Kevin McCarthy is a name which might not be on the tip of the tongue of every classic film fan. However, if you’ve been watching movies or television over the last sixty years, it’s highly likely you’ve seen (or even potentially enjoyed!) his work. Trust me, the man worked prolifically. Whether it was in the 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or meaty character roles in films like Hotel, this talented actor always brought a vibrant eye for character, selling even the smallest of parts.
McCarthy would have celebrated his 107th birthday on Monday, so in Ticklish Business fashion, let’s take some time to reflect on the joy of his more than 50 year screen career.
Without further ado, let’s start the Happy Birthday Film Festival.
Death of a Salesman (1951)
Kevin McCarthy made his screen debut in the 1951 film version of the legendary Arthur Miller play Death of a Salesman. A look over McCarthy’s filmography shows one screen credit prior to his breakout, with an uncredited role in Winged Victory. Directed by the iconic George Cukor, Winged Victory was based off a 1943 Moss Hart play. The show was produced as a morale booster during World War II, featuring a cast and chorus (which included McCarthy) made up of servicemen.
In fact, McCarthy cut his teeth on stage. According to his 2010 New York Times obituary, he made his Broadway debut in in 1938, supporting Raymond Massey in Abe Lincoln in Illinois. He worked regularly on stage during the following decade, honing his craft. In interviews later in life, McCarthy is quoted as saying he always considered himself a stage actor first. During this time, he was also one of the earliest members of The Actors Studio, a group that would give rise to talent like Marlon Brando and James Dean.
In 1949 he was cast as Biff Loman opposite Paul Muni as Willy Loman, in the initial London West End run of Death of a Salesman. This would pave the way for McCarthy to reprise his role in Laslo Benedek’s 1951 film version.
Death of a Salesman vaulted McCarthy into the critical spotlight thanks to its multiple Academy Award nominations, including McCarthy himself as Best Supporting Actor. He would lose the award to fellow Actors Studio luminary Karl Malden, who was recognized for A Streetcar Named Desire. Though, McCarthy did take home a Golden Globe as the “Most Promising Newcomer- Male” of that year.
Death of a Salesman is available, here!
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Coming in 1956, Invasion of the Body Snatchers sees McCarthy stepping into his first starring role. He appeared in a handful of movies between Death of a Salesman and this sci-fi classic, but they were primarily smaller action films like Drive a Crooked Road and The Gambler from Natchez. Interestingly, there was a tendency to cast him as a heavy at this point in his career, which never feels particularly right.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers sees McCarthy cast as Miles Bennell, a small town doctor who discovers that something strange is going on among his patients. Together with a young divorcee (Dana Wynter) and a local couple (King Donovan and Carolyn Jones), they set out to try and save the day from an alien invasion.
We’ll be diving into this movie in greater detail soon, but Invasion of the Body Snatchers is undoubtedly the most important film of Kevin McCarthy’s career. While he worked prolifically until shortly before his death, this is most certainly his best remembered role. The story has become so engrained in the cultural memory that he cameoed in the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers in an easily recognizable scene. Even beyond that, he’s credited as “Dr. Bennell” in Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003) and as “Miles” in a number of other roles over the sixty years since Invasion of the Body Snatchers hit theaters. McCarthy also graciously represented the cast in later years in a number of interviews. However, most sources do state that he “came to terms” with the its popularity.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an incredibly important film, not just as the groundbreaking work of science fiction that it is, but also as a snapshot (and critique) of 1950s culture. Whether you read the script as a comment on the Red Scare and Communist Witch Hunt (which has become the popular reading among cinema scholars) or as a statement on the soulless consumerism of the Eisenhower 1950s (a view propagated by McCarthy himself), the themes at work in this movie are incredibly important in hindsight to not only enjoying Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but understanding its place in twentieth century history.
You can check out Invasion of the Body Snatchers, here.
The Twilight Zone (1960)
McCarthy continued working steadily after Invasion of the Body Snatchers. While a few smaller film roles came his way in Nightmare and Diamond Safari, much of his time over the next few years was spent working on television.
He began on TV at the beginning of the 1950s working on series like Climax and Studio One in Hollywood, but the small screen continued to be a regular source of work throughout the rest of the decade. In fact, as the 1950s came to a close, McCarthy was on television more than he was on the big screen.
Over the 1950s and 1960s, his credits read like a greatest hits of classic television: The Twilight Zone, The Rifleman, Dr. Kildare, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Wild, Wild West to name a few.
McCarthy appears in season one, episode twenty-four of the landmark Rod Serling television series, The Twilight Zone. The episode is titled “Long Live Walter Jameson” and features McCarthy as a history professor who (we learn as the episode continues) has quite a long… history. I’m deliberately staying away from spoilers here, but the half hour of television is taught and compelling, with McCarthy’s performance within it layered and complex.
The Twilight Zone currently streams on CBS All Access.
