[By BERNIE SHINE]
During a recent dinner with my friends Alice and Leonard Maltin, our conversation naturally drifted to the subject of Old Hollywood. As we reminisced, one of the supporting actors whose name came up was Whit Bissell. When Leonard learned that I knew Whit, he suggested that I write something about him. Here it is.
Whit and his wife Jennifer Raine were dear friends of mine, both of whom I first met in the mid-1970s when I was a young lawyer. For many years we joined the Bissells for cocktails and dinners, often in their Cape Cod style home on Chrysanthemum Lane in Los Angeles, a short street with a long name. On Thanksgiving and Christmas there were usually six of us in their cozy dining room, including Jennifer’s son Brian Forster and her stepfather Alan Napier, both actors. Brian was one of the kids who played drummer Chris Partridge on The Partridge Family. As an adult he became a race car driver, an occupation that his mother found less thrilling than he did. Alan is best known for his role as Alfred the Butler in the Batman television series, a job that afforded him the ability to live in a beautiful home next to the Getty Villa overlooking the ocean in the Pacific Palisades. Whit, Jennifer, and Alan are gone, but my warmhearted memories remain.
Whit was a gentleman and a gentle man. His father was a renowned New York City surgeon. Whit was humble, well-read, and talented, as well as kind, gracious, quietly elegant and dignified. He had an extensive personal library and was a passionate reader. He once shared with me his sincere desire to work part-time in a book store between acting gigs, an avocation that never came to fruition.
Whit had one of those faces everyone knew and one of those names few remembered. His list of credits is astounding, appearing in over 300 films and television shows, including such prominent movies as Destination Tokyo, Brute Force, The Red Badge of Courage, The Caine Mutiny, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Magnificent Seven, and Hud, along with TV shows like Perry Mason, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Star Trek, Kojak, and Falcon Crest, to name just a few.
He told me that when he was starting out he found himself on the opposite side of the desk of a famous Hollywood mogul who bluntly told him that he didn’t have what it takes to be a leading man, stating, “I don’t see any women burning with desire when they see you.” Whit responded, “Perhaps not, but I do think I could make them feel other emotions, such as laughing, crying, or caring.”
Actually Whit was a fine looking fellow who was always simply, impeccably dressed and groomed. He preferred tweeds and twills, usually opting for a sport coat and a conservative necktie, his face framed by a pair of black rimmed glasses. His look was decidedly old-school, East-coast, and understated.
Whit was forever seen as “character actor,” a phrase he didn’t particularly like. He preferred to refer to actors such as himself as “supporting players,” assisting the pretty-faced leading men and women. He noted that the supporting actors are typically cast solely for their talent, and stressed that a good actor should be able to transmit emotion even if silent and with his or her back to the camera. He was a quintessential working actor whose goal was to contribute to a cast tell a good story. He also had a well-founded view of what was essential to do that— the audience needed to care about the characters, whether it was to like them, love them, hate them, pity them, or have some other vested emotion in the person being portrayed.
He admired creative talent and had a slight distain for scene-stealing actors whose egos compelled them to attempt to upstage the other players. He found a couple of television’s best- known comedic actors to have this flaw.
I had some wonderful times with the Bissells. One night I accompanied Whit and Jennifer at a special showing of Creature from the Black Lagoon at a movie house in Studio City. He and some others involved in the film participated in a post-screening question and answer session, and Whit was surprised and touched by the fans’ admiration and knowledge of him and his work.
In 1985 he invited me to one of his last stage performances where he appeared as one of the Twelve Angry Men at the Henry Fonda Theatre in Hollywood. Whit and a group of seasoned actors offered solid performances in Reginald Rose’s classic jury-room drama. (Others in the cast included Ken Kercheval, Jack Riley, Vic Tayback, Peter Mark Richman, Adam Arkin, Howard Hesseman, John Randolph, and David Opatoshu.)
Instead of clerking in a book store, Whit ended up in the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills, California.
Whit was beloved by anyone who knew him, and greatly admired personally and professionally by others in his trade. One New Year’s Eve I was pleased to be invited to a relatively small party at singer Melissa Manchester’s home in Encino, California. Hair stylist Jose Eber came with screen legend Bette Davis, who was also accompanied by her personal assistant. I mentioned to Ms. Davis that we had a mutual friend, Whit Bissell. For the next half hour she blew smoke in my direction while she joyfully shared her love for him, telling me how she would take his young daughters shopping and on other girl outings after Whit’s first wife had died.
In the mid-1990s, actor Roddy McDowall was in my office. He had a passion for film memorabilia and had asked me to take a look at a set of small Disney Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs figurines that belonged to his sister as a child. McDowall was a huge supporter of the Motion Picture Home, and I mentioned that my friend Whit was living in the facility. He expressed great affection for Whit and asked me if I had seen him since he moved to the home. I sheepishly admitted that I had not. After a stern and well-deserved admonishment from McDowall, several days later he picked me up in his bright red Cadillac Seville and drove me to Woodland Hills for a visit with Whit.
That was the last time I saw Whit. He died in 1996 at the age of 86, thus putting the closing bracket on our 20 year friendship.
A few years later I drove up to his old home on Chrysanthemum Lane for one last look for sentimental reasons. As I stood outside my car, a very nice man who I believe may have been of east-Indian descent introduced himself and politely inquired why I was looking at his home. I told him of my long friendship with the prior owners, and he graciously invited me in for a nostalgic look at the place. It was one of those unexpected and charming moments.
Now, twenty years after his death, I find myself again reflecting on Whit. He had a simple philosophy: “Make the world a better place because you were here.” He did, and his life’s work lives on through film and television— and in the memories of those of us who had the pleasure of knowing him.
[Editor’s note: when Joe Dante met Bissell the young director said he had an idea of what the actor’s favorite role may have been. Bissell took the bait and asked what it was. Dante replied that it was probably playing President Woodrow Wilson in an episode of the short-lived television series Profiles in Courage “and he beamed. Soon afterward I learned he was at the Motion Picture Country Home and sent him a vhs tape I made off my kinda battered 16mm print. I got a note back from his nurse saying how much he appreciated it, and that they ran it for the group. Nice man, one of my favorite actors.”]