Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Sheet of Reynolds Rap!

Casual moviegoers may not readily identify the gentleman being profiled today. Lord knows it took me a while to really discover him myself, but once I did, I was snagged. With a career that really only lasted two decades and, unfortunately, didn't result in mega-stardom, he's the kind of guy you sometimes have to hunt for, but my what attractive prey! The man is William Reynolds.
Born William de Clerq Regnolds, to parents of Norwegian descent, in Los Angeles on December 9th, 1931, his mother died when he wasn't yet six years of age. He and his older brother Jim spent time in a San Francisco boarding school before he eventually went to live with an aunt. Movie and radio serials were his escape and he felt capable of becoming an actor himself. As a youth on the cusp of eighteen, he planned to attend classes at The Pasadena Playhouse, but his arrival in town didn't coincide with the timing of enrollment, so he instead went to Pasadena City College where he studied acting and radio broadcasting.

While attending there (where he helped to write and direct the student productions) and working in a local theatre, he was spotted by a talent agent who arranged a 20th Century Fox screen test opposite the dazzlingly beautiful Debra Paget. Fox didn't bite after all, but he landed a contract with Paramount. His carved from cream cheese features, large, blue eyes and thick, pouty lips were a striking combination. Unutilized for the first six months of that contract, he was dropped, but in an ironic twist, he was then sought for a role in a William Wyler Paramount film and was able to command a higher rate of pay than his prior contract had stipulated!

Swiftly, another Paramount producer decided to use him in a sequel to the hit Dear Wife, called Dear Brat. Here, he worked alongside fellow young performer Natalie Wood, who was thirteen at the time. Next, he was snatched up by 20th Century Fox in order to play the son of James Mason's Field Marshal Rommel in The Desert Fox, the Story of Rommel. (Thus the men's friendly embrace in this still photo.) William's agent felt that the drop-dead gorgeous young man would fit in well at Universal-International Studios and the studio casting directors agreed. In 1952, he was signed on to the Audie Murphy western The Cimmaron Kid as one of The Dalton Gang, covering up his Desert Fox haircut with a cowboy hat!

Next, he had a small role as a character called Lem Bent (which sounds like a joke!) in The Battle at Apache Pass. This film marked the second time that Jeff Chandler played Cochise. Regnolds, who had yet to received onscreen credit for his smallish roles, was now redubbed William Reynolds, an Americanized name (or spelling, at least) that would be considered more palatable and easier to pronounce the conservative 1950s. Life as a contractee in the studio era meant plenty of training in dance, athletics, riding and so on, which Reynolds gladly participated in. However, he was not part of the dating set-ups that were prevalent then. For, in 1950 at age nineteen, he had married an actress and model named Molly Sinclair after only a two-week courtship!

In 1952, that William Wyler movie, Carrie, was finally released (with his old last name of Regnolds in the credits.) In it, he played the son of Laurence Olivier, a man in love with Jennifer Jones. It was a very busy year for him as he also appeared alongside Tony Curtis, Piper Laurie and Susan Cabot in Son of Ali Baba (the infamous sword and satin epic in which Bronx-born Curtis uttered, “Yonda lies da castle of my fadda!” I have seen this film on TV before, by the way, and it is NOT as pronounced as everyone always makes it out to be...) In the shadow of the older (by about eight years) Curtis, a pattern was already being set in which he would play second fiddle to other contract players who were a bit more experienced and had already received more grooming for stardom.
He was also given a featured role in the musical comedy, Has Anybody Seen My Gal, a 1920s-era romp with Rock Hudson (six years Reynolds senior), Charles Coburn and Piper Laurie. Reynolds plays the (dreamboat) son of a family whose wealthy, but unknown to them, uncle comes to live with them for a while, incognito, to see if they are worthy of inheriting his fortune when he passes. Reynolds beautiful, chiseled features were highlighted by a close-cropped haircut and some cute costumes inspired by the era. He sports a letterman's sweater, a raccoon coat (which he brushes faithfully!), a pair of trousers with writing all over them and even a raspberry colored coat with cream fur trim. Though it wasn't a starring part, it was a featured one with several featured sequences.

