Most of my readers won’t know who Lionel Stander is. Few are going to care. That’s just how it works out. But just try to read it, and when I get to words like “talkie” or “Capra” or even “Hart to Hart”… maybe, take a shot.
See the thing is I knew who Lionel Stander was all along. And I liked him. But my perception of him as a bit player made me ignore him in a way, which was too bad.
He’s the guy who gave the impassioned appeal to Longfellow Deeds in Frank Capra’s “Mr. Deeds Goes To Town”. There he was, working with Frank Capra, opposite of Gary Cooper. Wild. I always liked him in that movie. Next to Cooper, he’s probably the best thing about it.
But I didn’t feel like writing about him until the other day when I was watching one of Harold Lloyd’s talkies, “The Milky Way”. Lloyd plays a naïve milkman who gets duped into being a boxer who may ultimately have to take a fall. Yes, that plot: innocent gets duped into doing something against his values. The first time I tried to watch it, I couldn’t because I could see where it was going. Then, yesterday, I tried to watch it again and I put aside my assumptions and, sure enough, it didn’t go anywhere near there!
Stander plays a guy named Spider, a lovable goof – but Lloyd was such a nice guy in real life, I don’t think he liked anything other than lovable goofs in his films. And Stander is pretty damned funny! I didn’t think I’d be laughing out loud to something from the 1930’s.
So, I came over to my computer and IMDB’d the guy… and I was surprised. Not only had Stander been quite an actor, appearing in over 100 films, but the longevity! He was working from the 1930’s to the 1990’s!
And that’s not the best part. Stander was subpoenaed by the very first House Un-American Activities Committee. Stander was a communist and unapologetically so. He was one of the guys thrown under the bus by such un-American bastards as Ronald Reagan, back in the day. (Yes, turncoats and hypocrites are often elected to office.)
Blacklisted, the guy worked his way back up, appearing in Scorsese and Polanski pictures, by and by.
But the worst part for me is how the palooka ended his life: as Max on TV’s Hart to Hart, a below-mediocre crime drama about the wealthy and beautiful beating the mean and ugly. Yeah… reality TV. Stander played the unapologetically unbeautiful one. Thank you, Stander.
In a quote he gave about the show, he said, “I'm in a television program that is always among the top 20, that's shown in 67 countries in the world, helping lobotomize the entire world". He knew it wasn’t art. He liked the paycheck. And, as a guy who’d worked as long and as hard, who could blame him.
And then, he died at age 86.
I don’t really know why I’m writing about Lionel Stander except that he was one of those actors just on the fringes who could make a dull scene come to life. He never really got his due – he got much less. But he brings a smile to my face when I watch some old movies (God knows I’d never watch reruns of Hart to Hart) and for that I am grateful.