Thursday, June 7, 2018

A Dante Inferno!

The initial plan for today's featured actor was to do a dual post on Michael Forest with him, somehow making it about two Michaels who I came to know from Star Trek guest shots, but it was going to be way too long and labor intensive that way. (I didn't learn my lesson the time I did Tom Tryon, Dick Davalos and Barry Coe together?!) Thus, we now come to the second Michael, Michael Dante.

Dante was born Ralph Vitti on September 2nd, 1931 in Stamford, Connecticut. A childhood dream of his was to be a western cowboy hero (specifically as a sidekick to The Lone Ranger, which, as it turned out was closer in some ways to what happened, though he ended up more often as a Native American villain!) He sprang up to a dark, lean, toothy 6'2" and was so proficient at baseball that he was signed on to a minor league team, The Boston Braves, and was all set to pursue that until a shoulder injury sidelined him.
Spring training in Florida with his subsequent team, The Washington Senators, he began taking acting classes at the University of Miami. Swiftly attracting attention with his good looks, he was screen-tested at MGM and placed in 1956's boxing drama Somebody Up There Likes Me, which starred Paul Newman. Boxing would become a key element in several of Dante's screen roles.

Following some brief, unbilled parts in Jeanne Eagels (1957) and Raintree County (1957), Ralph Vitti - newly christened Michael Dante - went under contract at Warner Brothers and was quickly put to work on their many television shows. He worked three times on Sugarfoot, three times on Maverick, four times on Cheyenne and twice on Colt .45 as seen here. Other small roles came his way in Clint Walker's Fort Dobbs (1958), seen below with Russ Conway, and Born Reckless (1958), as a guy dancing with star Mamie Van Doren.
In 1959, he won fourth billing in a Randolph Scott western called West- bound, playing a Union soldier who's lost an arm in battle. He and Scott meet on a stagecoach and become fast friends. At one point, though, his uniform draws the wrath of a southern sympathizer who loads his pie down with salt, which Scott them makes the man eat in its entirety!
That same year, Dante appeared in one of his own favorite roles. On Westing- house Desilu Playhouse in an episode called "The Killer Instinct," he played a ferocious boxer discovered by Rory Calhoun who nearly kills his opponents. He recurred four times on Calhoun's western series The Texan during this same period.

Still being put to use by Warner Brothers on their shows like Bourbon Street Beat and Hawaiian Eye, he must have been considered for something opposite their resident starlet Connie Stevens judging by these photos, but there is no record of them having worked together! She was a regular on Hawaiian Eye, but didn't appear in the episode on which he guested.
He played another boxer on Robert Taylor's show The Detectives and a baseball player on Robert Lansing's show 87th Precinct and had a featured role in the Henry Hathaway caper film Seven Thieves (1960.)

In it, he played a handsome safe-cracker who joins Rod Steiger, Joan Collins and several others for an elaborate heist in Monte Carlo. Things start to come unglued as the plot continues and he finds himself in a stressful predicament.

By now close to thirty, Dante was very active as an actor, but still not emerging as a leading man. While he enjoyed a variety of parts (including an episode of General Electric Theater called "The Story of Judith" with Joan Fontaine and the slain son of a dress manufacturer on Cain's Hundred), he was still mostly relegated to supporting roles. (I apologize, but I do not know the young lady with him here.)
In Elvis Presley's Kid Gallahad (1962) he got to spar with The King in the boxing ring, pummeling him bloody, but then being knocked out with a single punch. He was buried in the billing of the crowded cast roster while ironically looking close to his best in a tan suit near the climax (strangely resembling Dick Gautier a bit, don't you think?)
The year after this, he was sixth-billed in the American-International Productions war film Operation Bikini. The stars were Tab Hunter and Frankie Avalon with (somehow) Jim Backus aboard as well. Most of Dante's scenes were in a submarine alongside Scott Brady or Hunter. He looked handsome and lean in his uniform and had a fair amount of screen time, but the movie was quite ludicrous (almost like a "Beach Party Goes to War" flick!)
More striking, and of a far more lasting cultural impact, was his next picture. Personally selected by gritty director Sam Fuller, Dante was cast as the love interest of Constance Towers in The Naked Kiss (1964.) Towers, an ex-prostitute trying to make good as a nurse to handicapped children, falls for Dante, the son of a prominent family.

