Do you recognize the man pictured above?
Don’t feel bad if you don’t. Superlative supporting actors of the classic Hollywood period — which in our man’s case was the 1950’s — immersed themselves so completely in the characters they played, they could have been invisible outside their individual roles.
What, then, makes our man noteworthy? Answer: rarely has there been a nastier and more believable movie villain than Emile Meyer. His menacing, slightly dumb mug combined with his rasping vocal delivery in a slight Southern drawl supported by his overall physical bulk spelled immediate and very serious trouble.
Born in New Orleans in 1910, Meyer worked a number of sweaty blue-collar jobs (longshoreman, cab driver, safety inspector, etc.) before being “discovered” by director Eli Kazan during the filming of 1950’s Panic In The Streets, which was filmed in the Big Easy.
During the Fifties he played a mix of blue-collar parts — police guard, gas station attendant, bartender, racetrack security guard , small time storekeeper and a plenty of sheriffs — before landing some meaty supporting parts in major films.
Catch him as a cattle baron in director George Steven’s superb 1953 western, Shane. Don’t miss him as the hardassed warden in producer Walter Wanger’s gritty 1954 drama, Riot In Cell Block 11, starring another underrated actor — Neville Brand. And savor his pugnacious turn as Mr. Halloran in director Richard Brook’s 1955 social commentary/drama for MGM, The Blackboard Jungle.
Frank fell under this fine actor’s spell after repeated viewings of 1957’s The Sweet Smell of Success, starring Burt Lancaster as an unscrupulous and powerful New York newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker (inspired by the late Walter Winchell) and Tony Curtis in what is his finest role as the slippery and sycophantic Broadway press agent, Sidney Falco.
Meyer plays a corrupt New York City police lieutenant who violently “chastises” Falco at Hunsecker’s behest. The mocking evil just oozes out of the actor’s interpretation — unforgettable.
Meyer didn’t always play villains. Director Stanley Kubrick cast him as a priest who escorts actor Timothy Carey to his execution in the 1957 World War I drama, Paths of Glory. Meyer played a broad variety of parts on television as his movie career wound down. In all, he is credited with nearly 125 movie and tv parts.
He played a sheriff in his last picture, a forgotten independent feature, 1977’s The Legend of Frank Woods starring Troy Donahue. Meyer died a decade later of Alzheimer’s disease. He was 76.