September 7th, 1902 — November 28th, 1969
Roy Barcroft, in real life one of the kindest and most jovial men ever to work in Hollywood, usually underwent a complete transformation whenever he stepped in front of the camera: for fifteen years he was one of the meanest villains in cliffhangers. Barcroft modestly claimed that he merely imitated expert movie bad guy Harry Woods in his villainous roles, but Barcroft was a talented actor and no mere imitator. Acting talent was especially important to Barcroft, since, unlike Woods and most other cliffhanger heavies, Roy did not have a naturally sinister appearance. To compensate, he learned to convey cool ruthlessness, smug cynicism, baffled rage, and other villainous emotions through an impressive array of gestures and facial expressions, and became just as menacing a presence as more visually appalling actors. His talent also made him one of the more versatile serial heavies; though often cast as a thug because of his imposing size, he was just as effective as a crafty mastermind, and he alternated between playing “goons” and master schemers throughout his career, subtly changing his demeanor and even his voice depending on the nature of his role (he affected a clipped, crafty delivery for his arch-villains, while using a grumbling drawl for his henchmen characters). No other top-rank serial villain had as long or as varied a chapterplay career as Barcroft’s, and very few are as fondly remembered by cliffhanger fans.
Barcroft was born Harold Ravenscroft in Crab Orchard, Nebraska. His family moved from Nebraska to Oklahoma, and then to Washington during his youth. By 1920, he was living in Seattle, where he seems to have worked both as a seaman and a carpenter. He married in Seattle in 1927, and by 1930 had relocated to Illinois, where he worked as a car salesman. He moved to California a year later, where he continued his salesman career and took a few jobs as an movie extra. Reportedly, he had no interest in acting but began taking acting lessons as a way of improving his salesman skills. By 1936 he had apparently started developing an interest in acting for its own sake, and began playing small bits in various films. His first serial was Dick Tracy (Republic, 1937), in which he only appeared occasionally and had one or two lines as one of the background crewmen on the villains’ “flying wing.” He got a somewhat more noticeable part the same year in the Republic cliffhanger SOS Coast Guard, again playing a minor thug but this time getting more lines and a memorable death scene: his character, despite the warnings of Coast Guard hero Ralph Byrd, tried to dodge a shell-firing patrol boat in a smuggling launch, and boasted “I don’t scare easy!” just before the Coast Guard blew him out of the water.
After a few more bits in features and a brief appearance as a Martian trooper in the serial Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (Universal, 1938), Roy landed his first really noticeable cliffhanger role in Flaming Frontiers (Universal, 1938). In this Western serial, Barcroft was one of a gang of thugs headed by villain James Blaine, and a minor but persistent presence throughout the serial, as he and his fellow thugs bedeviled hero Johnny Mack Brown and rival villain Charles Middleton at every turn. Barcroft’s character, Hollister, was responsible for the death of the heroine’s father early in the serial, and it was also Barcroft that gunned down Middleton in Frontiers’ final chapter. Also in 1938, Barcroft played his first credited role in a feature–that of the boss villain in Republic’s Three Mesquiteers B- western Heroes of the Hills. He followed Hills with villainous roles opposite cowboy heroes William Boyd (The Frontiersmen), Buck Jones (Stranger From Arizona) and Gene Autry (Mexicali Rose), and by the end of 1938 had established himself as a strong Western heavy. For the next two decades, almost all of his non-serial work would be in B-westerns.
The Oregon Trail (Universal, 1939) provided Barcroft with his next serial role, and one of his few sympathetic parts. He played Colonel George Armstrong Custer, complete with the historical Custer’s flowing hair and goatee, and periodically showed up with his cavalry to assist hero Johnny Mack Brown whenever the good guys were on the verge of being overwhelmed by Indians or outlaws. He was also on the side of right (though uncredited) in his two other 1939 serial parts: a mine superintendent whose mine was flooded by the villains in Republic’s Daredevils of the Red Circle, and one of the government agents tracking mad scientist Bela Lugosi in Universal’s The Phantom Creeps. Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (Universal, 1940) found Barcroft in multiple parts, bad and good–he appeared in multiple bit roles, both as a soldier of the evil Emperor Ming and a follower of the good Prince Barin; his face was covered by a helmet in most of his scenes, but his voice was quite recognizable.
