Obituary: Whit Bissell

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Geography Teacher

£24000 - £33600 per annum + pre 12 week AWR : Randstad Education Manchester Se...

E150/2014 - English Language Checker (Grade B3)

On Application: Council of Europe: The European Court of Human Rights’s judgme...

Marketing Executive

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Charter Selection: A professional services company ...

Project Manager - Bristol South West

£400 - £450 per day: Orgtel: Project Manager (PM), Key Banking Client, Retail ...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice