Today (August 29, 2012) would have been Barry Sullivan’s 100th birthday. Sullivan (1912-1994) acted on the big screen regularly from 1936 to 1978, with one final screen appearance in a Canadian feature in 1987, and on television from 1955 to 1980. I knew him primarily as an actor in westerns, even though a look at his filmography indicates that he played far more contemporary roles than he did western roles. I first knew him from “The Tall Man,” one of many TV western series I saw as a kid. In it, he played Pat Garrett to Clu Gulager’s Billy the Kid, although I have no memories of any particular episodes. Most of the films I saw him in on TV over the years were westerns, including THE OUTRIDERS, THE MAVERICK QUEEN, DRAGOON WELLS MASSACRE, SEVEN WAYS FROM SUNDOWN, STAGE TO THUNDER ROCK, and TELL THEM WILLIE BOY IS HERE. Plus he played guest star roles on other TV westerns, including “Bonanza,” “The Virginian” (pictured here), “High Chaparral,” and the pilot film for “Kung Fu.”
However, the first Sullivan film I saw on the big screen was not a western, but an Italian science fiction picture called PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (TERRORE NELLO SPAZIO, 1965), which was directed by Mario Bava. It played on a double bill with Roger Corman’s ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE (covered here on April 7, 2012) at a neighborhood theater in the summer of 1967. Sullivan played a stern, order-barking space captain investigating the crash of another ship on a dark, environmentally hostile planet and the deaths of its crew members. He finds himself up against a growing army of dead astronauts brought back to life and possessed by alien entities. (PLANET OF THE ZOMBIES would have been a better title.) He never cracks a smile nor a grimace and is no-nonsense all the way, in contrast with his crewmates, all played by more volatile Spanish and Italian actors and one Brazilian leading lady (Norma Bengell). The film has a clever twist ending that played off Sullivan’s upright image. I remember being quite surprised at the time.
The next movie I saw him in on the big screen was BUCKSKIN (1968), one of a group of low-budget westerns produced by A.C. Lyles at Paramount from 1964-68 and featuring tons of veteran Hollywood stars winding down their careers. Sullivan played a marshal trying to convince the town’s solid citizens to help him thwart the landgrabbing efforts of the local gambling boss, a plot that sounds derived, in part, from HIGH NOON. In addition to Sullivan, the cast includes such renowned former stars as Joan Caulfield, Lon Chaney Jr., Wendell Corey, John Russell, Barton MacLane, Barbara Hale, Bill Williams, and Richard Arlen. It was standard work for Sullivan, something he could handily knock out in the film’s five-day shooting schedule. At the time it was a big thrill for me to see Lon Chaney Jr. in a current movie, having watched him avidly in all those Universal horror films on TV, e.g. THE WOLF MAN and ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. BUCKSKIN’s co-feature—and the film that drew me to the theater that afternoon–was American International’s youth culture extravaganza, WILD IN THE STREETS, in which Christopher Jones played a rock star who gets elected to the Presidency after 14-year-olds get the vote. I had already read the novelization and, being 14 at the time, I was definitely tuned in to the zeitgeist of the main feature. However, in the years since, the only component of that double bill I’ve kept returning to has been BUCKSKIN. I even reviewed it on IMDB:
Sullivan had movie star chops, but he was never a major star along the lines of John Wayne, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Richard Widmark or Robert Mitchum, to name five of his near-contemporaries, some of whom had similar career arcs to his (although Sullivan started earlier than all of them except Wayne). Sullivan was excellent in certain kinds of roles, but he just didn’t have as much of an emotional range as these other actors or even as such other second-tier stars as John Payne (covered here on his centennial on May 28). Granted, Sullivan may have had a greater range than I’m remembering, and it’s probably evident in many of the comedies, melodramas, and thrillers he made while under contract to MGM from 1949-53, although I’ve seen very few of those films. THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is the most famous from that group, but Sullivan, as a creative film director who is mistreated by a domineering and manipulative producer, was one of an all-star ensemble cast that included Kirk Douglas (in the central role), Lana Turner and Dick Powell.
I watched two films from that period before doing this entry, FRAMED (1947, done at Columbia) and CAUSE FOR ALARM (1951, MGM) and it’s clear that Sullivan employed a different style in his earlier days before he became the rugged star of westerns. His diction was clearer and more enunciated than the drawl the New York-born actor perfected for his western roles. In FRAMED, a DOUBLE INDEMNITY knock-off, he plays the third leg of a corrupt love triangle, a polished banker seeking to embezzle money and fake his own death, but who gets betrayed by the femme fatale who opts for the designated patsy, Glenn Ford, over Sullivan. In CAUSE FOR ALARM, he plays a bedridden husband who goes crazy and accuses his wife (Loretta Young) and his doctor of conspiring to kill him. Sullivan’s good in both films but he’s an antagonistic character in both and a definite victim (of the femme fatale in one and circumstances in the other) and a far cry from the stalwart man of the west who emerged in in the mid-1950s. (As an actor, he came off as much more relaxed in his westerns.) I’m curious about such other films from his postwar period as INSIDE STRAIGHT, NO QUESTIONS ASKED, THE UNKNOWN MAN, JEOPARDY, CRY OF THE HUNTED and the noir titles, SUSPENSE, THE GANGSTER, and TENSION.
I did once see the Technicolor Paramount musical, LADY IN THE DARK (1944), in which Sullivan had a supporting role as Ginger Rogers’ psychiatrist, and it surprised me at the time because I’m sure it was the first time I’d seen Sullivan in a suit and tie and sitting in a chair for his entire screen time. Not a gun or fist in sight.