The poor guy was quite obviously trying to make an impression with his supporting role and was charmingly engaged in character at all times. However, when one is that far down in the pecking order (with other costars Lynn Bari, Larry Gates and little Gigi Perreau also clamoring for the limelight), it's not unusual to be shot from behind or in long, wide shots. Worse still, he wasn't yet used to camera placement, nor to the scene-stealing techniques of Coburn, who repeatedly blocks Reynolds' (perfect) face in scene after scene. (Either that or the charming old coot couldn't find his own marks...) This set of snaps show how cute he could be when he managed to fight his way around the heads and bodies of his fellow performers!

Reynolds didn't possess the same sleek sort of profile as the legendary John Barrymore or the patrician Basil Rathbone, but his profile was equally captivating and distinctive thanks to his sharp Norwegian bone structure and amazingly thick head of hair. Just look at his strong, solid jawline in this shot from the movie. It's a good thing, since he was so frequently in his career shot from behind or over his back, that William Reynolds looked almost as good from behind as he did from the front!

Also in 1952 was the minor western The Raiders, in which he had a small role in support of stars Richard Conte and Viveca Lindfors. His seventh (!) film in release that year was Francis Goes to West Point. Francis was the subject of a popular series of films that featured a talking mule (this was later ripped off for the popular Mr. Ed television series.) Donald O'Connor was typically the star, but fresh-faced, high-haired Reynolds played the boyfriend of leading lady Lori Nelson.

Still busily working in whatever the studio decided to place him in, he had a small part in Tyrone Power's The Mississippi Gambler, again with Piper Laurie, though for the third and last time. He also took part in another Audie Murphy western, Gunsmoke (unrelated to the radio & TV show.) It was 1953 and he was twenty-two and married. His life and career, however, would be dealt a startling surprise. He was drafted into the U.S. Army in order to help fight The Korean War!
Fortunately, his radio training was parlayed into a stint in that department, though his stationing in Japan meant a year-long separation from his wife, who he truly adored. Upon return from active duty, he was able to continue working at Universal Studios. The Cult of the Cobra only offered him a negligible part (along with fellow contract player David Janssen) in support of star Faith Domergue (shown with him at left) and Richard Long (who would later star on The Big Valley as Jerrod.)

A better opportunity (and also the chance to play an unsympathetic part) came with the Douglas Sirk-directed melodrama All that Heaven Allows. He was cast as widow Jane Wyman's college-age son, a self-important jerk who makes his mother's life miserable when she finds herself attracted to younger landscaper Rock Hudson. It would be hard to find two more aggravating and spoiled acting children than Reynolds and Gloria Talbot, who played his obnoxious sister. In fact, it may be why I had a mental block with Reynolds for so long despite his dreamy handsomeness! The tag-team spoilers buy their mother a television set to take the place of their dead father and are appalled that she doesn't want to allow her love life to die right along with him. This 89-minute movie is an utter gem of colorful, overly dramatic, stylized soap opera and I love it, even more than Magnificent Obsession, which came out the previous year also with Wyman and Hudson. Just in the two photos above, you can see the extraordinary use of light and color implemented by Sirk. I can't recommend it enough, though you might want to spank Reynolds during it (I know I would have liked to, before and after this movie!)

Reynolds' pattern of playing the son of famous actors and actresses continued when he portrayed the child of Fred MacMurray in another Douglas Sirk melodrama (this one in black and white), There's Always Tomorrow. In this one, MacMurray is married to Joan Bennett, but has an affair with Barbara Stanwyck. Once again, he was playing an ungrateful and self-important son, this time with two siblings of a similar nature (played by Gigi Perreau, his Anybody Seen sister, and Judy Nugent.) It is he who discovers MacMurray's infidelity when he follows his father around surreptitiously. Reynolds was not raised with his father and his mother had died so early that he had little personal experience with these parental relationships from which to draw upon, but he managed nicely nonetheless. Incidentally, like many who came before and after him, he was once taken to task by “Missy” Stanwyck for arriving late to the set one time. His respect for her talent and professionalism helped ensure it would never happen twice!

