They don’t make the big money or get their names above the lights or their pictures on the covers of magazines. But character actors are the lifeblood of show business -- and a versatile one can work for decades.
Case in point: William Schallert, who has been a working actor for more than 60 years, starting with his feature film debut in the 1947 period drama “The Foxes of the Harrow” through his current role as the mayor of Bon Temps on HBO’s erotic vampire series, “True Blood.”
In between he has been directed by Charlie Chaplin onstage, served as president of the Screen Actors Guild and appeared in countless TV series, most notably as Patty Duke’s father on “The Patty Duke Show” and teacher Leander Pomfritt on “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.” His film resume includes “Speedway” with Elvis Presley, “In the Heat of the Night,” “The Jerk” and “Innerspace.”
“I have to go to a ‘Star Trek’ convention in the middle of August,” noted Schallert on a recent afternoon in the living room of the Spanish-style house he shares with his wife, Leah. Nattily dressed in a turtleneck and dark blazer, Schallert -- who turns 89 this week -- is polite and charming, very much like the warm, thoughtful Martin Lane on “Patty Duke.”
He’s much in demand at “Star Trek” conventions because of his guest-starring role 44 years ago as Nilz Baris on the show’s “The Trouble With Tribbles” episode.
“He was a functionary, a midlevel guy in whatever organization that was in charge of space,” he said, smiling. “I was very upset because they had these problems with these Tribbles. I was trying to settle things. It was fun to do because I got to chew out Bill Shatner. I would say things like ‘Shut up and listen.’ ”
The L.A. native grew up in the periphery of entertainment. His father was Edwin Schallert, who was the drama editor of the Los Angeles Times for 40 years. His mother, Elza, wrote for movie magazines and had her own radio show in the late 1930s.
One of his earliest memories of Hollywood was attending child superstar Shirley Temple’s birthday at 20th Century Fox. “My brothers and I went each year, and they would have it in the big dining room there,” Schallert recalled.
Schallert admitted that initially he never thought of himself as actor material. “Being an actor meant you were like Tyrone Power and Robert Taylor, and I didn’t look like that,” Schallert said. “I didn’t understand how important good character actors were. I was too young to be interesting like that. In my life, I turned out to be a straight character actor. I played parts that were not the leading man but I got to do interesting parts like the old admiral on ‘Get Smart.”
He really hit his stride onstage in the late 1940s when he joined the Circle Theatre -- now the El Centro Theatre -- in Hollywood. Kathleen Freeman, Jack Kelly, Strother Martin, Charles Chaplin Jr. and Sydney Chaplin were among the members. Chaplin senior would often show up with wife Oona to watch rehearsals and later directed Schallert and June Havoc in “Rain” in 1948.
“He was an amazingly energetic man who would never stop,” Schallert said of Chaplin. He used to come down four or five days before we opened to take a quick look at the show. He would look at the first act and say, ‘Could I just have a moment? Would you just start again?’ He would redirect the first act and he would say, ‘Now let’s go on to the second. What happens there?’ Without knowing the play, he would lead us through it. At 4 or 5 in the morning, Oona would say, ‘Charlie, they have to get to sleep.”’
Schallert continues to hone his craft. Saturday mornings he can be found in a scene study class at the Beverly Hills Playhouse. “You have to stay in shape,” he said, with a twinkle in his eyes.