Obituary: Bert Remsen

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The Independent Culture
IN A gallery of supporting performances that ranged from tough members of the military through mild family men to a transvestite named Helen, perhaps best remembered will be Bert Remsen's portrayal of the genial and extrovert bank-robber T-Dub, always in a state of gleeful zest for life in Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us. Altman frequently used Remsen in his films and helped him re-establish an acting career after an accident on a television sound-stage in 1964 left him needing crutches or a walking stick for the rest of his life.

Born in Glen Cove, New York, in 1925, Remsen served in the US Navy during the Second World War and earned a Purple Heart for heroism displayed in the action on Okinawa. Returning to studies after the war, he received a drama degree at Ithaca College in New York and studied acting with Sandy Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse.

He made his screen debut as a lieutenant in Lewis Milestone's powerful story of a true incident in the Korean War, Pork Chop Hill (1959), and was enjoying an active career on stage, television and film when in August 1964 an 84ft crane toppled on a television stage where Remsen was filming an episode of the comedy series No Time for Sergeants.

Struck by part of the crane, Remsen suffered a broken back and multiple fractures to his left leg. Months of surgery and repeated periods in hospital followed, during which he decided to alter his career and become a casting director. The hit series The FBI was cast by him, along with several others, but Carl Reiner and other friends kept finding roles for an actor on crutches. He was casting Brewster McCloud (1970) for Altman when the director realised that Remsen himself would be perfect for the role of a psychotic cop, at which point he decided to return to acting full-time.

In Altman's McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) he played a farmer who is killed in a brawl after some men mistake his wife (Shelley Duval) for a prostitute and in Altman's gambling story California Split (1974) he was a transvestite. Altman gave Remsen co-star billing above the title in Thieves Like Us (1974) and he made a strong impression as one of three escaped convicts who rob banks, taking joyful pride in his work ("This makes bank number 36!") and in listening to radio broadcasts about his exploits. He particularly relishes the prison warden's response when asked how three prisoners who had been made trustees could have escaped so easily: "Well, if you can't trust a trustee, who can you trust?" In a philosophical mood, he later comments, "I should have been a doctor or lawyer or run for office - I should have robbed people with my brain instead of a gun."

Other Altman films featuring Remsen included Nashville (1975), Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976), A Wedding (1978, memorable as William Williamson, the only guest) and The Player (1992), as one of the many stars who played themselves. Films for other directors included Jack Smight's basketball tale Fast Break (1979, as a choleric coach), Robert Benton's Places in the Heart (1984) and Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy (1990, as the bartender).

More recently, he was the Rotary Club president in Mick Jackson's The Bodyguard (1992), a riverboat gambler in Richard Donner's Maverick (1994) and shortly before his death had completed a role in the Sandra Bullock/Ben Affleck film Forces of Nature, due to be released in Britain today.

Remsen was in many television movies, and had regular roles in several series - he was the editor of a small-town newspaper in Gibbsville (1976), played "Dandy" Dandridge in the 1987 season of Dallas, and Sonny Skylar in Melrose Place.

Married for 40 years to Barbara Dodd and the father of two children, Remsen, having sustained his career despite frequent pain and the need of walking aids, was a generous supporter of causes for the physically handicapped and in 1985 was awarded the "Billie Award" at the Abilities Exposition in Los Angeles.

Tom Vallance

Bert Remsen, actor: born Glen Cove, New York 25 February 1925; married Barbara Dodd (two daughters); died San Fernando Valley, California 22 April 1999.