Winners of the West (Universal, 1940) featured Barcroft as a thug named Logan, one of the many henchmen of outlaw King Carter–played by Barcroft’s scren role model, the accomplished screen badman Harry Woods. Barcroft was largely a background figure in Winners, as he had been in Flaming Frontiers, but he performed a fair share of evil deeds. He played a smaller but showier role in Deadwood Dick (Columbia, 1940), as a supposed town-taming marshal named Jim Bridges, sent for by the Deadwood citizens’ committee to fight the mysterious “Skull’s” gang; despite the marshal’s seeming valor in facing the outlaws, hero Don Douglas quickly proved “Bridges” to be an impostor in the Skull’s pay. Following a one-line bit as a policeman in The Green Hornet Strikes Again (Universal, 1940), Barcroft landed his most colorful serial role to date, that of “Poker” Pendleton, a mysterious gambler in Columbia’s 1941 Western serial White Eagle. When he wasn’t taking everyone at poker in the saloon, Pendleton would variously lend aid to hero Buck Jones and villain James Craven, for unknown reasons; ultimately, he turned out to be a government agent in pursuit of the heavies, but was shot shortly after revealing himself (it was never said whether the character survived his wounding or not) and exited the serial a few chapters before the end. Eagle was an almost parodic production, helmed as it was by former comedy director James W. Horne; many of its cast members, particularly Craven and sidekick Raymond Hatton, overacted wildly at Horne’s behest. However, Barcroft played his part quite coolly and calmly, stealing scene after scene from his more frantic co-stars with his slyly suave performance.
Barcroft finished his Universal serial career with a bit as a Coast Guard sailor in Sky Raiders and a much larger role as an outlaw named Dirk, one of Charles Bickford’s “wolf pack” of outlaws in Riders of Death Valley (both serials were released in 1941). Then, in the modern-day Western King of the Texas Rangers (Republic, 1941), he got to lead a henchman pack himself (for the first half of the serial, anyway), as an outlaw named Ross. Barcroft filled the position of chief henchman to Nazi spy Neil Hamilton, commanding a formidable group of badmen and battling hero Sammy Baugh. In Chapter Seven, however, a bullet from Baugh’s gun wounded him and a runaway truck driven by one of his own men finished him off.
While turning in the above-mentioned serial performances, Barcroft had also been extremely busy in multiple studios’ B-Westerns, including titles from Monogram, PRC, RKO, and Republic. He only managed one serial appearance in 1942, playing a deputy marshal named Jed Lucas in Columbia’s Bill Elliott Western serial The Valley of Vanishing Men. Barcroft, who succeeded to the rank of chief marshal when his principal was murdered early in the serial, initially seemed rather antagonistic to Elliott, then became more friendly and helpful–only to be later revealed as a secret member of villain Kenneth MacDonald’s gang; he then spied on Elliott until exposed as a traitor. Barcroft’s role here was something of a watershed, another version of the standard henchmen parts he had played in cliffhangers up to now but also a precursor to the two-faced villain roles he would soon move into.
In 1943, Barcroft signed a “Term Player” contract with Republic Pictures that gave the studio exclusive rights to his services for ten years. Until 1953, he would appear in an amazing amount of Republic’s B-Westerns, A-Westerns, and serials, almost always playing a villain. One of his first parts under his new contract was the one-chapter role of a fifth columnist named Kerr in the World War 2 spy serial The Masked Marvel; his character was using his dockside cafe to aid Japanese sabotage efforts, but was quickly dispatched by the spy-fighting hero, the “Masked Marvel.”
Barcroft got his first chance to play a serial “brains heavy” when he appeared in the South Seas adventure Haunted Harbor (Republic, 1944). His character was an ex- convict named Carter, who was trying to recover the gold from a scuttled schooner by re-melting it and shipping it from the island gold mine he was operating under the alias of Kane. When Carter’s financial backer, an unscrupulous banker, tried to double-cross him, he killed him, and the death was blamed on the banker’s principal debtor, sea captain Jim Marsden (Kane Richmond). Marsden escaped from jail and set out to clear himself, eventually smashing Kane/Carter’s gold salvage scheme and exposing the “sea monster” hoax the villain was perpetrating to keep the natives away from his operations. Haunted Harbor was a well-done, exciting serial, and Barcroft shone in his first really substantial cliffhanger part. Though his character seldom left his mine office, and was surrounded by a formidable supporting cast of villains (including Kenne Duncan, Bud Geary, and George J. Lewis), Roy managed to establish a strong presence in the serial, whether he was assuming a jovial pose to hoodwink the good guys or sharply detailing schemes to his underlings.
