William Campbell: Actor who made his name playing devious and calculating characters

William Campbell's was a familiar face to moviegoers of the 1950s. Despite his handsome looks, he often played devious or calculating characters, and he starred in Cell 2455, Death Row, based on the memoir of Caryl Chessman, in which he played a man condemned to death and later executed for kidnapping and rape.

Other roles for which he will be recalled include the trainee co-pilot alongside John Wayne in the disaster movie The High and the Mighty, and the impressionable novice cowboy who travels with veteran saddle-tramp Kirk Douglas, from whom he learns how to handle women, liquor and hostile ranchers in King Vidor's Man Without a Star. He was in Elvis Presley's first film, Love Me Tender, and was the first person to sing on screen with Presley. He also starred in the cult horror film Dementia 13 (1963), the first mainstream film by Francis Ford Coppola, and his television work included roles in Star Trek, one of them in the much-loved "The Trouble with Tribbles" (1967).

Born in 1926 in Newark, New Jersey, he joined the Navy when he was 15 and served on a minesweeper in the South Pacific. After the war, he enrolled at Columbia University under the GI Bill to study journalism, but found drama more interesting. After attending Fagin's School for Drama in New York, and studying with Uta Hagen, Herbert Berghof and Daniel Mann, he worked in repertory before making his Broadway debut in Dalton Trumbo's black comedy The Biggest Thief in Town (1949).

While touring in a 1950 revival of The Man Who Came to Dinner, he was spotted by a film talent scout and made his Hollywood debut in Michael Curtiz's The Breaking Point (1950). In this adaptation of Hemingway's To Have and Have Not, more faithful to its source than the earlier version with Humphrey Bogart, Campbell was one of a group of gangsters who try to escape with the spoils of a racetrack robbery on a chartered fishing boat, with John Garfield as the boat's owner who outwits them.

Supporting roles in such films asInside the Walls of Folsom Prison (1951) and Escape from Fort Bravo (1953)preceded his role as a cocky apprentice pilot who constantly derides veteran flyer John Wayne in William Wellman's immense hit, The High and the Mighty (1954). Campbell was then given his first starring role, as Caryl Chessman in Cell 2455, Death Row (1955), an exploitative but occasionally poignant account of the life of the petty criminal who was convicted of kidnapping and rape on circumstantial evidence, spent 12 years on San Quentin's Death Row, wrote an autobiography thatbecame a bestseller, and whose case became a worldwide issue amongopponents of capital punishment. (Campbell's younger brother, Robert Campbell, played the teenage Chessman.) The convict was still alive when the film was released; after eight stays of execution, he died in the gas chamber in 1960.

Two more strong roles followed in 1955, Campbell's best year on film. He was top-billed again as a rookie cop who goes undercover to infiltrate a gang of car thieves in Running Wild, an uneasy mixture of crime and rock'n'roll. Then he played the young cowboy who becomes the protégé of a seasoned cowpoke in Man Without a Star (1955). The following year he provided support for Richard Widmark in the western Backlash, and played Elvis Presley's brother in Love Me Tender (1956). In 1952 he married Judith Immoor, later Exner. They divorced in 1958, by which time she was having an affair with Frank Sinatra. She later achieved notoriety when she claimed to have been the mistress of President John F Kennedy as well as the lover of the Chicago mafia boss Sam Giancana.

Campbell was a fast-drawinggunman in the offbeat mixture ofWestern, comedy and musical The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1958), in which an Englishman (Kenneth More) becomes the sheriff of a frontier town – even teaching the inhabitants to drink afternoon tea – falls for saloon singer Jayne Mansfield (dubbed by Connie Francis for her numbers) and battles outlaw Campbell.

Campbell then worked largely in television, starring in the series Cannonball (1958-59) about long-distance truck drivers, and taking guest roles in such series as Perry Mason and Quincy ME. Later his brother Robert (billed as R Wright Campbell) became a writer for the producer-director Roger Corman, and created for William the leading role of an arrogant Grand Prix driver in Corman's The Young Racers (1963). The film's sound man was Francis Ford Coppola, who persuaded Corman to let him make a film which he promised would be the cheapest he had ever produced. He cast Campbell in the starring role of a brooding loner who may be an axe murderer in Dementia 13 (sometimes known as The Haunted and the Hunted). Coppola's imaginative approach overcame a shoestring budget, and the film is now a cult favourite among fans of gothic horror. (Campbell can be heard giving an amusing commentary on the film's DVD.)

Campbell then played a French resistance worker in Corman's The Secret Invasion (1964) and much later starred in Blood Bath (1976), a largely incomprehensible horror movie blending newly shot footage with sections of a Yugoslavian vampire film that Corman had acquired. Despite its inadequacies – the principal vampire is played by both Campbell and a Yugoslavian actor, who are not at all alike – it has also acquired cult status. But in his later career, Campbell was best known for his two appearances on the series Star Trek. In the episode "The Squire of Gothos" (1967), he was an alien who seeks out the Enterprise crew because he has observed Earth from afar and become enraptured by the décor and music, not realising that he has been studying the baroque features of the 17th century. The role good-naturedly parodied Liberace, whom the mature Campbell had grown to resemble.

Campbell's second appearance on Star Trek was in "The Trouble with Tribbles", in which he played the Klingon Captain Koloth, beset by cuddly furballs who hate Klingons. Campbell repeated the role in a 1994 episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Campbell made regular appearances at Star Trek conventions, his last in 2006.

In later years Campbell worked diligently as chief fund-raiser for the Motion Picture and Television Fund, and he died, survived by his third wife, at the organisation's hospital in Woodland Hills, Califonia.

William Campbell, actor: born Newark, New Jersey 30 October 1926; married 1952 Judith Immoor (divorced 1958), 1960 Barbara Bricker (divorced 1961), 1962 Tereza; died Woodland Hills, California 28 April 2011.

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