Obituary: Norman Fell

THE BOOK Motion Picture Players' Credits refers to Norman Fell as "American character actor; very much on television, often as nonplussed bosses and comedic grumps". The deadpan Fell was born to be a character player; equally effective in both sympathetic and unsympathetic roles, he worked steadily during his near 50-year career in all the entertainment media.

Born in Philadelphia in 1924, the son of a restaurateur, Fell first acted in high-school plays. During the Second World War, he spent three years in the Pacific as a US Air Force tail-gunner. "I had a lot of time to think in the service," he recalled. "I swore that, if I survived, nothing would keep me from an acting career."

After the war, he studied theatre under the GI Bill, emerging from Temple University, Pennsylvania, with a Bachelor of Arts degree. In New York he met Marlon Brando, then the toast of Broadway in A Streetcar Named Desire. On Brando's advice, Fell studied with the noted acting teacher Stella Adler, later enrolling with the Actors' Studio. For more than a year, he commuted daily between his home in Philadelphia and New York. "I was rejected by casting directors during the day," he said. "I attended class in the evening, then rode 90 miles on the train home."

Finally deciding to make New York his base, Fell toiled as a delivery boy for a camera store, a fast-food counterman and a post office mail- handler before making his professional stage debut in Jacinto Benavente's Bonds of Interest (1951). Over the next five years he appeared in more than 150 television shows in New York, including Reginald Rose's original Emmy-winning Twelve Angry Men (1954). He returned to the Broadway stage in Paddy Chayefsky's play The Middle of the Night (1956), which starred Edward G. Robinson. He also acted in Perry Mason, The Untouchables and Peter Gunn.

Fell's first Hollywood film was Lewis Milestone's gritty Korean War film Pork Chop Hill (1959). He was again used by Milestone in Ocean's 11 (1960), after which film work suddenly dried up. He was thinking of returning to New York when he was offered the rich comedy role of an amorous telephone repair man in the Debbie Reynolds/ Tony Curtis film The Rat Race (1960). "It wasn't a big part, but it did a lot for my career, which was in a slump about then," said Fell. "It made me a better-known commodity, and bigger and better parts started to come my way."

One of those parts was a co-starring role in 87th Precinct (1961), a television series based on the police stories of Ed McBain (the pseudonym of Evan Hunter). Fell played Meyer Meyer, a veteran cop whose wry humour did much to enliven the grim and violent episodes. He was Sergeant Charles Wilentz, another television policeman, in Dan August (1970), which starred Burt Reynolds. He and Reynolds became friends and later appeared together in the films The End (1978) and Paternity (1981). In The End, which Reynolds also directed, Fell played one of his "comedic grumps" - a doctor who has to tell Reynolds he hasn't long to live. When Reynolds vomits from the shock of the revelation, Fell barks, "You're not making it easy for me!"

In 1976 he played the key role of "Smitty" in Irwin Shaw's star-packed 12-hour television saga Rich Man, Poor Man, for which he received an Emmy Award nomination. He won a Golden Globe Award and another Emmy nomination for Three's Company (1977), the American version of John Esmonde and Bob Larbey's witty British sitcom Man About the House (1973). He played the stingy, sex-shy landlord Stanley Roper (George Roper in the British version), with Audra Lindley as his sharp-tongued wife Helen (Mildred in the British version). After two years Fell and Lindley left to co-star in the successful spin-off series The Ropers, which was based on Johnnie Mortimer and Brian Cooke's British spin-off George and Mildred (1976).

The kind of actor that directors knew they could rely on, Fell was employed by Stanley Kramer in Inherit the Wind (1960) and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), by Don Siegel in The Killers (1964) and Charley Varrick (1973), by Delbert Mann in Quick, Before it Melts (1965) and Fitzwilly (1967), by Jack Smight in The Secret War of Harry Frigg (1968) and Airport 1975 (1974), and by Mike Nichols in The Graduate (1967) and Catch-22 (1970).

He also appeared in Leslie H. Martinson's PT 109 (1963, as a crew member of the torpedo boat commanded by Cliff Robertson as Lieutenant John F. Kennedy), Peter Yates's Bullitt (1968, as a cop) the vampire spoof Transylvania 6-5000 (1985, as a tabloid newspaper editor) and For the Boys (1991, as a harassed television producer - yet another of Norman Fell's nonplussed comedic grumps).

Norman Fell, actor: born Philadelphia 24 May 1924; married (two daughters); died Los Angeles 14 December 1998.

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