By Dr. Abner Mality
If you really love movies like the Good Doctor does, then you know that the character actor is the engine that keeps Hollywood moving. Not the flash in the pan “big names”, but the faces you see year after year in movie after movie, the ones that add a touch of authenticity or eccentricity to a film. Sadly they seem to be a vanishing breed in the 10 second attention span world of today. Today I turn my microscope to one of the best that ever lived.
He raced motorcycles with Joe Namath, brawled bare-knuckled with Clint Eastwood, dueled Yul Brynner in a future hell, rode across the West as a blood thirsty outlaw. He told a young Conan about the Riddle of Steel. He’s had sex with bee girls and fought Rowdy Roddy Piper.
And that doesn’t even scratch the surface!
I’m talking about William Smith, one of the most active character actors in history. He’s been in so many of the movies and TV shows that I like that I can’t even keep count. He’s way overdue for the Mality tribute treatment. And the more I found out about him, the lower my jaw dropped until it finally hit the floor. Bill Smith is one of the most incredible human beings on the planet. Let’s find out more about him!
He was born in 1933 in rural Columbia, Missouri on a cattle ranch. That background served him very well during the many Westerns he was to appear in later. The first big surprise I got in examining his background was how early his film career started. He appeared as a child actor in 1942’s “The Ghost of Frankenstein” as the boy who befriends the Monster portrayed by Lon Chaney Jr. Could there be a better way to start a career than popping up in a classic Universal horror movie? I don’t think so.
Bill was not even 10 years old when he had that role and he would steadily find work in Hollywood from 1942 to 2009. You can name on one hand all the actors who had a career that long. As a kid, he also popped up in “The Song of Bernadette” and “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn”. All during this period, he was a phenomenal student and a great athlete. He had a great aptitude for language…not only English, but Russian, German, French, and Serbo-Croatian.
In 1951, he entered the Air Force while the Korean War was going on. Due to his skill with foreign languages and also his outstanding physical conditioning, he was recruited by both the CIA and NSA. To give you an idea of his athletic achievements, he was an amateur boxer who lost one contest in 32 recorded bouts. He was also the Air Force arm-wrestling champion. But his real love was in weight-lifting and bodybuilding. He had a sculpted physique with “washboard” abs years before such a look became popular. He also set a world record for doing 5100 consecutive sit-ups without a break. Jesus H. Christ! Just 5 would put me under the table. That feat is almost beyond belief!
I couldn’t image a more formidable candidate for intelligence work than William Smith. A multi-lingual actor with incredible strength and physical training…fictional characters like James Bond wouldn’t hold a candle to him. Oh, and just to mention, Smith was also a black belt in karate, an experienced skier, a fine horseman and even had a brief stint in a semi-pro football team!
It’s no wonder that he was assigned a lot of covert missions during the early 50’s, most of which were in Russia and the East Bloc. The specifics of those missions were unknown, but we do know that he helped to interrogate defectors and spies who came in “out of the cold”. His love of the Russian language and literature was so great that he later obtained a Master’s Degree in Russian from UCLA and taught the subject there in his later years.
Now you are starting to get an idea of what kind of dude we’re dealing with here. And we haven’t even really dug into his acting career yet!
Smith could have easily been a career CIA/NSA employee, a college professor or professional athlete, but in 1958 he took a chance and returned to one of his first loves…acting. The result was over 300 roles in film and TV, making him one of the most prolific actors in Hollywood. Many of the film roles were in the low budget “psychotronic” films we hold so dear here at Wormwood, usually playing a bad ass biker or other rugged villain. In fact, he is still considered “king of the bikers” for his great roles in those films.
First, though, he started in TV and was usually cast in Westerns. With his horsemanship and rough good looks, he was a natural. In 1965, he played Joe Riley, a good guy cowboy in the TV show “Laredo” which lasted for two years. Probably his most notorious Western TV role came in 1972 on the legendary “Gunsmoke”, where he played a vicious outlaw who rapes and shoots Miss Kitty. Critics described Smith’s performance as being so mean and dirty you could smell him.
In 1969, Smith got a great leading role in the movie “Run, Angel, Run”, where he played title character Angel, a tough outlaw biker who gets paid big money to reveal the secrets of his club. But when the other bikers find out, Angel and his girl have to go on the run while trying to find an honest life. This film, directed by action movie veteran Jack Starrett, has been somewhat forgotten over the years but it was a huge hit the year it was released and it gave Bill the first of many biker roles.