It's bliss until she finds out that Dante has a secret. A bad one. She walks in on him in the middle of molesting a young girl and then is informed that he married her because - as a fellow sex deviant (!) - she's the perfect one to understand his problem! The highly colorful film is revered by many cult followers and Dante got to portray one of the 1960s' great sickos in it.

This same year, Dante achieved second-billing opposite Audie Murphy in Apache Rifles (1964.) Here he portrayed the warring son of an Apache chief who is captured by the U.S. cavalry and tied to a rock in the hot sun in order to extract information from him.
Later, he is tortured by evil gold miners who hold a hot poker up to his chest. All the while, he is vying for the affections of a half-white/half-Indian lady with Murphy. Murphy took a shine to Dante and opted to use him again a year later. The 6' 2," dark-featured Dante made an imposing Native American and would do so again and again.

He appeared in the cheap, black & white version (one of two released in quick succession) of of Jean Harlow's life Harlow (1965) with Carol Lynley as a gigolo and then rejoined Audie Murphy for the mostly regrettable Arizona Raiders. I say regrettable because the movie was overlaid with a heinous narration that never stops and which describes everything that is happening right before the viewers' eyes! This time Dante played a vicious killer who took glee in doing in his enemies. Later in real life, Dante would be named an Honorary Arizona Raider, one of only two in existence to date.

After Arizona Raiders, Dante would work exclusively in television for a number of years. In an episode of Bonanza called "The Brass Box," he played the selfish nephew of Ramon Novarro. Novarro is tortured to death over the title object, which was an eerie and uncomfortable foreshadowing of the fate that would befall him in real life just a few years later.
He also performed on the spy spoof Get Smart, as a KAOS villain running an art gallery who won't allow Maxwell Smart to easily obtain his fingerprints.
Then there was his unusual role as an alien on Star Trek. Outfitted with a black get-up and a sparkling headpiece (which indicated long blond hair coming through it!), he was the imposing leader of a coup on a planet of fierce warriors. (Notice how he towers over fellow guest star Tige Andrews as a Klingon.)

Julie Newmar was also on this particular episode as a very pregnant woman whose husband has been slain by Dante in the takeover attempt. This is most likely the first place I ever encountered Dante, though he looks different here than he did in probably any other of his other projects.
In 1967, Dante won a regular role on a series, though it turned out to be short-lived. The show Custer starred Wayne Maunder as General George Custer one year before The Battle of Little Big Horn, which sealed his fate.

Dante played Sioux chief Crazy Horse and, in what was a rather crazy approach to the story, he and Maunder wound up in an uneasy alliance against another tribe of Indians. In real life, Crazy Horse led the war party that killed Custer (and everyone else) at Little Big Horn. The series was cancelled after 17 episodes.

He was far from finished playing Native American roles, however. On Death Valley Days, he portrayed a white man who was aligned with hostile Indians and on Daniel Boone, he portrayed a Shawnee who captures Boone's young son.

On The Big Valley, another instance where I would have seen him as a child as I worshiped this show, he played a Mexican bandit who taunts and captures the wife of a prominent businessman. He looks pretty good below in his jaunty hat doesn't he? It turns out that not all is as it seemed at first and he winds up paying the price for it.
Finally, Dante returned to the big-screen again, and in a hit, though his role was not particularly big. He played a smarmy business associate of Ernest Borgnine and lowly clerk Bruce Davison in Willard (1971), all about Davison's affinity for pet rats who do his bidding, especially the one of the title.
More TV followed including a guest role on My Three Sons as a TV advertise- ment director who has to contend with Tina Cole's triplet towheads, who've been selected to star in a commercial by an agent. He also popped up on The Six-Million Dollar Man during it's first season as a member of a European crime family who want a bionic man of their very own, even if it means taking Lee Majors apart.
He appeared in the unusual music biz film That's the Way of the World (1975) with Harvey Keitel and Earth, Wind & Fire, then played the title figure in Winterhawk (1975), a kidnap drama in which his Indian warrior tries to obtain aid for a smallpox outbreak, but is rebuffed. In retribution and for leverage, he snatches Dawn Wells (yes, that Dawn Wells of Gilligan's Island fame!) The low-budget movie was intended to be a nearly three-hour long epic, but was shorn to 98 minutes, eventually obtaining a cult following among western enthusiasts.
In 1977, he joined Gary Conway for The Farmer, a violent revenge drama in which Dante's maimed character pays Conway - who needs money to save his farm - $50,000 a head to pay back the hoods who blinded him with acid over an outstanding gambling debt.

