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Kenneth Tobey, 85; Star of 1950s Science-Fiction Movies, Early TV Series

Times Staff Writer

Kenneth Tobey, who co-starred in the 1950s science-fiction classic “The Thing From Another World” and the ‘50s television series “The Whirlybirds,” has died. He was 85.

The veteran character actor and B-movie hero died Sunday at a Rancho Mirage hospital after a lengthy illness.

Beginning with a small part in “Dangerous Venture” -- a 1947 Hopalong Cassidy western -- Tobey appeared in nearly 100 films, including “12 O’Clock High,” “The Wings of Eagles,” “Gunfight at the OK Corral,” “Billy Jack,” “MacArthur,” “The Candidate” and “Airplane!,” the disaster-movie spoof in which he played one of the air-traffic controllers.

Tobey, who often portrayed authority figures, showed up frequently on television, appearing in everything from “Perry Mason” to “L.A. Law.”

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In the 1950s, he played one of his most colorful characters -- one of Mike Fink’s river rats, the pugnacious, cigar-chomping Jocko -- on Walt Disney’s “Davy Crockett” series, starring Fess Parker -- as well as turning up as Jim Bowie in the series’ Alamo segment.

From 1957 to ’59, Tobey co-starred with Craig Hill in “The Whirlybirds,” a syndicated half-hour adventure series in which they played partners in a Southern California helicopter-for-hire business.

Something of a contemporary version of the TV westerns that were the rage at the time, “The Whirlybirds” was heavy on stunts. The stars -- or at least their stunt doubles -- were known to hang from the end of a rope to rescue a client or jump from their chopper onto the back of a fleeing bad guy on horseback.

But Tobey is best remembered by science-fiction fans for his leading role in “The Thing From Another World,” the 1951 film in which he plays an Air Force captain who is summoned to a government installation at the North Pole after a UFO crashes nearby. The UFO’s occupant -- the monstrous, vegetable-like “thing,” played by a then-unknown James Arness -- later begins killing the scientists.

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“Kenneth Tobey was the first -- and one of the best -- of the great sci-fi movie heroes of the 1950s,” film historian Tom Weaver, who interviewed Tobey for Fangoria magazine in 1993, told The Times.

Tobey later played an Army colonel in “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms” (1953) and a Navy commander in “It Came From Beneath the Sea” (1955).

“Most of the other sci-fi heroes of the ‘50s were scientists or eggheads,” Weaver said, “but Tobey always represented the military, and in such a hard-nosed, no-nonsense style that you knew as soon as he came on and started barking orders that the monsters had probably bitten off more than they could chew.”

Tobey’s small role in director Howard Hawks’ comedy “I Was a Male War Bride” in 1949 so impressed Hawks that when he was producing “The Thing,” he cast the red-haired actor.

Robert Cornthwaite, who played the lead scientist in “The Thing,” recalled that Hawks had wanted “a cast of complete unknowns” for the A-budget picture.

“He felt it gave the audience a sense of greater reality,” Cornthwaite told The Times, recalling that Tobey “had a wonderful, understated kind of style” as an actor.

“He always played everything keyed way down,” said Cornthwaite, “but he made a very effective thing out of it, I thought.”

Before he could be cast, however, Tobey had to be approved by Howard Hughes, then the RKO Studios owner.

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In his interview with Weaver, Tobey recalled that one of Hughes’ aides called him at 2:30 a.m., saying Hughes wanted to see him “now.” When Tobey protested that he had been sleeping, the aide insisted. And rather than risk not getting the part, Tobey drove over to a small office across the street from RKO to meet Hughes.

“I walked in and he stared at me, looked me up and down and said, ‘OK,’ ” Tobey recalled.

Born in Oakland, Tobey began dabbling in acting while working on a degree in political science at UC Berkeley in the late ‘30s. After moving to New York, he studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse, where his classmates included Gregory Peck, Eli Wallach and Tony Randall.

Throughout the 1940s, he performed in stock and on Broadway.

In later years, Tobey’s “The Thing” claim-to-fame paid unexpected dividends.

Sammy Davis Jr., a fan of the film, ran into the actor at an L.A. jazz club. That led to Tobey’s return to Broadway in 1964 to play the fight manager in Davis’ musical version of “Golden Boy.”

And director Joe Dante, another fan of “The Thing,” cast Tobey in small parts in “Gremlins,” “Gremlins 2,” “The Howling” and “Innerspace.”

Tobey is survived by a daughter, a stepson, a stepdaughter, two grandchildren and a brother.

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Services are pending.


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