In 1970, it seemed Smith never got off a motorcycle. He was in “Angels Die Hard”, “Nam’s Angels” and a personal favorite of mine, “C.C. and Company”. In this last movie, he plays “Moon”, leader of the biker gang “The Heads” (which also includes Sid Haig in a Mongolian war helmet) who winds up being the nemesis of none other than Joe Namath. Fresh off an upset Superbowl win, Hollywood was trying to turn Namath into an action movie star. “Trying” being the key word.
“C.C. and Company” was a bit lighter in tone than Smith’s other biker films and starred cutie Ann-Margaret as the girl that Moon and C.C. go to war over. The film got terrible reviews but it’s very entertaining in a modest way and is probably Smith’s most well known biker part.
By now, Smith was in constant demand as an actor and between TV and film, he was always in front of a camera. One of his most interesting roles was in 1972’s “Grave of the Vampire”, where played James Eastman, a half-vampire who is hunting down his evil vampire father, played by Michael Pataki. Pataki’s character Caleb Croft raped Eastman’s mother, resulting in his birth. Some effective scenes show Eastman’s deranged mother feeding baby James with bottles of blood. Years later, James finds his father teaching a class on the occult at a college, leading to a showdown. This is quite a creepy film and the ending is rather unpleasant.
1973 brought some cool and varied roles for Mr. Smith. “The Deadly Trackers” was a grim and bloody Western where he played the mentally addled but bloodthirsty “Schoolboy” alongside his good friend Rod Taylor and another villainous character actor, Neville Brand. “The Last American Hero” was the real life story of NASCAR pioneer Junior Johnson, played by Jeff Bridges. But probably the most iconic role Smith played in 1973 was secret agent Neil Agar in the sci-fi sex spoof “Invasion of the Bee Girls”, which was a drive-in standard for 10 years.
In the movie, Smith’s character Agar is sent to the scandalously named town of Peckham, California to investigate the mysterious death of a scientist working at a top secret research facility. It seems the scientist died of “sexual exhaustion”…meaning he was screwed to death. Nor is he the only one. An epidemic of deaths brought on by too much sex is plaguing Peckham. Agar learns that coldly beautiful scientist Julie Zorn seems to be involved with the murders. In fact, she is using bizarre treatments to turn women into “bee girls”…sexual predators with insectile minds. These bee girls are plenty hot and enough to maybe tempt even Dr. Mality into a fling.
The movie was the first written by Nicholas Meyer and it’s become an enduring cult favorite not only due to the titillating subject matter but the suprising cleverness of the script and top notch performances of the cast. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and it gives Bill a rare starring role as a good guy.
Smith continued throughout the 70’s in some great grindhouse roles, including “Boss Nigger”, “Black Samson” and “The Swinging Barmaids”. 1975 brought him another iconic role in the post-apocalyptic thriller “The Ultimate Warrior”. This movie sank pretty quickly upon its release but it was really a precursor of the “Road Warrior” style movies of a few years later. Unlike “Invasion of the Bee Girls”, it was a deadly serious and grim look at a future where a starving humanity is on the verge of extinction.
Set in the far future year of 2012 (?), the movie takes place a few years after a global epidemic has killed hundreds of millions and rendered the soil infertile. In a ruined New York city, a man called The Baron has set up a small enclave of survivors in a protected zone. But many bands of starving marauders are hoping to break into the enclave and take the food stockpiled by the Baron. The most vicious of the marauders are led by a man named Carrot, played by Smith.
A scientist working for the Baron has come up a kind of seed that can grow food in contaminated soil. The Baron knows that Carrot and his men will eventually overrun the enclave. He hires a grim mercenary named Carson to not only protect his people but lead them to a safer place.
This was actually a fairly high class film despite its budget and subject matter. Carson, the “ultimate warrior” of the title, is played by Yul Brynner with steely determination while the Baron is portrayed by none other than Max von Sydow. Carrot is another one of Smith’s great villains, much in the mode of his evil bikers but even more ruthless. The final confrontation between Carson and Carrot is intense and bloody.
While Smith’s film career continued at a very steady pace, he also took TV work, appearing on episodes of “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” and “The Dukes of Hazzard”. In 1975, he took on what many considered his ultimate villainous role…Falconetti, in the mega-popular primetime miniseries “Rich Man, Poor Man” and its sequel, “Rich Man, Poor Man II”. Playing against Nick Nolte, Smith became one of the most hated men on television.
The 1980’s brought no rest for the actor. The decade started with a bang as Smith punched and brawled his way through one of his most well-known roles as Clint Eastwood’s honorable opponent Jack Wilson in the road comedy “Any Which Way You Can”. Smith’s bareknuckled fight with Eastwood’s eccentric trucker Philo Beddoe was one of the longest and most intense in Hollywood history and Bill’s great conditioning and boxing background were a huge help in making the fight believable.