Barcroft’s next serial, Manhunt of Mystery Island (Republic, 1945), gave him his best-remembered role–one that he would recall as his own personal favorite. He played Captain Mephisto, an apparently reincarnated 18th-century pirate who kidnapped an inventor named Professor Forrest (Forrest Taylor) and began forcing him to develop a remote control device that would allow the pirate to control the world’s energy supply. “Mephisto” was actually a descendant of the pirate, who had invented a machine that allowed him to turn into a molecular duplicate of his ancestor. Barcroft in effect was playing a living disguise, but since the identity of his alter ego was a secret until the last chapter, Roy’s Mephisto handled all the serial’s villainy. Criminologist Lance Reardon (Richard Bailey), and Claire Forrest (Linda Stirling) battled Mephisto on land, sea, and air, all the while trying to locate Claire’s missing father. Decked out in a colorful buccaneer outfit, Barcroft stalked through Mystery Island with a piratical swagger and a crafty, haughty smirk, taunting the good guys with his cleverness in outmaneuvering them, threatening Forrest Taylor with dreadful doom unless he assisted him, and berating henchman Kenne Duncan for his stupidity. Mystery Island had several things going for it, among them a lovely heroine, some excellent location shooting, and exciting action scenes, but the star attraction was Barcroft. Captain Mephisto was a villain to rival Ming the Merciless, the Lightning, the Scorpion, and other great serial bogeymen, and Roy played the part with such panache that he entirely stole the chapterplay.
The Purple Monster Strikes (Republic, 1945) followed close on the heels of Manhunt of Mystery Island. Like the earlier serial, Monster was slightly bizarre but highly entertaining, and it featured Barcroft as another memorably offbeat villain. This time, he was the Purple Monster, the personal emissary of the Emperor of Mars, who landed on earth to prepare the way for a full-blown Martian invasion. The Monster’s goal was to assemble a rocket that would serve as an invasion fleet prototype, using the plans of earthling scientist Cyrus Layton (James Craven). The Monster killed Layton in the first chapter, using a vial of Martian gas to dematerialize himself and enter the scientist’s body; he then availed himself of this disguise to undercut leads Dennis Moore and Linda Stirling’s attempts to thwart him, while also batting them in his own person. Since Barcroft split his villainous screen time with James Craven in this outing, his role wasn’t quite as meaty as in Mystery Island, but his performance was still masterful. Given the Monster’s bizarre moniker and his cowl-and-tights outfit, the character could easily have come off as ridiculous (Barcroft himself, who was obliged to lose twenty pounds in order to don the Monster’s outfit, referred to the serial as “The Jerk in Tights from Boyle Heights.”) On screen, however, Roy gave the Martian a coldly menacing air that overcame the risible aspects of the role. Unlike Captain Mephisto, who derived obvious relish from his evildoing, the Monster tended to go about his work with clinical detachment, tempered by flashes of sarcasm–as in his confrontation with Layton: the scientist, delighted to meet an interplanetary traveler, exclaimed, “this is the greatest day of my life,” to which the Monster icily responded, “unfortunately, this is also the last day of your life.”
Barcroft’s next serial role was a very brief bit as a marshal (surprisingly, an honest one) in The Phantom Rider. His next major cliffhanger part, that of Mel Donovan in the crime thriller Daughter of Don Q (Republic, 1946) was much more down-to-earth than his roles in Mystery Island and Purple Monster. Donovan was a tough, sarcastic, and calmly brutal thug in the pay of suave Carlos Manning (LeRoy Mason), an antique dealer who had discovered an old land grant that bestowed substantial property on the descendants of an old-time Californian don. Manning, one of the Don’s heirs but the only one with knowledge of the grant, began using Donovan to bump off the other potential claimants. However, one of the intended targets, Dolores Quantero (Lorna Gray) began to investigate the murders with the help of wisecracking reporter Cliff Roberts (Kirk Alyn), and put a spoke in the villains’ wheel. Barcroft played an urban gangster as well as he had played his many Western outlaws; although a subordinate heavy, he got to handle the lion’s share of the villainy in Don Q. As Donovan, he tangled repeatedly with hero and heroine, arranged murders with grimly humorous relish, and faced the hero in the serial’s climactic shootout after boss villain Mason had already met his end.
