The British Are Coming!: Character Actors

Some of the most memorable supporting players in American film and television were British actors. The list of distinguished British actors is long, so I have narrowed those I will focus on to four favorites. These four were never leads, but acted in many featured roles. Often their screen time was brief, but on occasionally they had meaty roles. Big or small roles, these actors usually stole their scenes. Each of them gravitated toward a certain kind of character, which may be why they worked steadily and were so good.

Robert Morley – Get me a pompous, egotistical windbag. Those were the Morley roles. He could look aghast, confused or irritated all with one glance. He opened his eyes wide, opened his mouth and raised his bushy eyebrows in surprise. One of the first role I recall him from was African Queen, playing Katherine Hepburn’s missionary brother who dies early in the film. Morley was a large, portly man, whose size helped bestow a distinguished or affluent appearance. Morley started out in the theater and quickly began finding film roles. American audiences might not have seen much of him till his later career. One of his best later roles was in Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? in which Morley had a co-starring role.

Terry-Thomas – With the upturned mustache and gap tooth snarl, Terry-Thomas was one of the most popular actors of the 1960s. He started in radio and television, and after the war moved into theater and British films. He had a regular British television series and released comedy albums, all before he became popular in America. He was described by The Guardian as an expert at playing upper-class twits or debonair rascals. His first big American film was the sex comedy Bachelor Flat (1962) as an anthropology professor. He had big roles in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Mouse on the Moon, How to Murder Your Wife and Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. By the 1970s, his career had cooled off and was cut short by he Parkinson’s Disease.

Bernard Fox – Although he had more than 100 roles and often returned to the theater, Fox is primarily known as Dr. Bombay from Bewitched, Malcolm Merryweather from The Andy Griffith Show, and Col. Crittendon from Hogan’s Heroes. Those three television characters brought Fox more fame than anything else he did. Bumbling, aloof characters or stuffy British snobs are what he normally played. He was actually Welsh and spent many years working in theater, but took time out to serve in World War II and Korea. With the bushy mustache and thick dark hair, he was instantly recognizable. By the early 1960s, Hollywood and particularly American television had discovered this versatile comedic actor. Anytime a male British character was needed, Fox got the call.

Wilfrid Hyde-White – Also beginning in the theater, Hyde-White was not discovered by Hollywood until 1960 when he was in his late 50s. He played distinguished, urbane and sometimes caustic characters. He usually had a twinkle in his eye, even when he portrayed villains. After a featured role in the classic The Third Man, his career in English films really took off, even though he had been appearing in films since the early 1930s. Featured roles in films like Let’s Make Love and In Search of the Castaways led directly to his being cast as Colonel Pickering in My Fair Lady.  Hyde-White worked steadily in British and American projects and was a regular on television series Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and The Associates.

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