Sidney Falco: “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.” [Tony Curtis to Burt Lancaster in “The Sweet Smell of Success” (1957)]
Earlier this year I did a post entitled “Teamwork” which discussed famous acting, and acting and directing collaborations that produced terrific motion pictures containing memorable performances. However, I didn’t discuss another type of collaboration then which specifically applied to just actors. Numerous movies, plays, TV shows, etc. often had a major star, whether male or female, with a fellow actor partnering around. That fellow actor was never an equal star or as popular as the major star, but they were an important part of whether a film or a TV show was successful or not. That person was usually a supporting actor but they were, at times, also known as a “Sidekick” which is what this month’s post will further discuss.
The actual definition of a sidekick, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary is:
“A person closely associated with another as a subordinate or partner.”
A number of TV sidekicks were staples in our lives when we were young. There were Westerns with the Lone Ranger and his faithful Indian companion (AKA “Sidekick”) Tonto (Jay Silverheels). There was the Batman TV show with Batman’s ward/companion/sidekick/flunky being Robin. There were even two sidekicks in one of the most successful TV comedy shows of all time in “I Love Lucy” with the Ricardo’s next door neighbors, Fred and Ethel Mertz (William Frawley and Vivian Vance) acting as their two co-conspirators in the many zany high jinks that Lucy and Ricky always got into.
Certain sidekicks were also famous in literature, and they made the transition into representation for plays and for films, TV, and other forms of media very well. An early example was in a series of five novels by author James Fenimore Cooper called, “The Leatherstocking Tales”. These novels took place in central New York during the middle to late eighteenth century with the most famous of the bunch being “The Last of the Mohicans” originally published in 1826. These novels revolved around a frontiersman named Natty Bumppo (no, that is not the name of a lead singer in a rock and roll band) and Chingachgook (Gesundheit!) a Mohican Chief and their adventures during this timespan. Chingachgook was an early sidekick and an important one in all but one of the novels. I’d like to say that “Mohicans”, the most famous of the novels, was a good book. I’d also like to say that I’m 6’4″, young, and with a full head of hair too! However, neither statement would be true. The only thing reading “Mohicans” was good for was as a cure for insomnia. However, it has been made numerous times in movies, on TV, and even on radio and as an opera. The best adaption of the novel is the 1992 film directed by Michael Mann with Daniel Day-Lewis as Bumppo and also starring Russell Means as a very convincing Chingachgook.
Another famous literary pairing with an unforgettable sidekick was Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, Dr. John Watson. Watson was not only Holmes’s sidekick, but he was also the unofficial chronicler of their cases together as well as Holmes’s biographer. There are so many versions of Holmes and Watson in various forms of media that one doesn’t know where to begin. However, maybe the best two portrayals of Watson are by Nigel Bruce and James Mason. Bruce, who starred with Basil Rathbone as Holmes was nothing at all like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary creation of Watson. Bruce’s Watson was intellectually dimmer and more often played for comic relief purposes. However, Bruce did do one thing which made his Watson endearing to generations of fans: He was loveable! For their films together, they made a popular pairing and played the roles in fourteen movies and even did an additional series on the radio. However, a far better interpretation of the character of Watson was by Mason when he co-starred in the movie, “Murder by Decree” (1979) directed by Bob Clark.
Of all of the versions of Watson portrayed in the movies and on TV, Mason’s version was the best that I have ever seen. This original story basically was Holmes and Watson vs. Jack the Ripper (sort of) which occurred around the same time as the literary characters’ existence. Holmes was played by Christopher Plummer who gave an adequate but unexceptional performance, but Mason’s Watson was a revelation. Originally, Mason was the last actor cast for a role in the film, and Clark even had to travel to Spain to convince the actor to do this film. He only agreed to do Watson if he could portray the character more along the lines of how he was portrayed in literature. He wanted to play him as a serious, intelligent, level-headed professional whose scientific and medical background as a doctor helps Holmes in his investigation of the various murders. Other actors previously playing Watson had also tried to portray the character this way. However, Mason is the only one that I have ever seen that absolutely nailed the character like no one else. Unfortunately, his performance was ignored because, basically, despite all of the acting talent in this film, it’s really not that good. Bob Clark was a mediocre B-movie director with no real sense of style or skill. The movie drags and looks like a cheaply made suspense episode of any bad TV show. Nevertheless, Mason’s performance was so great it was almost like a rose growing out of a pile of dung!
