George D. Wallace

Broadway musical baritone and cult sci-fi film hero as Commando Cody

George D. Wallace, a virile actor with a strong baritone voice, had a long and varied career which encompassed playing leading man to such Broadway stars as Mary Martin and Gwen Verdon, starring in the cult sci-fi serial Radar Men from the Moon, and appearing in over 100 television shows and movies.

He was working in Hollywood as a bartender and singing along with a jukebox when he was spotted by the gossip columnist Jimmy Fidler in the late 1940s and encouraged to enter show business. For his performance in the 1957 musical New Girl in Town, he was nominated for the New York Critics' Circle award as best actor in a musical.

Born in New York in 1917, he was only 13 when he moved with his mother to the coal-mining town of Mechman, West Virginia, where he immediately started working in the mines. In 1936 he joined the navy, becoming light heavyweight champion of the Pacific Fleet and serving for eight years as chief bosun's mate. He then had a variety of occupations including "knocking steers on the head" for a meat packer, lumberjacking in the High Sierras, and working as a bouncer before the singing bartender job that got him noticed by Fidler.

After attending drama school in the late 1940s, he began to get small roles on television, and in 1951 he made his screen début as a convict in Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison. The following year he starred in the Republic serial Radar Men from the Moon, as Commando Cody, the Rocket Man, sporting a bullet-shaped helmet and a leather jacket with an atomic-powered rocket pack on its back and a control panel on the chest with three dials - on/off, fast/slow and up/down. Republic had invented the suit in 1949, for King of the Rocket Men, and it was to be used again in Zombies of the Stratosphere (also 1952).

Its helmet conveniently hid the actor's face, so that a stunt man (in this case Dave Sharpe) could run at the camera, bounce off a hidden springboard and shoot over the camera as "Rocket Man" launched into space. Before journeying to the moon to find out why the planet has been launching hostile missiles to earth, Cody tells the heroine (Aline Towne) that he has misgivings about a woman going on the trip. Her reply: "You'll be very glad to have someone along who can cook your meals."

Wallace was later to appear in one of the most revered of sci-fi movies, Forbidden Planet (released in 1956), as one of the space crew in MGM's intelligent variation on The Tempest. During the filming of Forbidden Planet, Wallace was introduced to the composer Richard Rodgers, who heard him sing and cast him in the musical Pipe Dream (1955), an adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel Sweet Thursday, about lazy but loveable lowlifes living on the Pacific coast. It was a problematic show that proved to be one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's rare flops, but Wallace was personally lauded for his performance, leading the ensemble in the rousing number "The Party That We're Gonna Have Tomorrow Night".

He was rewarded with featured billing in the George Abbott/Bob Merrill musical based on Anna Christie, New Girl in Town (1957). The show was dominated by its two great leading players, Gwen Verdon and Thelma Ritter (both of whom won Tony Awards in a tied result), but Wallace won a nomination from the New York Critics Circle for his combination of masculinity and tenderness as Mat, the stoker who falls for the heroine with a shady past. His powerful baritone was heard to effect in the major ballad, "Look at 'Er" and his duet with Verdon on the touching "Did You Close Your Eyes (When We Kissed)".

Wallace replaced John Raitt as star of The Pajama Game while Raitt went to Hollywood to make the film version, but his career suffered a setback in 1960 when, while filming an episode of the television show Swamp Fox, a horse fell on him and broke his back. He returned to the stage to play Joey in a California production of The Most Happy Fella (1963) - one of the other cast members was Jane A. Johnston, who became his wife.

Perfectly cast in his next Broadway show, Wallace was a profligate theatre manager staging barnstorming melodramas, in Jennie (1963), starring Mary Martin and based on the early life of the legendary actress Laurette Taylor. Dennis O'Keefe was originally cast opposite Martin until the producers realised they needed a stronger singer and called on Wallace. Although the run was brief, Wallace shared with Martin two of the best songs in the Arthur Schwartz-Howard Dietz score, "Waitin' for the Evening Train" and "I Still Look at You That Way".

Wallace's last Broadway appearance was in the short-lived baseball musical The First (1981). His prolific work on television included Hill Street Blues, Moonlighting, Cagney and Lacey and, in 2002, the role of Old Xander Harris in the "Hell's Bells" episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Over 50 film roles included the Fire Chief in The Towering Inferno (1974), plus Postcards from the Edge (1990) and Minority Report (2002).

Tom Vallance

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