Sullivan might have made a greater cinematic mark if he’d had a notable director in his corner the way John Wayne had John Ford and Howard Hawks, James Stewart had Anthony Mann, Randolph Scott had Budd Boetticher, or even the way John Payne had Phil Karlson. Even Sterling Hayden, another of Sullivan’s contemporaries, had a more lasting legacy, thanks to his films for John Huston (THE ASPHALT JUNGLE), Nicholas Ray (JOHNNY GUITAR), and Stanley Kubrick (THE KILLING), and his later character work for Kubrick (DR. STRANGELOVE), Francis Coppola (THE GODFATHER) and Robert Altman (THE LONG GOODBYE). Sure, Sullivan worked for a few great directors. Samuel Fuller’s FORTY GUNS (1957) might arguably be Sullivan’s best film. Sullivan plays Griff Bonnell, a fictionalized version of Wyatt Earp, who enters Tombstone only to come into conflict with local rancher Barbara Stanwyck, “a high-riding woman with a whip,” as the film’s theme song tells us. Sullivan does a fine job in his usual stern lawman mode—confronting a drunken trigger-happy gunman head-on and clouting him with a gun barrel in one celebrated scene–but Stanwyck does the emotional heavy lifting throughout. especially after her character falls in love with Griff.
Fuller, whose centennial I covered on August 12, directed Sullivan in one more film, SHARK, which got limited release in butchered form in 1969 and which I’ve never seen. Other notable directors Sullivan worked with include Sam Peckinpah, who cast Sullivan as rancher John Chisum in PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (1973), only to watch helplessly as Sullivan’s scenes were cut by MGM for the film’s theatrical release. His scenes were later restored for the TV cut and a much later director’s cut (which appeared well after Peckinpah’s death), but way too late to do Sullivan’s career any good. (Sullivan had, of course, played Pat Garrett on TV in “The Tall Man,” while John Wayne had played John Chisum in a 1970 release called CHISUM.) Steven Spielberg directed Sullivan in “LA 2017,” an episode of the weekly 90-minute series, “The Name of the Game,” years before JAWS put Spielberg on the map. And, there was also the aforementioned Mario Bava (PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES). But none of this was enough to earn Sullivan the lasting fame achieved by some of the other actors I’ve mentioned.
Speaking of Stanwyck, she and Sullivan acted in two other films together, JEOPARDY (1953), another melodrama from his MGM period, and THE MAVERICK QUEEN (1956), another tough western, which I saw a long time ago and remember liking although I don’t recall much about it.
Sullivan did tons of TV work, for a period of 25 years, alternating good-guy roles with villain roles. He played villains the same way he played heroes: stern, self-righteous, no-nonsense, and determined to get his way. He plays a railroad boss forcing Chinese workers into unsafe conditions in order to finish the job on time in “Kung Fu” (1972), a TV movie that served as the pilot for the subsequent TV series. As such, he functioned as a formidable antagonist for the half-Chinese hero, Caine, played by David Carradine, who winds up trying to protect the workers from Sullivan’s abuses. In “The Immortal” (1969), another TV movie that served as a pilot, Sullivan plays a tycoon who tries to abduct a man whose rare blood type is needed for infusions to keep the tycoon alive.
I watched an episode of “The Virginian,” entitled “Woman from White Wing,” the second episode from Season One, in which Sullivan guest stars as an old comrade of Judge Garth (Lee J. Cobb), who comes back after 20 years, having been abandoned, or so he thought, on their journey west to Wyoming, and demanding from the Judge something that he feels belongs to him—Betsy, Judge Garth’s daughter. Well, it turns out that Sullivan’s character is indeed Betsy’s biological father, so, although he serves as the antagonist here, he does have a legitimate grievance against the judge. His position is understandable enough to make him somewhat sympathetic, but the tactics he uses to harass the judge are a tad unreasonable. Like so many of the higher-end TV westerns of the 1960s, it’s incredibly talky with very little action and not much of a chance for anybody to actually DO anything. But Sullivan remains compelling anyway, particularly when he has to rein in the two restless escaped cons who’ve accompanied him on his “mission.”
While Sullivan made a couple of foreign films, he didn’t forge a new career in Italy the way so many of his contemporaries did. Other than PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, the only overseas productions I find in his filmography are PYRO (1964), a U.S.-Spanish co-production that was made in Spain, and VIOLENT NAPLES (1976), an Italian crime thriller which also starred John Saxon and in which Sullivan plays a mafia boss. (American name actors were often sprinkled into the casts of Italian genre films to attract financing and insure more international bookings.)
The last thing I remember seeing Sullivan in on TV before his retirement was a 1979 episode of “The Love Boat,” in which he was confined to a wheelchair. The last movie of his I saw in its initial release was EARTHQUAKE (1974).
Sullivan’s got a rich filmography filled with things I’d like to see, in addition to the ones I’ve already listed. Just this week, I recorded off Encore’s Western Channel a film called THIS SAVAGE LAND (1968), which is actually a feature compilation of a two-part episode of Sullivan’s 1966 TV series, “The Road West.” I’d love to see more of his TV work, including the two-part finale of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E” called “The Seven Wonders of the World Affair.” I’ve never seen either of his 1950s TV series, “The Man Called X” and “Harbormaster.” I’ve never seen his very first lead role in a western, BAD MEN OF TOMBSTONE (1949), in which he played Tom Horn, the first screen portrayal of that famous late 19th century gunman (later portrayed by David Carradine and Steve McQueen, among others). I’m also keen on seeing QUEEN BEE (1955), a southern melodrama in which Sullivan plays Joan Crawford’s boozed-up husband. Those two have got to make an interesting combination. I have seen his crime caper, THE MIAMI STORY (1954), which I reviewed on IMDB:
Sullivan was a thorough professional who delivered what was required of him consistently for a period of almost 50 years. He may not have been in his share of classics, but everything he was in benefited from his presence.