Occasionally we like to highlight the character actors and actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and there was rarely a better example of a memorable character than Donald Meek.
Back in its Golden Age Hollywood afforded studios an extraordinary casting luxury — a batch of seasoned character actors, such as Meek, who generally shared these characteristics:
— They were often odd looking, or physically distinctive, far removed from the glamour standards of star talent.
Meek, born in Scotland in 1878, stood all of five-feet-six in his stocking feet and weighed less than 100 pounds. And, he (see above) sported one of the most distinguishing bald domes of the period. (He lost his hair as a result of yellow fever contracted during his service in the Spanish-American war in Cuba.) You saw that dome, and you knew it was Meek.
— They had and diverse and unusual backrounds but shared strong apprenticeships on vaudeville or the stage.
Meek started performing at age eight and developed into a professional acrobat. After a few falls, he packed it in. He then trod the boards in Britain and Australia, essaying several hundred stage roles. His U.S. stage debut took place in 1912.
— Movies during Hollywood’s silent period generally figured in the CV’s of older character actors.
Meek was 45 when he made his first silent movies then shifted to two reelers generally filmed at the Vitaphone Studio in Brooklyn. Meek and his wife, Isabelle Walken, moved to Hollywood in 1933.
— The most successful character actors worked like dogs from movie to movie for economic reasons as well as the limitations of their individual parts. They didn’t “carry” pictures, but they certainly propped up stars of the moment who did.
Meek in less than 15 years tackled more than 120 screen roles in Hollywood. Among them: he played an eccentric toy maker in 1938’s You Can’t Take It With You; an annoying whiskey salesman in John Ford’s 1939 masterpiece, Stagecoach; a shifty gambler in 1940’s My Little Chickadee; the husband in 1934’s Mrs. Wiggs of the CabbagePatch; a drunken food taster in 1945’s State Fair; Edward G. Robinson’s unmasker in 1935’s The Whole Town Is Talking; and a thick-skinned railroad exec in 1939’s Jesse James and 1940’s The Return of Frank James.
Meek died at age 68 in 1946 — a consummate character actor to the end.