were traveling entertainers, and when his mother died, his peripatetic actor father left him to be raised in Nebraska by Lysle’s maternal grandmother. Young Henderson followed in his parents’ footsteps, and began a show-business career right after finishing high school, adapting his grandmother’s surname of “Talbot” as a stage moniker. He played in circuses and carnivals as a magician before joining his father as a stage actor in Midwestern and Southern stock companies; by the 1920s, Talbot had formed his own theatrical troupe, the Talbot Players. In 1931 Warner Brothers, seeking presentable actors with talkie-friendly speaking voices, brought him to Hollywood and signed him to a contract; he made his screen debut in the studio’s whodunit short, The Clyde Mystery. He quickly advanced to feature work, and remained a Warners contractee for six years. During his time at the studio (and on occasional loan-out assignments), Talbot played heroes (Murder in the Clouds), sympathetic juveniles (The Case of the Lucky Legs) and slimy villains (The Life of Jimmy Dolan) in A and B films; he also joined with a group of other actors in founding the Screen Actors Guild. However, by the mid-1930s it became apparent that Warners was only interested in Talbot as a B-movie star and A-movie supporting player; he left the studio when his contract expired in 1937. He may have hoped for starring roles in major productions, but added weight had diminished his leading-man looks, and he found himself starring only in B features like Universal’s West Bound Limited. As the 1930s wore on, Talbot became more and more frequently cast as supporting characters in B-films for Universal, Republic, Fox and other studios; in 1940 he abandoned Hollywood altogether, co-starring in the Broadway comedy Separate Rooms for over a year. He returned to the West Coast in 1942, and apparently enlisted in the Air Force’s entertainment division; his military duties made his film appearances extremely sporadic over the next four years.
In 1944, Universal gave Talbot his last real leading role, using him to fill the co-starring spot vacated by Rod Cameron–who the studio had just moved upstairs to A-films– in the B-western Trail to Gunsight. Universal subsequently retained Talbot to appear in the serial, Mystery of the River Boat. This chapterplay was an entertaining thriller set in the Louisiana bayous, with its intrigues centered around swampland property co-owned by three local families. The landowners (who included hero Robert Lowery and heroine Marjorie Clements) were unaware that the land contained vast deposits of a valuable element called nitrolene, but Talbot’s character Rudolph Toller–an unscrupulous land speculator–was well aware of the fact, and shrewdly tried to outmaneuver both the protagonists and rival villain Arthur Hohl in order to obtain the land. Talbot played his high-rolling villain with all the ruthless cold-heartedness he had displayed as “heels” in some of his early Warners efforts, but also (for the first of many times in his serial career) affected a sleek, man-of-the-world dignity to deceive the outside world as to his true motives.
Talbot made virtually no films from late 1944 until 1946, the year he returned to full civilian life; one of his first films following his departure from the Air Force was the Columbia serial Chick Carter, Detective. For the last time in his screen career, he received top billing, but ironically had less to do than many of the chapterplay’s supporting actors. As Chick Carter, a police detective, Talbot rarely participated in action sequences and spent most of his time monitoring other characters’ struggles over a stolen diamond; reporters Douglas Fowley and Eddie Acuff carried most of the serial’s action in Talbot’s stead. Carter was a remarkably dull serial, but Talbot held up his end quite well in the screen time allowed him–authoritatively laying plans with the reporters and his own men, interrogating suspects with a shrewd and forceful air, and grimly expressing his determination to track down the killer of a detective friend (who’d been slain early in the serial while investigating the diamond theft).
Talbot’s next serial was The Vigilante (Columbia, 1947), which starred Ralph Byrd as a B-western star named Greg Saunders who doubled as the titular masked crimefighter. Talbot was George Pierce, a nightclub owner who was secretly a gangster boss and was out to steal a fortune in gems hidden in the shoes of several prized “Arabanian” stallions. Vigilante was an interesting and enjoyable serial, and Talbot was excellent in his role, affecting an affable man-of-the-world manner when socializing with the good guys, but coldly issuing commands to his henchmen when hooded and robed as the gang leader “X-1.” Ostensibly this character was the serial’s mystery villain, with Talbot assumed to be merely his lieutenant, but the script made little effort to disguise the “surprise” of Pierce’s dual identity–although Talbot did affect different voices for Pierce and X-1.
The next several years saw Talbot firmly establishing himself as a character actor, permanently abandoning his leading man image to play both heavies and authority figures in films for small studios like Monogram and Pine-Thomas. His next serial was another Columbia release, 1949’s Batman and Robin, in which he played Batman’s ally Commissioner Gordon and helped the superhero battle a villain called the Wizard. Batman and Robin was not a very exciting or impressive serial, but Talbot gave a solid performance as Gordon, making the Commissioner seem like a dignified and competent law officer despite the built-in absurdities of the character–a policeman who let a pair of mystery men do all the police department’s work.
