Obituary: Whit Bissell
Thursday 21 March 1996
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.
Whitner Bissell, actor: born New York 1909; married (one son, three daughters); died Woodland Hills, California 5 March 1996.
- 4 #JeSuisEd: People share photos of themselves eating awkwardly in solidarity with Labour leader
- 5 Women think Irish men are the sexiest, survey finds
Italian police 'reveal' what Jesus looked like as a young boy
Mysterious 'X-Files' sounds heard miles above the Earth
Florida couple forced to register as sex offenders for having sex on public beach
Who should I vote for in the general election? Take The Independent's interactive quiz to find out which party is the right choice for you
General election: Conservatives mocked online over Boris Johnson's claim of SNP 'jockalypse'
In defence of liberal democracy
General Election 2015: Post-election 'shambles' looms as 70 per cent of voters say SNP 'should not be able to veto UK government policies'
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
General election live: SNP suspends two members for disrupting Labour rally
General Election 2015: Sturgeon claims Scots 'appalled' by Ed Miliband's refusal to work with SNP
£36000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...
£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...
Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...
£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...