In 1979, he joined Peter Graves as a Russian agent in Missile X: The Neutron Bomb Incident. The modestly-budgeted European-made film came and went with nary a splash.
By 1980, nearing fifty, Dante remained busy, but most often with supporting parts in low-budget ventures. Beyond Evil (1980), shown here, had him working with John Saxon and Lynda Day George against a ghost. It may be of historic interest in that George's hair is different than usual!
He found himself working with Saxon again, along with star Fred Williamson, in 1983's The Big Score, playing a shifty drug dealer. He also served a brief stint on Days of Our Lives as Michael "Pete Jannings" Leon's father in 1984.

Williamson used him again in The Messenger (1986) as a mobster whose actions have incurred the wrath of Williamson. He still appeared shirtless on screen, albeit briefly. In between these action flicks, Dante appeared on hit shows such as The Fall Guy, Simon & Simon and Cagney & Lacey. He was very close to beginning a new venture that would show him leaving behind his career on screen for one off it.
After appearing in the belated sequel to Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) called Return From the River Kwai (1989), in which nearly all his scenes were in the red light of a submarine, recalling somewhat his earlier movie Operation Bikini, he made his last movie to date, the low-budget Cage (1989) with musclemen Lou Ferrigno and Reb Brown.
Dante had found a new passion, however, and that was in radio. He hosted "The Michael Dante Celebrity Talk Show" in syndication, later renamed "On Deck." On it, he interviewed countless performers and sports figures of note, many of who he had rubbed elbows with during his more than thirty-year career in front of the camera.  Now eighty-six, he lives a quiet, yet still active life with his wife of a few decades Mary Jane in Rancho Mirage, California and occasionally attends fan gatherings, usually in recognition of his western movies and shows.

One of those faces we saw over and over on television before figuring out exactly who he was, we eventually came to enjoy seeing his name pop up because it meant that his dark, lean good looks and a real commitment to the character were going to be in store for us.


Gingerguy said...

I settled down to savor this (along with a mug of General Foods International Coffee)and expected a good looking character actor with an interesting career. But you knocked my socks off once I realized he was in The Naked Kiss. Truly memorable sleaze ball in a movie chock full of them, he must be a good actor because I can only recall him with revulsion. That's a cult movie for a reason, not for the faint of heart, but I adore it.
He was a real cutie. I am not sure I understand the thinking that filled television westerns with Italian looking actors. There were tons of them it seems.His Crazy Horse wig is gorgeous.
I realize after reading this that I have seen him many times. One of the things I love about this blog is that I might not recognize the actor at first, but there is so much detail that I usually find a connection to something I liked, and in this case, love!

Alan Scott said...

That outfit on the Star Trek episode did not do him justice! hehe

Shawn McGuire said...

I’m favoring the Big Valley look. I also thought he might end up being the Martian in Robinson Caruso on Mars, but that was someone else, who I’m going to google in a sec...

Poseidon3 said...

Gingerguy, you crack me up with your General Foods International Coffee! Do you know what? I also took a close look at his Crazy Horse wig while putting the post together and thought - and this is from one who like men with short hair - "Wow, that looks great!" Like RuPaul says, "You can't beat a lace-front, bitch..." LOL Glad you enjoyed the trip through Dante's Inferno! ;-)

Alan, the outfit is so goofy, yet I can recall as a kid looking at it (and him) with a certain amount of fear and awe. The race of people on that one were barbaric to me at that tender age. (But the blond pony really sets it off! LOL)

Shawn, I agree with you, though the "Bonanza" look is also good. As the '70s dawned he - like MANY other actors of the time - let his hair get too long for me, and very bushy, but when groomed it looked nice (and apparently he's still got much of it!)

Craig Haas said...

Could the unknown woman in the picture next to the "By now close to thirty" paragraph be a young Inger Stevens? A wild guess, I know. She just seems so familiar!

Poseidon3 said...

I can pretty much guarantee that it's not Inger Stevens. She seemed to have a narrower face. If I had to provide my own guess, it would be Debbie Watson, but I just can't place who it is... BTW, I added two pics of Michael to this post. One of him very young near the start of his career and one in period costuming with white-streaked hair. They were too fun to leave out once I saw them! Thanks.

Skippy Devereaux said...

About the unknown actress with Michael Dante---is it Ahna Capri?

Poseidon3 said...

Skippy, that's a wonderful, apt guess and you're probably correct!