OBITUARY:Lyle Talbot

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The Independent Online
In 1980, when Michael and Harry Medved were preparing The Golden Turkey Awards, their book on cinema disasters, they conducted a poll to find "The Worst Film of All Time". Winner by a landslide was Edward D. Wood Jnr's legendary cheapie Plan 9 From Outer Space (1956). Among the cast, which included a television psychic, a television late-night horror hostess and Wood's wife's chiropractor, one actor's performance stood out. In the brief role of a Pentagon general, Lyle Talbot actually surmounted the terrible dialogue, camerawork and direction to give the film's only professional performance; but then Talbot had been a professional actor since his teens. The veteran of over 200 films, he acted opposite such stars as Shirley Temple, James Cagney, Bette Davis, Ginger Rogers, Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Al Jolson, Mae West, James Stewart, Danny Kaye, Ronald Colman, John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe.

He was born Lisle Henderson, the son of two actors who took him with them as they performed on Mississippi riverboats and in tent shows. When his mother died, Lisle went to live at a boarding house run by his maternal grandmother, Mary Talbot, whose surname he took. One of Mary's roomers was a magician, who taught the 17-year-old Lisle hypnotism and sleight of hand. He soon made his stage debut as stooge for a vaudeville magician.

"Supposedly in a trance," he remembered, "I'd lie between two chairs, with my head on one chair and my feet on the other. Then the man I worked for placed a big rock on my stomach and proceeded to break it with a hammer."

Talbot graduated from stooge to magician, and then to actor, appearing in stock companies in Iowa and Nebraska. In 1930 he formed his own stock company, also giving employment to his father and stepmother. The company closed with the advent of talking pictures, and Talbot tried his luck in New York.

In 1932 he and another struggling stage actor, Pat O'Brien, appeared in The Nightingale, a two-reel musical short, filmed at Warner Brothers' studio in Brooklyn, New York. Impressed, Warners gave him a screen test, and the result was a contract and the role of a dapper hoodlum in Love is a Racket. By now Talbot was in Hollywood where, between 1932 and 1937, he made an astonishing 43 feature films, plus two shorts. "It wasn't at all unusual to be working in two or three pictures at the same time," he recalled. These productions included Big City Blues and Three on a Match (both 1932, with Humphrey Bogart), 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1933, with Bette Davis and Spencer Tracy), College Coach (1933, with Dick Powell and Pat O'Brien) and The Singing Kid (1936, with Al Jolson). On loan-outs to other studios, he also appeared in The 13th Guest (1932, with Ginger Rogers), One Night of Love (1935, with Grace Moore) and Go West, Young Man (1936, with Mae West).

''In the theatre,'' said Talbot, ''we'd arrive at five o'clock, and we were usually finished at eleven. We did the play and that was it. But in Hollywood, hours meant nothing . . . We would work 12 to 14 hours, and get called back next morning.'' These conditions became so intolerable that, in 1937, Talbot and a handful of fellow players braved the threats of the studios and formed the Screen Actors Guild. Afterwards, relations between Talbot and a vengeful Warners deteriorated, and he left the studio.

For the next two decades, he appeared in such films as Second Fiddle (1939, with Sonja Henie), Up in Arms (1944, with Danny Kaye), Champagne for Caesar (1950, with Ronald Colman), The Jackpot (1950, with James Stewart), With a Song in My Heart (1952, with Susan Hayward), There's No Business Like Show Business (1954, with Ethel Merman, Dan Dailey, Marilyn Monroe and Donald O'Connor), and, his last film, Sunrise at Campobello (1960, with Ralph Bellamy and Greer Garson). In addition to these important productions, there were scores of ''B'' films, six serials, and two other dire Edward D. Wood Jnr films: Glen or Glenda (1952) and Jail Bait (1954).

Talbot also made many television appearances in such series as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, The Bob Cummings Show, The Munsters, The Dukes of Hazard and St Elsewhere.

In a recent interview, he admitted one regret: ''I've never had a star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood . . . There are lesser lights than I enshrined there.''

Dick Vosburgh

Lisle Henderson (Lyle Talbot), actor: born Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 8 February 1902; married four times (four children); died San Francisco 3 March 1996.