Whit Bissell

Active - 1940 - 1978  |   Born - Oct 25, 1909   |   Died - Mar 6, 1996   |   Genres - Drama, Western, Comedy, Science Fiction, Crime

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Biography by Bruce Eder

Whit Bissell was a familiar face to younger baby boomers as an actor mostly associated with fussy official roles -- but those parts merely scratched the surface of a much larger and longer career. Born Whitner Nutting Bissell in New York City in 1909, he attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was an alumnus of that institution's Carolina Playmakers company. He made his movie debut with an uncredited role in the 1940 Errol Flynn swashbuckler The Sea Hawk and then wasn't seen on screen again for three years. Starting in 1943, Bissell appeared in small roles in a short string of mostly war-related Warner Bros. productions, including Destination Tokyo. It wasn't until after the war, however, that he began getting more visible in slightly bigger parts. He had a tiny role in the opening third of Ernst Lubitsch's comedy Cluny Brown (1946), but starting in 1947, Bissell became much more closely associated with film noir and related dark, psychologically-focused crime films. Directors picked up on his ability to portray neurotic instability and weaselly dishonesty -- anticipating the kinds of roles in which Ray Walston would specialize for a time -- and used him in pictures such as Brute Force, He Walked by Night, and The Killer That Stalked New York. His oddest and most visible portrayal during this period was in The Crime Doctor's Diary (1949), in which he had a scene-stealing turn as a mentally unhinged would-be composer at the center of a murder case.

By the early 1950s, however, in addition to playing fidgety clerks, nervous henchmen, and neurotic suspects (and friends and relatives of suspects), he added significantly to his range of portrayals with his deeply resonant voice, which could convincingly convey authority. Bissell began turning up as doctors, scientists, and other figures whose outward demeanor commanded respect -- mainstream adult audiences probably remember him best for his portrayal of the navy psychiatrist in The Caine Mutiny, while teenagers in the mid-1950s may have known him best for the scientists and psychiatrists that he played in Target Earth and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But it was in two low-budget films that all of Bissell's attributes were drawn together in a pair of decidedly villainous roles, as the mad scientists at the center of I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein. The latter, in particular, gave him a chance to read some very "ripe" lines with a straight face, most memorably, "Answer me! I know you have a civil tongue in your mouth -- I sewed it there myself!" But Bissell was never a one-note actor. During this same period, he was showing off far more range in as many as a dozen movies and television shows each year. Among the more notable were Shack Out on 101, in which he gave a sensitive portrayal of a shell-shocked veteran trying to deal with his problems in the midst of a nest of Soviet spies; "The Man With Many Faces" on the series Code 3, in which he was superb as a meek accountant who is pushed into the life of a felon by an ongoing family tragedy; and, finally, in "The Great Guy" on Father Knows Best, where he successfully played a gruff, taciturn employer who never broke his tough demeanor for a moment, yet still convincingly delivered a final line that could bring tears to the eyes of an audience. By the end of the 1950s, Bissell was working far more in television than in movies. During the early 1960s, he was kept busy in every genre, most notably Westerns -- he showed up on The Rifleman and other oaters with amazing frequency. During the mid-1960s, however, he was snatched up by producer Irwin Allen, who cast Bissell in his one costarring role: as General Kirk, the head of the government time-travel program Project Tic-Toc on the science-fiction/adventure series Time Tunnel. He also showed up on Star Trek and in other science-fiction series of the period and continued working in dozens of small roles well into the mid-1980s. Bissell died in 1996.

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