The Prize (1963)
Meanwhile, the arrival of the early 1960s and movies like The Prize, shows McCarthy’s career moving into a new phase. While he was still appearing regularly on television as well as the Broadway stage, most of the film roles he took on were largely of the supporting variety.
The Prize feature follows drama at the 1963 Nobel Prize ceremony when a novelist (Paul Newman) stumbles on a plot to kidnap a fellow Nobel winner (Edward G. Robinson) and replace him with an imposter as part of an international conspiracy. McCarthy appears as fellow Nobel winner Dr. John Garrett in a small, but colorful role. He spends most of the film on the periphery of the plot, but as a result, McCarthy uses the space to play with Garrett as a character. It’s a memorable performance and shows everything McCarthy could do with a part, especially given the right material.
There’s a few films in his credits around this time and a clear evolution is starting to show in McCarthy’s work. He turned 50 in 1964 and the roles he tackled moved away from the romantic, action and leading men he played in the 1950s. In the place of these, he takes on more authority figures: doctors, generals, shadowy government officials, etc. However, each time out, he still manages to shine, even in the most thankless role.
The Prize is available here!
As Hollywood moved towards the end of the 1960s, McCarthy continued to branch out in his roles, seeming increasingly comfortable with the character work most often coming his way. To be perfectly honest, the characters grew a bit weirder and creepier, but he seemed to be having the time of his life in the acting challenge.
Hotel hit theaters in 1967, coming from a novel by Arthur Hailey. The movie featured an Arthur Hailey sized cast, including: Rod Taylor, Karl Malden, Melvyn Douglas, Merle Oberon, Richard Conte, Michael Rennie and McCarthy. The plot revolves around the dramatic goings-on at an aging New Orleans hotel.
McCarthy steps into the part of Curtis O’Keefe, a hotel magnate (reportedly based on Conrad Hilton) attempting to buy the ‘Hotel’ of the title. The part comes complete with sycophantic “yes men”, prayer meetings, costuming which more often than not says “middle aged man picking up girls at the pool” and a twenty-something girlfriend who he ignores until he’s feeling amorous (Catherine Spaak). Think of some of the worst characters in Mad Men, and you know the type.
As a film, Hotel is a bit divisive in terms of audience reactions. There’s a lot of dislike chucked at the drama. However, it is one of my favorites. There’s some truly fun performances in this one which makes it worthy of checking out at least once.
Hotel is available here.
As the 1960s moved into the 1970s, the film industry as we know it shifted. The big-budget, studio friendly faire lessened a bit, ushering in a new wave of gritty, independent cinema. This was particularly felt in the horror genre thanks to filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Sam Rami and Joe Dante, who were coming to prominence as the decade came to a close.
A quick google search of Joe Dante shows the director’s fondness for Invasion of the Body Snatchers. His love of the sci-fi classic lead him to cast Kevin McCarthy a number of times throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. Dante and McCarthy worked together a number of times, including: Piranha, The Howling (1981), Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) and later in Innerspace (1987).
The first of these pairings came in the 1978 horror film Piranha. The movie stars Bradford Dillman as a man who’s unwillingly roped into finding a missing couple by a skip tracer (Heather Menzies-Urich). However, it soon becomes clear there’s been some untoward government experimentation in the area, sending mutant piranhas flooding into a local river.
What can one say about Piranha? (I first-time-watched this one last week). The story is most definitely a take-off on Jaws; however, the performances gel smoothly with the creative mixture of gore horror and low-budget film-making to craft a surprisingly entertaining movie. Fans of gore horror and creature features should definitely make time to check this one out.
Piranha is available to stream on Amazon Prime and is available here.
Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996)
We’ve already discussed here on Ticklish Business (and those of us who were there for the 1980s and 1990s remember), Murder, She Wrote lives on as a treasure trove for those of us in the classic entertainment community. Throughout its twelve season run, the mystery series cast guest stars whose names read like a who’s who of the golden age of Hollywood.
McCarthy appears in three episodes of the show over the course of its run. He first appears in season one, then again in seasons seven and eight. I’ll avoid spoilers here, sometimes he’s the victim, sometimes he’s not… like many of the repeat guests on the show, his roles often varied. However, what remains the same is even this late in his career (McCarthy was approaching 80 by this point), he still brings the same colorful flare to each and every character he plays.
Kevin McCarthy continued working regularly into his nineties. He landed roles deep into the 2000s, not only in features (often in horror films), but also on television in shows like The District, Boston Common and Early Edition.
Murder, She Wrote is available here.
Kevin McCarthy passed away in September 2010 at the age of 96. Over the course of his career, the actor established himself as one of the sadly unsung treasures of the golden age of Hollywood. With more than 200 credits over his more than fifty years in the industry, he was a true professional. It didn’t matter if the role was big or small, he brought everything he had and created some truly entertaining characters along the way.
Podcaster, film historian, and general lover of all things classic film and television. Studying the contributions of women behind the camera in classic television.
You can find me on Twitter @kpierce624!