1956 also brought a role in the war film Away All Boats. This one featured a line-up of hunks from Jeff Chandler, George Nader and Lex Barker to Keith Andes and is one of the films I am hankering to see very soon. He seems to have had some degree of fun clowning around between takes, as seen here with Nader in a cramped stairwell. He next supported Tony Curtis again in Mr. Cory, about a slum kid trying to make good in the big leagues. Reynolds played the well-to-do, but mousy suitor of a girl that Curtis is interested in and takes a lot of guff from him, for a while, anyway.
Reynolds began to slide into some cheesy and tacky sort of B films at Universal. While it's true that the studio had almost been built on the strength of its monster movies, there was an awful lot of tripe in that vein as well and he found himself within it and lacking the motivation and the fire to stand up to the powers that be over it. In short, he did what he was told. The athletic young actor worked alongside future-Tarzan Jock Mahoney in The Land Unknown, which featured dinosaurs in a prehistoric world buried in the Antarctic. Williams was no shrimp at 6 feet tall, but looks dwarfed next to Mahoney (who was reportedly 6'4”.) If the rather surly-looking man on the right looks familiar at all, he is Henry Brandon, best known as the imposing Indian chief Scar in John Ford's western masterpiece, The Searchers.

Things got even dicier on The Thing That Couldn't Die, a story that had him taking on the disembodied head of a 16th century devil worshipper! Considering that plot line (and the hurried schedule with which it was filmed), the movie is actually rather well-received among horror buffs. The same year, 1957, had him starring in the more down to earth flick The Big Beat, concerning a young man who wants his father's radio station to begin playing and promoting the rock and roll music that was then coming into popularity. The flimsy story was mostly an excuse to introduce a series of acts from The Mills Brothers to Fats Domino.

After completing these last two films for Universal, Reynolds left the studio, never having been able to break ahead within their crowded roster of male stars, and began appearing on television instead. Now a father of a daughter (named for his first movie, Carrie) and soon to expand the family to include son Eric, he sought the regular workdays that a series could provide. He signed with Warner Brothers and did guest spots on Maverick, Bronco and Wagon Train before accepting the lead role in a Jack Webb-produced series called Pete Kelly's Blues all about a jazz trumpeteer. (Webb had starred in a feature film of the same name a couple of years before.) Experimental as a musically-integrated drama, it was rushed into production and never found an audience. Attempts at using smoke as atmosphere in the club scenes only translated to blurriness in those black and white television days.

The handsome actor was then used in an episode of The Twilight Zone. The atmospheric series was still in its infancy when he worked on it as an army lieutenant in the Philippines who can supernaturally see in his fellow soldiers' faces which ones are going to die. He tries to intervene and prevent the deaths once he realizes what the signs he's being given mean, but the whole scenario backfires on him and people think he's losing his mind.

He immediately went into another series, this one called The Islanders. Taking place in the Spice Islands of the East Indies, he and costar James Philbrook portrayed the owners of a plane that could land on the water, making for various adventures in a tropical setting. Diane Brewster also appeared as a resident of the island in order to add feminine appeal. I imagine this three-person drinking arrangement would be considered unhygenic or something nowadays...

Some real-life adventure and drama occurred when Reynolds and three others were in a plane doing location filming for The Islanders and it crashed into the ocean! The cameraman on board died from profuse bleeding and Reynolds only survived because he regained consciousness in time to see himself, still strapped in his seat, plummeting beneath the surface of the water. He freed himself and, a strong swimmer to begin with, kicked and stroked his way to the air above. Ironically, that very night was to be the night his Twilight Zone episode aired, but it was pulled out of respect to him and his family until it could be determined whether he was even alive or not. The program aired one week later once he was safely back on dry land.

The show only lasted a season, so it was back to guest roles on The Roaring 20s and Cheyenne until he had another go at a regular show. The Gallant Men focused on WWII Italy and was a gritty, serious series, often with a heavy body count. Reynolds gorgeous baby face was frequently dirtied and covered up with stubble, but there was no obscuring those amazing, pale eyes. This Warner Brothers series aired on ABC, but they had a war drama of their own called Combat! and didn't wish to dilute its own success, so The Gallant Men was cancelled.

Being at Warners meant that Reynolds could occasionally appear in features again, too, and he did. There was FBI Code 98, a heavily-populated drama in which he was one of several agents. It was a rejected pilot that was released as a movie instead, but would serve him well later on. He also had fifth billing in the cavalry adventure A Distant Trumpet, which starred Troy Donahue, Suzanne Pleshette and Diane McBain. He played Pleshette's wife who falls for Troy instead. (What??!)