Smith’s next part was relatively small but to this day it provided some of the most quotable lines in his career. Perhaps you remember them? Here is some of his dialogue:
“The secret of steel has always carried with it a mystery. You must learn its riddle, Conan. You must learn its discipline. For no one - no one in this world can you trust. Not men, not women, not beasts. This you can trust.” (points to sword)
Of course, the movie was “Conan The Barbarian” and Smith played young Conan’s father, who was soon to die at the hands of Thulsa Doom’s raiders. But there was something about this dialogue and Smith’s flawless delivery that stuck in viewer’s heads. Conan didn’t forget it and neither did we.
It seemed apparent that a “breakout” role that would propel Smith beyond character actor status would not be forthcoming even though it was richly deserved. Bill threw himself into more roles in movies large and small, such as the teen gang films “Rumble Fish” and “The Outsiders”. Those were major Hollywood films but the VHS boom created a new kind of grindhouse product that Smith could capitalize on. There was the insanely bizarre rural slasher film “Memorial Valley Massacre” from 1986 where his character General Mintz had a very memorable death. But a special favorite of mine (and many others) was the lowbudget cult classic “Hell Comes To Frogtown” released in 1987.
This whacky sci-fi tale took place in an irradiated future when the number of fertile men and women is virtually non-existent. When a group of renegade frog-like mutants capture a harem of fertile females to use as sex slaves, the dangerous wandering mercenary Sam Hell is called upon to rescue them from “Frogtown”. Sam is played by none other than wrestling superstar Rowdy Roddy Piper and his commanding officer is Smith’s character Captain Devlin. Sam sets out on an odyssey to rescue the ladies accompanied by two warrior females (Sandahl Bergman and Cec Verrell). Unknown to Sam, though, Devlin is also the mysterious villain Count Sodom, who is manipulating events for his own benefit. Also along for the ride are Rory Calhoun as “Looney Tunes” and genre mainstay Nicholas Worth as “Bull” Frog.
Few pictures sum up the crazy delirium of the 80’s low-budget VHS potboilers more than this and while many would not consider it one of William Smith’s better roles (probably including Smith himself), it remains a favorite with me.
Among Bill’s other memorable 80’s roles were an invading Russian in the super-patriotic action classic “Red Dawn” and a hard-nosed police captain in William Lustig’s horror-action film “Maniac Cop”. But this is just skimming the many, many appearances he made in the 80’s.
In the 1990’s, Bill was entering his 60’s in a life spent almost entirely in film. By now, he had become one of the most recognizable character actors in the world. For the most part, his work in the 90’s and early 2000’s consisted of low budget direct to video action flicks often set in a post-apocalyptic future or the dirty city streets of the modern age. The titles of these films often clue you in on their plot and direction. Here are just a few:
“Maniac Warriors” (1992)
“Raw Energy” (1995)
“Interview with A Zombie” (1997)
“Warriors of the Apocalypse” (1998)
“Debbie Does Damnation” (1999)
Looking at these films, one might legitimately ask why a man who can speak multiple languages, teach courses at the university level and who is capable of genuinely riveting performances winds up in so many movies that can be categorized as “trash”? Well, obviously Bill still has the acting bug and a strong itch to perform. Mainstream Hollywood doesn’t seem to have the vision to give him the roles he is due. So why not entertain the same fans who have been supporting him all through the years? Somebody who likes “Chrome and Hot Leather” in the 70’s is likely to be attracted to 2005’s “Hell to Pay”.
William Smith never phoned in a performance in any film or TV show I ever saw. Even though he probably has a right to. But a man who can do 5100 consecutive sit-ups and do weightlifting curls of his own body weight is not likely to ever take the easy road. Bill is now 83 years old. The last movie of his that I have a listing for is 2009’s “King Peddler”. Since then, he seems to finally eased up on his film-making career. Can you imagine that?
Throughout his entire career, Bill has pursued another passion in addition to acting and physical fitness and that is poetry. He takes that as seriously as everything else he has a passion for. His words are strong, straightforward and often talk about life’s ups and downs. Those interested in reading the man’s work are advised to pick up his book “The Poetic Works of William Smith”.
I started this article to write about a character actor who specialized in rip-roaring action films but I wound up with a lot more. I found one of the most extraordinary people I’ve read about. That being said, I’ll remember him best as Moon the biker chief, Jack Wilson the bare-knuckled boxer, Conan’s father and the devious Count Sodom. Such Is the impact that a true character actor has on one.
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