Ian Wolfe (1896 – 1992)

Posted in Rewind by - June 04, 2014
Ian Wolfe (1896 – 1992)

It’s always fun to see Ian Wolfe turn up in some old movie or television episode. Be it as a butler, doctor or priest, Wolfe’s 56 year career also saw this gentle, soft-spoken character actor take on the role of gangster, scientist or other villain. He starred alongside classic actors Charles Laughton and Clark Gable, as well as ‘method’ actors Marlon Brando, James Dean and Montgomery Clift.

Born in Illinois on November 4th, 1896, Ian began his acting career treading the boards, and it wasn’t until he turned 38, that he made his screen debut, in the hit movie ‘The Barretts of Wimpole Street’ (’34), with Charles Laughton and Norma Shearer. Ian then played Maggs in ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ (’35), again with Laughton, and was Colin Clive’s stepfather in the cult Peter Lorre horror ‘Mad Love’ (’35). Around this time, Ian appeared in minor roles in a couple of Hitchcock films; ‘Foreign Correspondent’ (‘40) and ‘Saboteur’ (’42). Wolfe could also be seen in a handful of Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes features. First he was an antiques dealer in ‘Sherlock Holmes in Washington’ (’43), and then a butler in ‘The Scarlet Claw’ (’44), a Jeweller in ‘The Pearl of Death’ (’44), and finally a police commissioner in ‘Dressed to Kill’ (’46). Also in 1946, Wolfe had one of his best parts, as lawyer Sidney Long, consigned to an asylum, in Mark Robson’s London-based thriller ‘Bedlam’, with Boris Karloff.

I especially enjoyed Ian’s scenes with Louis Calhern in John Sturges wonderful biopic ‘The Magnificent Yankee’ (’50), and after cropping up in ‘A Place in the Sun’ (’51), Wolfe played Ligarius alongside Brando in ‘Julius Caesar’ (’53). He was then the reverend in ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ (’54), and a lecturer in the observatory scene in ‘Rebel without a Cause’ (’55). Wolfe was also wonderful in a small but memorable role as Carter, Charles Laughton’s trusted clerk, in Billy Wilder’s courtroom classic ‘Witness for the Prosecution’ (’57).

After playing Mr Neely in Disney’s ‘Pollyanna’ (’60), and a sole expedition survivor, guiding Claude Rains’ professor, in ‘The Lost World’ (’60), Ian spent the remainder of the decade almost solely in television. He had various roles in ‘Bonanza’, as well as ‘Star Trek’, ‘Gunsmoke’ and ‘Dr. Kildare’. The Seventies would see Ian appear in quite a few cult pictures, beginning with George Lucas’s debut ‘THX 1138’ (’71), as elderly prisoner PTO. Another sci-fi flick followed; ‘The Terminal Man’ (’74), as a priest, and in the excellent sleeper ‘Homebodies’ (’74), Ian had a starring role as a boarder in an old folks home, who turns to murder to keep from being evicted. He ended the decade playing a judge in ‘Mean Dog Blues’, an enjoyable prison drama with Gregg Henry and Kay Lenz.

Now into his eighties, the next decade began with the military school comedy ‘Up the Academy’ (’80), followed by a supporting turn in Warren Beatty’s epic ‘Reds’ (’81). Another comedy came next with Don Siegel’s Bette Midler starrer ‘Jinxed!’ (’82). Wolfe also had a memorable role in an early episode of “Cheers” (’82), as the only surviving member of his WWI squadron. He also had a good role as Hirsch the butler in a handful of episodes of the comedy series “WKRP in Cincinnati” (’81-82). Still acting at 93, Ian’s final movie was Warren Beatty’s ‘Dick Tracy’ (’90), as Tracy’s old forger friend.

Married for over 65 years and with 2 daughters, Ian Wolfe died in California on 23rd January 1992, aged 95. A familiar face in countless productions, Wolfe was always a joy to watch, and with his often worried and sometimes fussy manner, I always thought he would have made a great Dickens character, and an excellent Scrooge.

Favourite Movie: Rebel Without a Cause
Favourite Performance: Witness for the Prosecution

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