Barcroft–though a perennial heavy in Republic’s B-westerns–hadn’t appeared in a Western serial for the studio since 1941’s King of the Texas Rangers. This changed when he was featured in Son of Zorro and Jesse James Rides Again, two well-made Western cliffhangers released in the spring of 1947. In Zorro, Barcroft was Boyd, an outlaw leader who served corrupt frontier officials Ernie Adams and Ed Cassidy, and their mysterious boss. Boyd and his associates encountered plenty of trouble from lawyer Jeff Stewart (George Turner), who donned the guise of his ancestor Zorro to destroy the corrupt politicians’ hold on the territory. Barcroft was less of a henchman than a co-villain in this serial, frequently criticizing and questioning Adams’ and Cassidy’s ideas, and sometimes coming up with a scheme on his own; you got the impression that Boyd was quite capable of heading a gang by himself, and had only thrown in with the corrupt politicians in order to operate with greater impunity.
In contrast to Zorro’s Boyd, Roy’s Frank Lawton in Jesse Jesse Rides Again was an excitable, dull-witted henchman who relied on brawn over brain when carrying out the orders of smooth businessman Jim Clark (Tristram Coffin). Clark and Lawton were attempting to drive the farmers of Peaceful Valley from their land in order to gain control of the oil deposits beneath, but reformed outlaw Jesse James (Clayton Moore) managed to checkmate Clark’s plans while making Lawton’s various shooting, burning, and kidnapping excursions a lot more difficult. Barcroft made his character both despicable and amusing; Lawton definitely enjoyed performing the evil deeds delegated to him, but always had to have them explained first by the more subtle Clark.
G-Men Never Forget (Republic, 1948) was Barcroft’s best serial vehicle after Manhunt of Mystery Island and The Purple Monster Strikes, but its storyline was less fantastic than those two releases, and it has remained one of Roy’s lesser-known cliffhangers. It was an excellent serial nonetheless, a fast-moving cops-and-robbers saga that featured Roy as both cop and robber–upright Police Commissioner Angus Cameron and ruthless gangster Vic Murkland. In the first chapter, Murkland escaped from prison, had plastic surgery to make himself resemble the Commissioner, then kidnapped Cameron and took his place. Murkland proceeded to direct his racketeering enterprises from the Commissioner’s office, while the real Commissioner was imprisoned in the crooked Dr. Benson’s sanitarium. G-man hero Ted O’Hara (Clayton Moore) eventually figured out that “Cameron” was undermining his efforts to track down Murkland, but remained unaware of the substitution until the real Commissioner saved O’Hara’s life by shooting Murkland in the final showdown. This dual role allowed Barcroft greater acting range than any of his other serial parts; as Cameron, he displayed heroic resource and determination in his various attempts to escape captivity, while as Murkland he got to alternate between smooth hypocrisy (when posing as the Commissioner) and steely-eyed snarling of orders (when conferring with his henchmen). Barcroft, usually billed third, fourth, or lower in the credits, received second billing for the first and only time in his career in G-Men Never Forget–an appropriate honor given the size of his role.
Federal Agents vs. Underworld Inc. (Republic, 1949) featured Barcroft as another gangster, an underworld boss named Spade Gordon in the pay of Middle Eastern criminal Nila (Carol Forman). Nila and Gordon were seeking the Golden Hands of Kurigal, recently-unearthed artifacts that were the keys to a treasure hidden in Nila’s home country of “Abistahn.” The duo hoped to use the treasure of Kurigal to organize the underworld into “one vast setup,” but the interference of Federal Agent Dave Worth (Kirk Alyn) ultimately quashed this plan. Federal Agents was a cleverly-plotted cliffhanger with more twists and turns than the average Republic G-man serial, and it was further bolstered by its strong cast. Barcroft’s cynical, down-to-earth henchman contrasted amusingly with Carol Forman’s intense and arrogant lead villain, and their somewhat prickly interchanges were highly enjoyable.