Too often “sidekicks” are just used for laugh purposes rather than providing any further support to a major character. However, different literary characters that were comic could also be reinterpreted successfully into something else entirely. What am I trying to say, you may ask? Well let me introduce you to the Shakespearian character of Sir John Falstaff made famous in the plays, “Henry IV (Part I)” and “Henry IV (Part II)” and how his character was re-imagined to great effect in the recent movie, “The King” (2019) directed by David Michod. Shakespeare’s Falstaff, who was a much older sidekick to Henry IV, was a fat, vain, cowardly, comical, and drunken slob of a knight who constantly got himself along with Henry into trouble. However, in “The King” where Falstaff is played by actor, Joel Edgerton, his character is vastly different. This movie, which is not historically accurate and based rather loosely on Shakespeare’s plays, is actually pretty terrific. I could go into further detail of why it is so good but I’ll just focus instead on Edgerton’s performance as Falstaff. Edgerton, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Michod, came up with the idea of doing a more contemporary period adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry plays and it showed in his new interpretation of Falstaff. He is still, fat, old, and a drunkard. However, he is also wise, psychologically astute, even brave along with being a brilliant strategist. It’s a character with depth that holds your interest. Unfortunately, his performance, along with the entire cast and the film itself was, as they say, “Damned with faint praise” by the critics and some of the public probably due to the fact that it didn’t follow either actual historical fact or offended certain stuck-up Shakespeare junkies. However, what a great “sidekick” this version of Falstaff really is and what a great movie it actually is! See it! You might be pleasantly surprised!
As I’ve said previously, too often “sidekicks” were utilized as the comic relief to the main star of a movie. They could be dumb! They could be funny! They could even be irascible! However, the most important thing they had to be was ever loyal, brave, and especially, likeable. I can think of two veteran character actors who were almost always the perfect sidekick in just about any movie they appeared in. Both were likeable on the screen or on TV. However, behind the scenes, only one was likeable in real life. The first, who was likeable both on screen and off was George “Gabby” Hayes.
For anyone over forty, you remember him don’t you? He almost always was in a Western and he almost always was the loyal “sidekick” to a Western star. He was, short, dressed so shabby that he looked like he bathed once in a decade and had a mound of whiskers that made his face look like a scrub brush. He usually was scruffy, animated, cantankerous, and woman-hating (they must have interfered with manly men doing manly things no doubt!) He was immensely popular as a Western sidekick to many cowboy stars. He was a sidekick to William (Hopalong Cassidy) Boyd (22 times), Roy Rodgers (44 times), Gene Autry (7 times), Wild Bill Elliott (14 times), Randolph Scott (6 times) and, of course, John Wayne (15 times). After the last movie he did in 1950, he even had a later successful TV Western show named, “THE GABBY HAYES SHOW” which was basically for kids or anyone with the general IQ of a kumquat. He retired shortly after that show ended (probably with enough money to buy the Australian continent). Funny thing, in real life he hated Westerns (maybe because he was an unofficial member of the John Travolta Syndrome Club) and he didn’t even learn how to ride a horse until he was around 50 years old. In real life he was intelligent, well read as well as well-groomed (AKA he bathed regularly), articulate, serious, and highly philosophical. In other words, he was the exact opposite of the characters that he played on film. He was married once, successfully, and passed away in 1969 at age 83.
