Obituary: Whit Bissell

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The Independent Online
In a screen career that covered 35 years, from Holy Matrimony in 1943 to Casey's Shadow in 1978, Whit Bissell was rarely to be encountered in a domestic setting. Whether playing a lieutenant-commander in The Caine Mutiny (1954), a medical officer in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) or a veterinary surgeon in Hud (1963), he looked as though he had spent the rest of the day in an office or with other patients, rather than in make-up memorising his lines.

Actors like him are one of the reasons that their real-life equivalents are usually such disappointments. When an actor became US President, many onlookers thought that Ronald Reagan both looked and sounded miscast - unlike Bissell, who had been far more convincing as Woodrow Wilson on television in Profiles in Courage. In the one feature film on which Bissell enjoyed top billing, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957), he played Professor Frankenstein with a straight face while delivering lines like "Speak. I know you have a civil tongue in your head because I sewed it back myself!"

On stage from boyhood, he was on Broadway before becoming a regular film performer in the late Forties, when his lean features led to his playing petty hoods and callow young men such as the young inmate in Jules Dassin's Brute Force (1947), goaded into hanging himself by a sadistic governor. A few years later he was back inside as Snader, the meanest of the warders taken hostage in Don Siegel's Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954).

Bissell was reunited with Siegel two years later when he appeared in the framing scenes imposed by Allied Artists at the beginning and end of the science-fiction classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), playing the doctor who believes Kevin McCarthy's extraordinary tale of pod people preying on humans and who ends the film on an unplanned note of optimism by reaching for the phone to alert the authorities in time for the final fadeout.

Bissell's roles gained in seniority as his face filled out and his hair greyed, although the anxious expression that he wore could sometimes denote a character who would pass the buck in a crisis or had a guilty secret; like the right-wing senator conspiring with loony general Burt Lancaster to stage a White House coup in Seven Days in May (1964), or the devious governor running for re-election in a futuristic New York who gives the nod to a cover-up of the macabre conspiracy at the heart of Soylent Green (1973).

He was required to look anxious for much of Irwin Allen's 1966 television series The Time Tunnel, as Lt-Gen Heywood Kirk. His co-worker Lee Meriwether later recalled that the series was extremely hard work as she and Bissell were required week after week to work at breakneck speed reacting to what on the set was actually just a blank screen, with little to do but twiddle the occasional knob and exclaim "We're losing him!" or "Tony, look out!"

Bissell received the life career award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films in 1994.

Richard Chatten

Whitner Bissell, actor: born New York 1909; married (one son, three daughters); died Woodland Hills, California 5 March 1996.