Barcroft’s next three credited serial roles were very similar–in each, he played a Western henchman whose principal used him to sabotage the good guys’ completion of some important project. The first of this trio was Ghost of Zorro (Republic, 1949), which pitted him against a descendant of the famous avenger for the second time in two years: Zorro (the original’s grandson) was played this time by Clayton Moore. The serial’s chief villain was the supposedly respectable blacksmith and leading citizen Joe Crane (Gene Roth), who was earning a second income by protecting outlaws like Hank Kilgore (Barcroft) from the law; when this setup was threatened by the encroachment of a telegraph line, Crane, Kilgore, and their followers embarked on a campaign of sabotage against the telegraph company and its defender Zorro. Barcroft’s Kilgore was formidably nasty, but was also an inveterate grumbler, continually carping at his boss’s plans; his characters in his next two cliffhangers would be in the same mold.
James Brothers of Missouri (Republic, 1949) cast Barcroft as Ace Marlin, a crooked stage line owner who joined with villainous lady storekeeper Belle Calhoun (Patricia Knox) to take over a rival stage line owned by Lon Royer (John Hamilton). The villains succeeded in bumping off Royer, only to have Royer’s old friends Frank and Jesse James (Robert Bice and Keith Richards) show up to help Royer’s daughter (Noel Neill) keep the line afloat. Again Barcroft played a tough but contentious henchman, lending extra energy to the villains’ plotting scenes with his grumbling interjections. Also in 1949, Barcroft played a miniscule role in Radar Patrol vs. Spy King, heard but not seen as a police dispatcher.
Desperadoes of the West (Republic, 1950) gave Roy his last cliffhanger henchman role. This time, he was Hacker, an outlaw in the pay of Eastern profiteer Dawson (I. Stanford Jolley). Dawson enlisted Hacker to keep a group of ranchers from completing an oil well that would allow them to pay off the mortgages Dawson held against their land, but the ranchers’ leader Ward Gordon (Richard Powers) got the well through on time. Once again, Barcroft was not only nasty towards the good guys (gunning several of them down in cold blood) but also unruly and rebellious to his boss, frequently threatening to back out entirely whenever Jolley’s schemes went askew.
Don Daredevil Rides Again (Republic, 1951), a well-done Western chapterplay in which Barcroft played a politician and lawyer named Douglas Stratton, gave Roy his first serial “brains heavy” role since G-Men Never Forget. The wily Stratton had his minions steal an old Spanish land grant (under which the local ranchers held their property) and replace it with a forgery, then demanded an investigation of the document’s authenticity. As a result, the ranchers’ claims were declared invalid, and Stratton began seizing the up-for-grabs land as fast as he could. Attorney Lee Hadley (Ken Curtis) opposed Stratton’s takeover in the guise of the masked avenger “Don Daredevil,” and ultimately exposed the villain’s machinations. This role gave Barcroft a nice change-of-pace from the hard-bitten toughs he had played in his previous Western serials; his Stratton was an overbearing but smooth customer who used legal double-talk and veiled political threats to get his way, although he was quite capable of using brute force when the situation required it.
Following another voiceover job (as a Coast Guard dispatcher in Republic’s 1951 release Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion), Barcroft played his last serial arch-villain in Radar Men from the Moon (Republic, 1952). As Retik, Emperor of the Moon, he attempted to orchestrate an invasion of the Earth, but was thwarted by the adventurous scientist Commando Cody (George Wallace). The role was reminiscent of Roy’s Purple Monster turn, but Retik was altogether more bombastic than the Monster had been. Barcroft gave the character an irritable arrogance befitting an outer-space autocrat, stalking through his lunar laboratories in flowing robes and impatiently ordering his men on Earth to hurry up and lay the groundwork for his invasion. The Emperor’s invasion plans met with no more success than the Purple Monster’s, however, and Retik wound up being blasted from the sky by Commando Cody–who thus brought a spectacular end to Barcroft’s long career of Republic cliffhanger villainy.