Lyle’s next serial featured him as another well-known DC Comics character, Superman’s archenemy Luthor. Atom Man vs. Superman (Columbia, 1950) starred Kirk Alyn as Superman, who was forced to cope with a crime wave organized by a mysterious criminal named the Atom Man. The evil scientist Luthor, ostensibly reformed and running a TV news station, was the man behind the Atom Man’s mask, and was determined not only to gain wealth and power through an array of scientific weaponry but to transport Superman to a sort of extra-dimensional limbo called the Empty Doom. Atom Man was surprisingly good for a late Columbia serial, and Talbot’s Luthor was the most memorable of any studio’s post-war serial heavies. Talbot eschewed wild theatrics as Luthor and instead played the character as sober, grave, and quietly arrogant, though sometimes displaying symptoms of repressed rage when thwarted by Superman. His rational delivery of various megalomaniacal statements made them a great deal more unsettling than a more frenzied and stereotypical “mad scientist” approach would have. The strange-sounding foreign accent he affected to disguise his voice when he masqueraded as the Atom Man was also impressive, and so was his statesmanlike dignity when he was posing as a reformed man. All in all, Talbot made Luthor seem so villainously intelligent that he came off as a formidable and almost unstoppable adversary, one who could give even a superhero a run for his money.
Talbot continued his career as a character player in the 1950s, appearing on early TV shows like Dick Tracy (as the arch-villain “The Brain”) and Dangerous Assignment, playing heavies, sheriffs, or military men in B-westerns and B-adventure films, and occasionally winning roles in higher-budgeted features like the James Stewart comedy The Jackpot. He did three more Columbia serials in 1952 and 1953–Son of Geronimo, Gunfighters of the Northwest, and The Great Adventures of Captain Kidd. In Geronimo, a 1952 release, he figured in only two chapters as an Army colonel who was ambushed by outlaws but rescued by hero Clayton Moore; in Gunfighters (released in 1953), he appeared throughout the serial as an RCMP Inspector named Wheeler, who supervised hero Jock Mahoney’s fight against a band of outlaws. Though his Gunfighters role was larger than his Geronimo one, both parts resembled each other (and his Commissioner Gordon turn) in that they allowed him to be dignified and authoritative, but didn’t give him much to do. Captain Kidd (also 1953) featured him in a one-chapter role as a haughty but fair-minded British colonial official.
As the 1950s progressed, Talbot began to work almost exclusively in television, appearing frequently on shows ranging from The Gene Autry Show to The Jack Benny Show. However, he made one last serial–his only one for Republic Pictures–in 1954, Trader Tom of the China Seas. In this cliffhanger, Talbot played Barent, a retired shipping magnate who was also an agent for an unnamed but obviously Communist power, orchestrating a revolution in the United Nations island protectorate of “Burmatra” in order to turn the nation into a satellite of his employers’ country. For much of the serial, Talbot had little to do but smugly issue orders to henchman Fred Graham, who performed all the serial’s active villainy, but in the later chapters he came more to the fore, genially duping UN agent Harry Lauter as to his true intentions and pretending to aid the hero’s attempts to capture Graham. Trader Tom was built around stock footage from earlier Republics, but was still quite enjoyable in its own right–Talbot’s confident and urbane villainy being one of its several good points.
The rest of the 1950s saw Talbot in a miniscule amount of features–chiefly low-budget outings for Allied Artists and independent producers like the infamous Ed Wood–but in any number of TV shows. He played recurring roles on The Bob Cummings Show and The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, and in 1956 became a regular on the long-running Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet as the Nelsons’ neighbor Joe Randolph. Talbot’s final feature film work was a part in 1960’s Sunrise at Campobello, but he remained active in TV throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s, continuing in his Ozzie and Harriet role till the show ended in 1966 and finding time for guest appearances on other shows like Leave it to Beaver, Maverick, and The Beverly Hillbillies. He only partly retired in the 1970s, making sporadic TV appearances but returning to his roots in theater; he starred in several touring stage shows, including productions of The Odd Couple and The Front Page. He made a few TV appearances in the 1980s, the last being on a 1987 episode of Newhart, before finally retiring for good. Lyle Talbot passed away in 1996, having reached the impressive age of 94.
Most of the prominent serial villains were either silent-era leading men (Walter Miller, Kenneth MacDonald), character actors from major features (Eduardo Ciannelli), or actors who “grew up” in serials and stayed with the genre their entire careers (Roy Barcroft). Lyle Talbot was an anomaly among serial heavies–a sound-era leading man who slowly drifted into supporting roles and made a late entrance on the serial scene, in a time when chapterplays were becoming less interesting and less memorable. However, Talbot’s calmly menacing cliffhanger performances, in both memorable and unmemorable vehicles, made him quite worthy of ranking with the best heavies of earlier days.
Acknowledgements: Much of the preceding biographical information on Lyle Talbot is derived from the Talbot Players website maintained by Lyle Talbot’s children, specifically its page on Lyle.