An Everyman and occasional Mad Man – Whit Bissell (1909 – 1996)

Posted in Rewind by - January 14, 2014
An Everyman and occasional Mad Man – Whit Bissell (1909 – 1996)

The ‘go to’ guy for many respected directors, the serious and sometimes worried looking Whit Bissell was a prolific actor, appearing in many genres including science fiction, western and horror. The son of a surgeon, he would often be seen in the role of a doctor (at least 25 credits), other authority figures and, occasionally the mad scientist.

Born Whitner Nutting Bissell on October 25th 1909 in New York, Whit didn’t begin acting in movies until 1940, aged 31. After appearing in uncredited roles in such pictures as ‘The Sea Hawk’ (1940), and ‘Destination Tokyo (1943), Whit had a good supporting role in the 1947 hard-hitting prison drama ‘Brute Force’, playing Tom Lister, the weak-willed husband of Ella Raines. Another excellent role came the following year, in the 1948 film-noir ‘He Walked by Night’, playing Richard Basehart’s nervous electronics dealer.

In the 1950’s Bissell began to steer away from the sometimes weak, nervous characters he played so well in the Forties. The decade saw Whit’s beginning in what would become a long foray into Science fiction. Starting in 1954, he was a doctor in ‘Creature from the Black lagoon’ (1954) and again in Don Siegel’s ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1956). The late fifties saw Whit’s busiest period on screen, appearing in numerous TV and movie productions. Between 1957 and 1959 alone, he had over fifty credited parts. One of Bissell’s most fondly remembered roles at this time came in the cult 1957 B-movie ‘I was a Teenage Werewolf’, playing troubled teenager Michael Landon’s evil psychiatrist. The film was a huge hit and one of the first in the very popular Werewolf genre.

After a small role in George Pal’s 1960 hit ‘The Time Machine’, Whit’s career in the Sixties saw him consigned mostly to television, including a recurring role in the cult show ‘The Time Tunnel (1966-67). Whit did have parts however in some of the decades more well known features, such as Martin Ritt’s Oscar-winning ‘Hud’, and the Henry Fonda picture ‘Spencer’s Mountain’ (both 1963). The decade also saw Bissell bring his much needed support to various camp classics, including the Susan Hayward starrer ‘Where Love Has Gone’ (1964), and the Carol Lynley thriller ‘Once You kiss a Stranger…’ (1969).

Bissell was a very popular actor among many notable directors. John Sturges used Bissell numerous times, giving him minor parts in his westerns; ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’ (1957), ‘The Magnificent Seven’ (1960) and ‘The Hallelujah Trail’ (1965) . John Frankenheimer was a personal friend and put Whit to use in four of his movies, including ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’ (1962), and ‘Seven Days in May’ (1964).

The Seventies began with a role in the years biggest hit ‘Airport’, his sixth film with Burt Lancaster. In 1973 Whit played Governor Santini in Richard Fleischer’s Sci-fi sleeper ‘Soylent Green’ with Charlton Heston and (in his final film) Edward G. Robinson. Bissell continued to guest appear in popular TV series such as ‘Police Story’, ‘Matt Helm’ and ‘Ironside’. Notable TV Movie roles from this period included his professor in ‘City beneath the Sea’ (1971) and as a general in 1977’s highly rated ‘Last of the Mohicans’. After a bit in Ray Danton’s 1975 shocker ‘Psychic Killer’, Whit’s final movie was the 1978 family drama ‘Casey’s Shadow’, starring Walter Matthau and Alexis Smith.

After a handful of TV guest spots, Bissell retired from the screen in 1984. In 1994 Whit was finally recognized for his many Sci-fi and fantasy roles, with a Life Acheivement Award at the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films, USA.

Married three times, Whit passed away on March 5th 1996 in California, from the effects of Parkinson’s disease. He was 86 years old. A veteran of over 300 screen appearances, the always reliable Whit Bissell never disappointed. A class act for over 40 years.

Favourite Movie: Birdman of Alcatraz
Favourite Performance: Brute Force

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