Reynolds' pal Jack Webb used him in an installment of the now-in-color series Dragnet 1967 (in my opinion one of the dryest and most pedestrian shows ever, I'm afraid.) This episode was unusual in that Webb's usual partner, Harry Morgan, was put to one side in order to have Reynolds take his place in an undercover assignment. Morgan's character was feared to be too recognizable as a policeman (and Webb's wasn't?!), so Reynolds' character was brought in to help with this assignment. This era contains cleanly tailored suits and neatly-groomed hair that made certain men stand out as looking so slick and lean. 1967 was the year of my birth, so I missed out on seeing it firsthand!
One last attempt at working on a regular series also came in 1967 when the producers of the hit Efrem Zimbalist Jr. drama The F.B.I. were looking for someone to replace costar Stephen Brooks. Reynolds, who had just the right type of clean, professional looks (and who had played an agent just a couple of years earlier in FBI Code 98), had already guest-starred a couple of times on the two year-old show and was brought on in the third season as Special Agent Tom Colby.

By now, Mission: Impossible had aired and many shows were gearing themselves towards becoming more serious in tone and less fanciful. The F.B.I., a Quinn Martin Production (complete with those wondrous credits that depict the guest stars each episode!) utilized real cases for its plot lines. Any fear about ratings during the changeover from Brooks to Reynolds was allayed immediately when they instantly began climbing. In time, he even veered from the ultra-conservative looks of his earlier characters enough to sport a rockin' red sports coat as seen here, though that was still an atypical look for the character.

Reynolds stayed with the show until 1973, eventually figuring in 110 episodes in all. He forged a close friendship with costar Zimbalist which went a long way in making the exhausting shooting schedule more liveable. In '73, he was put out to pasture by the producers and replaced by Shelly Novack because the network had deemed him (at forty-one!) “too old.” Nevertheless, he did make two more appearances in what would be the final season (including the very last episode aired), in a way proving that “young” isn't always better!

After The F.B.I., Reynolds took a few years off to merely enjoy being a husband and father while also pursuing various business interests. Old friend Jack Webb persuaded him to work on one installment of his latest show Project U.F.O. in 1978 and that's the last time Reynolds appeared before the cameras.

During his professional acting career, William Reynolds was almost always under contract and, as such, rarely, if ever, had to audition for a job. He was simply assigned or offered things to do. With the collapse of that system, paired with his own admitted lack of ambition, he quietly left the business entirely. When asked about returning, he would freely state that he lacked the necessary skills to effectively audition for parts, especially now that he was no longer a known commodity even within the film and television community. In 1992, Reynolds lost his beloved wife of forty-two years, which was a crushing blow. However, he is still with us and occasionally will attend a Twilight Zone convention or other fan function. We can virtually guarantee that lovers of the handsome and beautiful will find themselves staring at him in awe, should they come across one of his film and TV appearances.

6 comments:

TJB said...

A 1950's Universal groomed cutie that I hadn't heard of?? Poseidon, once again, I tip my hat to you.

Incidentally, Mr. Reynolds aged much, much better than many of his contemporaries, judging by the 1970's-era photos and caps.

Poseidon3 said...

Thank you, TJB! I'm glad you liked it (and that I was capable of surprising you like that!)

I did come across an even more recent shot of Reynolds, but it was not a great photo, in general, and the man IS 80 now, so I let it be. He was indeed a cutie!

vilflor said...

How delightful to come upon this biography of William Reynolds, an actor who always had a special place in my heart....

...And elsewhere.

I can still vividly remember watching one critical scene in The Islanders. W. Reynolds and his flying partner, James Philbrook were running from some "dangerous" pursuers. Reaching the beach they spot their seaplane out on the water. As those two men race across the sands, each rips open and tosses off their shirts.

I recall that moment (still) and the curious (previously unknown) way my body responded to it.

Oh, I'm not saying that those naked, sweaty, eminently-lickable chests made me gay. I'm merely saying, "Thanks, guys!"

Poseidon3 said...

Ha, vilflor! Love that story! Thanks for sharing. I know that I (and many, many Underworld visitors) have lots of similar remembrances such as yours. They sear the mind like a branding iron! ;)

Kent said...

A superb bio! Just one correction needed though -- 20th Century Fox produced "Desert Fox", not MGM.

Poseidon3 said...

Kent, no clue how I made such a weird slip as that. Must have been distracted at the time while typing (80% of this blog is done while I'm at work, but don't tell anyone!!) It's fixed now.