Forrest Lewis

Active - 1945 - 1971  |   Born - Jan 1, 1900   |   Died - Jan 1, 1977   |   Genres - Comedy, Action, Western

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Biography by Bruce Eder

With his crotchety persona, wrinkled visage, and nervous manner, Forrest Lewis is best remembered by most viewers for the neurotic and comical old man roles that he played in dozens of movies and television shows in the 1950s and '60s -- he was somewhere between Harry Carey Sr. and Strother Martin in his characterizations for over two decades. In reality, he'd been playing old men since the age of 20, in 1919. Born in Knightstown, IN, in 1899, Lewis was a linear descendant of Meriwether Lewis, the explorer immortalized by the Lewis and Clark expedition. Forrest Lewis was drawn to performing as a boy, and made his first appearance on a theatrical stage as a singer, at age 12. He made his professional acting debut at 20, with the Emerson Stock Company, portraying an 80-year-old man. Over the next decade, he toured the United States in vaudeville and stock companies, before landing on Broadway in Lulu Belle, starring Lenore Ulric. Radio began its boom years in the late '20s, and Lewis made his debut in the commercial broadcast medium in 1929. He had some small roles until fate took a hand; he inadvertently received a call for an audition that had been intended for another actor, and won the part. There was no looking back for Lewis, who was busy from then on, playing numerous key supporting roles, including Harry Freeman on the radio series Scattergood Baines and (with Van McCune) one half of the comedy team of Buck and Wheat, on the Aunt Jemima radio show.

Lewis resisted offers to appear in movies until the mid-'40s, when he began playing character roles -- mostly far older (or acting far older) than his 44 years -- in movies such as Gildersleeve on Broadway (1943) and I'll Tell the World (1945). Lewis' career remained focused on radio, however, until that medium began retrenching in the early '50s. He jumped to television on Amos 'n' Andy and Dragnet, and also became downright ubiquitous on the big screen during the first half of the 1950s, playing a succession of doctors, judges, nit-picking public officials, police officers, and crotchety old men. Westerns predominated as a genre in his film career, but he also played in a few Disney movies (The Shaggy Dog, Son of Flubber) and even two minor B-horror classics, The Thing That Couldn't Die (1958) and The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959), the latter offering Lewis one of the biggest parts of his career, as the town constable faced with a series of grisly murders. And Howard Hawks used him in Man's Favorite Sport? (1964) and Red Line 7000 (1965). By the time of Riot on Sunset Strip (1967), in which he played a senior citizen seen in the movie's opening who expresses his anger over the behavior of the teenagers on the renowned stretch of Los Angeles real estate, Lewis had aged into the role. He died in 1977 of a heart attack at age 77, four years after his last television appearance.

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