Cadaverous, hollow-eyed Royal Dano made his theatrical entree as a minor player in the Broadway musical hit Finian's Rainbow. Born in New York City in 1922, he manifested a wanderlust that made him leave home at age 12 to travel around the country, and even after he returned home -- and eventually graduated from New York University -- he often journeyed far from the city on his own. He made his acting debut while in the United States Army during World War II, as part of a Special Services unit, and came to Broadway in the immediate postwar era. In films from 1950, he received his first important part, the Tattered Soldier, in John Huston's 1951 adaptation of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage. Thereafter, he was often seen as a Western villain, though seldom of the cliched get-outta-town variety; in Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar (1954), for example, he fleshed out an ordinary bad-guy type by playing the character as a compulsive reader with a tubercular cough. He likewise did a lot with a little when cast as Mildred Natwick's deep-brooding offspring in Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry. With his deep, resonant speaking voice and intense eyes, Dano could make a recitation of the telephone book sound impressive and significant, and some of his non-baddie characters include the prophet Elijah, who predicts the destruction of the Pequod and the death of Ahab, in Huston's Moby Dick (1956), Peter in The King of Kings (1961) and Mayor Cermak in Capone (1975); in addition, he played Abraham Lincoln in a multipart installment of the mid-'50s TV anthology Omnibus written by James Agee. On the small screen, the producers of The Rifleman got a huge amount of mileage out of his talent in five episodes in as many seasons, most notably in "Day of Reckoning" as a gunman-turned-preacher. He also appeared in memorable guest roles in the high-rent western series The Virginian, The Big Valley, and Bonanza, and had what was probably his best television role of all as the tragically insensitive father in the two-part Little House On The Prairie episode "Sylvia." Toward the end of his life, Royal Dano had no qualms about accepting questionable projects like 1990's Spaced Invaders, but here as elsewhere, he was always given a chance to shine; one of Dano's best and most bizarre latter-day roles was in Teachers (1982), as the home-room supervisor who dies of a heart attack in his first scene -- and remains in his chair, unnoticed and unmolested, until the fadeout.
by Hal Erickson biography