Howland Chamberlain was the quintessential character actor who turned his expertise at playing nervous, fidgety roles into an array of memorable portrayals in some of the most important movies of the late '40s and early '50s. At that time, just as he'd appeared in one of the most acclaimed movies of the decade, High Noon, his screen career came to a halt after he was called as a witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he took the Fifth Amendment rather than testify. Chamberlain, whose name was sometimes spelled Chamberlin in film credits (and in his Variety obituary), was born in New York City and moved to California in the 1930s, where he went to work with the WPA's Federal Theater Project in Los Angeles and met his future wife Leona. According to a 1976 SoHo Weekly News article by Jennifer Merlin, they delayed their wedding as a matter of economic survival, as a married couple couldn't both have jobs with the WPA.
In the late '30s, Chamberlain became a member of the Pasadena Playhouse, which was something of a minor league "farm team" for aspiring Hollywood actors. In the mid-'40s, Chamberlain began appearing onscreen in character roles, starting with The Best Years of Our Lives as Mr. Thorpe. His career over the next six years carried him into the casts of a surprising number of crime dramas and film noirs, among them Michael Gordon's The Web, Abraham Polonsky's Force of Evil, Fritz Lang's House by the River, and Hugo Haas' Pickup; these were broken up by work in the occasional comedy, such as A Song Is Born (in which he played a nervous lawyer).
Chamberlain also did television work. One example which has endured as his best work was as a pair of identical twins involved in a radium smuggling scheme in the episode "Double Trouble" from The Adventures of Superman. His two most notable screen appearances were in Force of Evil and High Noon, as the vengeful hotel clerk who wishes harm to Marshal Kane. In 1956, after the House Un-American Activities Committee incident, Chamberlain and his family moved to New York, where he resumed his acting career on the stage. Chamberlain appeared in dozens of plays on tour (including A Raisin in the Sun), on Broadway and off-Broadway (in Children of Darkness and The Courageous One), and the Festival in the Park (including Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra).
The Chamberlains later acted together in off-Broadway theater as well, including a production of Morton Lichter's Old Timer's Sexual Symphony (and other notes). He had appeared in small roles again on television as early as 1960, on programs like Bonanza, and by the mid-'70s he was acting regularly in Los Angeles, including productions at the Mark Taper Forum. It wasn't until the end of the 1970s, with Kramer vs. Kramer (in which he played Judge Atkins), 27 years after his last film appearance, that Chamberlain did any more movie work. He kept working in movies such as Fred Schepisi's Barbarosa and Steve Barron's Electric Dreams, until his death from heart and related problems in the late summer of 1984.