We ran (on July 1) our “re-introduction” to Charles McGraw in honor of the simultaneous unspooling on TCM’s excellent Noir Alley program, hosted by Eddie Muller, of the solid 1950 noir thriller, Armored Car Robbery — which stars this fine, granite-jawed actor.
Alluded to on the show (but not explained in full) was the tragic circumstance of McGraw’s death on the sweaty evening of July 30, 1980. What follows is a full account of what happened, and what has fueled a grisly Hollywood legend ever since. Here we go:
Nobody in the movies was like Charles McGraw. He embodied a unique screen persona that conveyed serious business…McGraw was known as “an actor’s actor”: a ranked heavyweight performer who just missed grabbing the brass ring of authentic Hollywood stardom. — Alan K. Rode, author of CHARLES McGRAW: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy
By the late 1970’s, Charles McGraw’s movie and tv career was, to put it kindly, winding down.
The actor had been the tough mainstay of some of the finest film noirs ever made. He was also the versatile character player sought out by so many directors, notably include Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Richard Brooks — who cast McGraw (as pictured above) in the role of Robert Blake’s abusive father in 1967’s In Cold Blood, the superb film version of the Truman Capote’s account of the brutal slaying of a Kansas family.
But by this time, McGraw’s life was a mess.
Always a working man’s actor, McGraw had been drinking steadily (beer was his preference) for years, usually in Studio City saloons along Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley.
Bar hopping had long since turned into a way of life, costing McGraw his marriage to a beautiful Eurasian woman (with a passing resemblance to a young Ava Gardner), and estranging the couple’s only daughter.
Long gone were days of his topline roles in such solid noir titles as director Richard Fleischer’s superb 1950 RKO thriller, Armored Car Robbery (that’s McGraw at work in the picture above), and such quirky television projects as 1955’s eight-episode series, Casablanca, based on — yes! — that Casablanca. (McGraw played Rick Blaine, Humphrey Bogart’s role in the 1942 movie classic.)
The last of his 68 feature film roles was in 1976’s Twilight’s Last Gleaming, a tax shelter production filmed in Germany by Allied Artists with a heavyweight cast including Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark and Melvyn Douglas. Within a few years, work dried up as doubts were raised about the actor’s reliability.
He was living in reasonable domesticity in the North Hollywood home of an understanding woman who managed to put up with his bar hopping and his quirks. (An arthritic hip would give out periodically sending the actor tumbling to the floor.)
By 1980, when McGraw turned 66, he faced an ultimatum: get help with the drinking or get out.
The end came during the summer heat wave that suffocated the San Fernando Valley that year. In a gripping chapter of his excellent biography author Rode tells what happened in the early evening hours of July 29.
McGraw had returned home after the day spent at a bar, and announced he was going to take a shower. His companion of 13 years, Mildred Black, heard running water and then a resounding thump. To her horror, she discovered McGraw on his back in the tub with the shower still running. His arm had gone through one of the glass doors surrounding the tub’s edge.
McGraw’s left arm was impaled by a huge chard of glass just above his elbow, Rode wrote. The glass was (embedded) in his arm, severing the artery. The bleeding couldn’t be stopped, and McGraw couldn’t be moved from the slippery tub. 911 was called.
McGraw’s last words: Millie, I’m cold, I’m going to die….
By the time firemen and paramedics arrived, it was too late. He had bled to death. In a twist of fate straight out of a film noir plot, it turned out that emergency assistance had been delayed by an initial mix-up concerning the correct location of Black’s house.
Rode quotes an L.A. police department officer explaining that the fire department went to the wrong address. They either were either given the wrong address or something happened. Black remembered that they took forever.
Writes Rode: No matter how many times McGraw might have perished as a baddie onscreen, nobody who worked on a show with this veteran pro could have anticipated such a macabre finale.