Jasper Deeter

Active - 1958 - 1959  |   Born - Jul 31, 1893   |   Died - May 31, 1972   |   Genres - Science Fiction, Horror

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Popular culture is a medium of strange currents and eddies, as Jasper Deeter's career proves. One of the leading lights in New York theater of the early '20s, and in off-Broadway and regional theater as an actor, director, producer, and teacher for 50 years after that, Deeter's screen work is confined to two cameo appearances in a pair of horror films from the late '50s, The Blob and 4D Man. Two-thirds of the way through The Blob (1958), when the teenagers (led by Steve McQueen) decide to wake the town up to the danger they face, they set off sirens, and the action cuts to one old man who doesn't know whether to wear his volunteer fireman's helmet or his civil defense helmet -- that old man is played by Jasper Deeter -- and it was members of his acting company, the Hedgerow Theater of Rose Valley, PA, who played many of the parts in The Blob and in the producers' follow-up film, 4D Man. Jasper Deeter was born in 1893 in Mechanicsburg, PA. The grandson of an auto parts magnate, he came from a family of achievers; one of his sisters was the National Director of the Girl Scouts of America. He seemed the least likely to succeed, as he was expelled from Dickinson College and went through several failed attempts at a career, including a stint as a newspaper cub reporter. He chanced early in his life to see the actor James O'Neill in a stage production of The Count of Monte Cristo, which made an impression on him. In 1914, at 21, and having gone through several failures, Deeter turned to acting, and soon moved into leading roles with his portrayal of Ned Malloy in the play Exorcism. In 1918, he hooked up with James O'Neill's son, Eugene O'Neill, who had lately embarked on a career as a playwright. The two became friends and colleagues, and Deeter not only portrayed Smithers in the original production of The Emperor Jones at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village, but was responsible for convincing O'Neill to cast a black actor in the title role, rather than a white actor in blackface, which had been his original intention and the custom of the era. The result was a breakthrough work in American theater on a multitude of levels that transcended the theater. Deeter and O'Neill parted company, however, over the decision to move the play uptown, rather than keeping it at the playhouse in Greenwich Village, as Deeter urged, and using it as the basis for establishing a repertory company; he felt O'Neill and the producers were squandering the chance to build something that could last for many years longer than the simple Broadway run of a play. He left New York in 1924 and moved to Philadelphia, hoping to pursue theater on his terms, and it was while driving past an abandoned barn in a rural stretch not too far from the city that he found what he was looking for. With ten dollars to his name, he decided to base his company there -- thus was formed the Hedgerow Theater, which went on to became the most famous and most long-lived regional theater company in the United States and the world. For season after season, aspiring actors, technicians, designers, and playwrights from all over the country came out to the Hedgerow to work with, learn from, and study with Deeter, living in conditions akin to a summer camp and on a minimal living stipend, putting on performances in a repertory that grew to more than 200 plays. The theater's teaching programs usually tided them over in the lean times and helped keep ticket prices down, but when the going got tough, as it often did during the Great Depression, Deeter's friend, O'Neill, would provide them with one or another of his plays to pull in large audiences and get the bills paid. During World War II, they managed to tour extensively and entertain audiences in need of an escape from long working hours and bad news. Over the years, the Hedgerow became the theatrical equivalent of the little engine that could, pulling in aspiring theater professionals including such future luminaries as Everett Sloane, Richard Basehart, Ann Harding, and Henry Jones. The company enjoyed a reputation rivaling the best off-Broadway acting companies, despite its being several hours' driving "off" of Broadway, and was respected by theater producers and playwrights throughout the country and around the world. By 1956, however, the Hedgerow company had hit another financial crisis and was forced to temporarily close its doors. It was around that time that producer Jack H. Harris was putting together the production of his first feature film, originally to be called "The Molten Meteor," in tandem with director Irvin S. Yeaworth and a small film studio that also happened to be in Pennsylvania. Harris ended up hiring many of the Hedgerow actors, including John Benson and George Karas, to play lead and supporting roles in the movie, which was finished under the title The Blob. Harris not only hired them but, as he was using Deeter's acting company, the producer gave the man himself his very first screen role in four decades of working in drama, as that befuddled fireman/civil defense volunteer. It worked out so well that, a year later -- with the Hedgerow company up and running again -- Harris and Yeaworth used the Hedgerow players and Deeter himself again, this time in the larger role of Mr. Welles, the laboratory owner, in 4D Man. Those two screen vignettes aside, Deeter never aspired to movie work. During the 1960s, he was regarded as an elder statesman of the theater and a respected teacher, though he was so unpretentious and so iconoclastic in his approach to living, he would have been amused at that description of himself.