Now the second veteran character actor who was the perfect “sidekick” was also memorable in Westerns. However, beyond that, the similarities end. He played a number of different and varied film roles very well. He was so fine an actor that he was Oscar nominated numerous times. He even later went into television where he had a long running and successful TV show. However, what many people may also not know is that for a long time, he held the record for the most Oscar wins by an actor in winning three best Supporting Actor Oscars out of four times being nominated. To this day, he might even be considered the finest character actor in film history. Unfortunately, what even less people may know is that, in real life, away from the camera, this person was an awful individual regarding his personal beliefs and views. That person was actor Walter Brennan!
Brennan, who got into movies in the mid-1920s was perfect for playing older characters. He was lean and wiry, balding, and had a high pitched voice due to exposure to poison gas which ruined his vocal cords while serving in World War I. He was also helped when during the mid-1930s he was taking part in a fight scene when an actor accidently kicked him in the face knocking out most of his front teeth. Between his voice, doing roles without wearing dentures, and his own innate overall skill as an actor, he could convincingly act like someone 40 years older. Shortly after his accident his acting career really took off and he won three Oscars in a span of 5 years for “Come and Get It” (1936), “Kentucky” (1938), and “The Westerner” (1940). To this day he is the only actor to ever win three Best Supporting Actor Oscars along with holding the record of winning three Oscars in the shortest period of time. He was only nominated one more time but perhaps should have been nominated two additional times for “My Darling Clementine” (1946) and “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955). In his later years he gained new success with his TV role on the sitcom, “The Real McCoys” (1957-63). He played Grandpa Amos McCoy, part of a West Virginia Family that moves to California after they inherited a farm there. Brennan even was a recording star becoming the oldest person to have a Top 40 hit at the time in 1963. He was married, successfully, for 54 years, had three children, and passed away in 1974 at age 80. As I have said, he was the perfect sidekick in just about any role. However, there was just one little thing that kind of spoiled this portrait that I have just painted! Away from the movie and TV screens, he was a vocal and unrepentant Bigot!
Despite the impression that Brennan was either Southern or Country folk, he was actually from Massachusetts, studied engineering, and originally made a fortune in real estate before the market collapsed in the 1920s and he turned to acting. In his later years he was an active member of the John Birch Society even making a record for them raising the fears of a Communist takeover. It was actually sold in record stores as a “comedy” album (How F#$ked up was that!). He was against the Civil Rights Act and Richard Nixon (thought he was too liberal), thought John Wayne might be a Communist, supported George Wallace’s presidential campaigns, had a bunker on his Los Angeles estate fully outfitted with firearms and survival supplies while awaiting the Russian invasion, actively celebrated the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King (supposedly danced a little jig upon learning of King’s death), stated that the civil rights movement and the riots in places like Watts (CA) and Newark (NJ), etc., were the result of perfectly content “negroes” being stirred up by a handful of troublemakers and Communist agitators with an anti-American agenda (sound familiar?), and openly made racist and anti-semitic remarks to name a few of his more charming quirks. All I can say is that anyone who thinks that Richard Nixon was too liberal and John Wayne was a Communist must also think that Adolph Hitler was a pacifist, because he didn’t kill as many people as Joseph Stalin. I think that if Brennan were alive today, he’d probably be sitting on his front porch with a tattoo of QAnon on his forearm while either checking the InfoWars website or reading a copy of the Epoch Times.
Anyway, before I end this post I’d like to discuss two pictures with a great sidekick who’s performance is so strong that he almost steals the entire picture. The first picture is a dark portrait of warped individuals in a dark New York City who will use anyone and do anything to either get ahead or reap retribution on their enemies. In this case the sidekick to the main star is different in that both individuals play psychologically sick characters who thrive in the toxic atmosphere around them and where they have a symbiotic relationship in using each other to attain their warped ends. The movie is “The Sweet Smell of Success” (1957) directed by Alexander Mackendrick, and the two people are Burt Lancaster as ruthless New York City gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker and Tony Curtis as his press agent Sidney Falco, maybe the slimiest “sidekick” in motion picture history.
