Robert Cornthwaite, 89; Veteran TV, Film, Stage Character Actor

Times Staff Writer

Robert Cornthwaite, a character actor whose more than 50-year career in theater, films and television included roles in classic thrillers and thrilling classics, has died. He was 89.

Cornthwaite died of natural causes Thursday at the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, according to Jennifer Fagen, a spokeswoman for the home.

Although he expressed a preference for live theater, which he said was “far more liberating for the actor,” Cornthwaite was best-known for his work in films and television. He appeared in more than 250 television shows and as many as 50 feature films.

In an interview with The Times some years ago, Cornthwaite recalled that producer Howard Hawks had selected him for the role of the mad scientist Dr. Carrington in the 1951 horror thriller “The Thing,” which concerned a group of scientists in the Arctic who confront an alien thawed from the ice.


“I suppose I’m proudest of that film because Hawks chose me,” he said.

Other leading thrillers on Cornthwaite’s resume include the original “War of the Worlds,” released in 1953, and “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” in 1962.

On television, he appeared in series as varied as “Perry Mason,” “The Twilight Zone” and “The Monkees.” In the 1950s, he made frequent appearances in dramatic anthology series, including “Studio 57,” “Four Star Playhouse” and “Schlitz Playhouse of Stars.”

It was not until the 1990s, however, that he would have a recurring role in a series, the part of Howard Buss on “Picket Fences.”

Born in St. Helens, Ore., on April 28, 1917, Cornthwaite said he got hooked on acting in his early teens when he was forced to recite one line in a school play. He delivered his first performance as a professional in a 1935 production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” at Reed College in Portland, Ore.

He worked in radio in Southern California while attending Long Beach City College in the late 1930s. After serving in the Army Air Forces during World War II, he completed his degree at USC in 1947.

His postwar work in radio productions led to roles in theater, film and television, mostly character parts.

In a 1991 performance in Harold Pinter’s modern classic “The Caretaker” at South Coast Repertory, Cornthwaite was praised for his portrayal of the old transient Davies. “Cornthwaite keeps Davies’ gaze cold, his bigotry hot and his whining transparent,” a Times reviewer noted.


Cornthwaite is survived by his brother William of Fallbrook and several nieces and nephews.