Barcroft’s final serial assignment under his Republic contract was some voiceover work in Zombies of the Stratosphere (Republic, 1952); he voiced an unseen government official who delivered orders to the hero via radio, and also dubbed a few lines of dialogue for actors Clifton Young and Norman Willis in order to fit old stock footage of the performers into the new serial. In 1953 he finished his Republic contract with villainous roles in El Paso Stampede, Allan Lane’s final starring B-western, and Shadows of Tombstone, Rex Allen’s penultimate B-western. After ten years of battling Lane, Allen, Roy Rogers, and all of Republic’s other stars, Barcroft would soon begin to move away from his customary villainous roles. Some of his first post-Republic work was in several episodes of the Adventures of Kit Carson TV show, produced by former Republic screenwriter Sloan Nibley; in this series Barcroft played typically nasty heavies, but as the 1950s progressed, the old badman’s screen image began to change, and he found himself frequently playing sheriffs, police officers, and other respectable characters.
His final serial, made during a brief return to Republic, signaled the beginning of this career shift: Man with the Steel Whip (Republic, 1954), featured Roy in an unexpected but oddly appropriate valedictory performance, as a kindly sheriff who entered the scene in the later chapters and helped the masked hero, “El Latigo” (Richard Simmons) stop a gang of land-grabbers from provoking an Indian war. Barcroft made his sheriff entertainingly blustery and feisty, but also came off as competent and dependable; he was eventually admitted to the secret of the hero’s identity, and got to close the cliffhanger out by engaging in some comical bickering with heroine Barbara Bestar.
Roy worked principally in television throughout the 1950s, but turned in some character bits in films as well, among them the Kirk Douglas Western Man Without a Star, the remake of The Spoilers, and the famed musical Oklahoma–incidentally playing an honest lawman in all three films. His best post-Republic role was in Walt Disney’s “The Adventures of Spin and Marty,” a series that ran from 1955-1957 as one of the segments of The Mickey Mouse Club. “Spin and Marty” cemented Barcroft’s new image as a good guy by featuring him as Colonel Jim Logan, the kindly and understanding proprietor of a boys’ summer ranch. Barcroft allowed his own off-screen personality to shine through in “Spin and Marty,” and was so natural and likable that it was almost hard to believe he had been a leading matinee heavy for so many years.
Barcroft continued working in movies and TV throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. While occasionally relapsing into villainous mode (as in the 1957 Rory Calhoun film The Domino Kid), he was now principally typecast as affable authority figures. He appeared on shows as varied as The Lone Ranger, I Love Lucy, The Andy Griffith Show, Maverick, Laramie, and Wild Wild West, and popped up in movies ranging from the epic The Way West to Billy the Kid Meets Dracula. He also narrated at least one nature special for the Walt Disney Presents TV show (“Run, Light Buck, Run”), and landed a recurring role as a Dodge City storekeeper named Roy on Gunsmoke. His final screen role was the part of a saloonkeeper in the elegiac cowboy film Monte Walsh with Lee Marvin; Walsh was released in 1970, a year after Roy had died of cancer in Los Angeles.
Roy Barcroft is most beloved by B-western and serial buffs for the wonderful consistency he displayed in his long career; no matter how many times he portrayed the same bluff, shrewd brains heavy or unshaven, dull-witted action heavy, he played the role with as much zest as if it was entirely new to him. However, Barcroft’s versatility is worthy of note, too. He could step outside his familiar roles to play offbeat villains like Captain Mephisto or the Purple Monster with remarkable ease; he could also abandon villainy completely to play kindly characters, as he proved in his post-serial career. Cowboy and spaceman, pirate and gangster, smoothie and roughneck–Roy Barcroft played them all in his cliffhanger career, maintaining a consistently excellent level of acting that has assured him of a permanent and preeminent place among the great serial villains.
Above center: A publicity portrait of Roy as Captain Mephisto in Manhunt of Mystery Island. On the corners: Roy as the Purple Monster (top left), Lawton in Jesse James Rides Again (top right), Vic Murkland in G-Men Never Forget (bottom left) and Stratton in Don Daredevil Rides Again(bottom right).
Acknowledgements: Jim Beaver’s Internet Movie Database biography of Roy Barcroft and the Old Corral’s Roy Barcroft page provided me with biographical information for this article. The Old Corral page, by Chuck Anderson, was particularly helpful in compiling a great deal of census data that helped to dispel some inaccurate stories concerning Barcroft’s apparently non-existent military service–stories which I, among others, have helped to perpetuate in the past.