The plot revolves around Hunsecker using Falco to help break up his emotionally fragile kid sister’s romance with a young jazz musician. As Falco, Tony Curtis gives the performance of his career. Curtis wanted desperately to break-out from continually doing vapid pretty boy leading roles and show that he could actually act and in this movie, does he ever. Lancaster and Curtis previously worked well together the prior year for the movie, “Trapeze”, which was a hit, and it was hoped that they would have similar results with this film. Curtis’s Falco is fascinating. He is fawning to Hunsecker almost like a lap dog [“Tell me sir, when he (Falco) dies, do you think he’ll go to the dog and cat heaven?”]. He is also a treacherous sycophant easily willing to be a doormat while smoldering like a snake ready to strike back (“Every dog will have his day!”). His pathetic need to be appreciated while alternatively striving shamelessly to do anything to be a successful (“I am tasting my favorite new perfume – success!”) would be almost pitiful if he wasn’t so cavalierly willing to do almost any dirty or criminal thing to succeed. Curtis actually has more scenes and spoken lines than Lancaster and the screenplay is incredible thanks to both Ernest Lehman’s adaption of his own novella and assistance by the great Clifford Odets, who completely re-wrote the screenplay after Lehman became ill. There are so many great things to say about this movie that I could spend an entire post just discussing it alone. The sad thing is, once again, this movie was a box office flop and Curtis’s and Lancaster’s performances, which completely shocked both actors’ fans, would not be appreciated until decades later along with the film itself. If you have never seen this movie and now decide to see it, don’t be surprised if you find yourself mentally thinking, “How low can he go?” Pretty low folks! Pretty low!
The last great movie “sidekick” I want to discuss is based on an actual historical Western character. He has been immortalized numerous times on both TV and in the movies and some of the many portrayals of him have also been very good. However, the absolutely best portrayal of this character, as well as it also being the best performance of this actor’s career was Val Kilmer’s portrayal of Doc Holiday in the movie, “Tombstone” (1993), directed by Kurt Russell who also played the lead role of Wyatt Earp (although George P. Cosmatos was given directing credit).
Originally, Willem Dafoe was selected for the Doc Holiday role. However, when Buena Vista, a film division of Walt Disney studios, refused to distribute the film if he was cast, due to his prior role in “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), out went Defoe and in came Kilmer. Kilmer portrays Holiday in a resigned/fatalistic manner. He is an alcoholic who is dying from consumption but is living life on his on terms (“There’s no normal life, Wyatt, it’s just life.”). He is an educated and cultured individual but with a wicked sardonic wit which he puts to good effect in smoothly demeaning the various ignorant outlaws that he comes into contact with (“Maybe poker’s just not your game Ike. I know! Let’s have a spelling contest!”). Kilmer has the best lines in the entire movie and he uses them to great effect to steal just about every scene he is in. He also incorporated additional touches such as practicing for a long time on his quick-draw speed to make him a credible fast draw gunman, and speaking with a Southern Aristocratic accent since Holiday was originally from Georgia.
The portrayal of the historic “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral”, which in this film is the most accurate version that I have ever seen, is instigated when everyone has their guns drawn but have not fired yet and it appears that maybe everyone is starting to calm down a bit. However, a sudden closeup of Kilmer’s face reveals Holiday mockingly winking his eye at Billy Clanton’s frightened face in closeup. Suddenly, in closeup, you see Clanton’s face change into anger and the next thing you know the gunfight begins. Kilmer completely improvised that scene and it is one of the highlights of the film. It was also Val Kilmer’s idea to whistle while the Earps and Holiday marched down the main street leading to their confrontation at the O.K. Corral. Lastly, Kilmer during his deathbed scene, laid on a bed of ice, so that he would shake and show the final stage of his illness claiming his life. These additional touches aided by Kilmer’s outstanding performance makes him a sidekick that you’ll never forget!
Oh, and it’s also a pretty Damn good movie too (he said with a wink and a smile)!