Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Incredible Shrinking Career

The actor being profiled today struggled to get a foothold in the dog-eat-dog world of Hollywood filmmaking before retreating to a more private existence as an acting teacher and (truth be told) a bit of an eccentric. Despite being under contract to two of the business’s most enduring studios, he wasn’t able to secure a place as a significant leading man and is remembered today almost solely for one role in an unimportant (yet very entertaining and now well-regarded) B movie.

John Grant Williams was born in The Big Apple in 1931. Having an interest in acting from his earliest years, he worked in summer stock productions just around the time he entered his teens. This path was interrupted by a four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force upon graduation from high school, but upon his release, he attended college and took lessons at Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio, eventually landing roles in two short-lived plays.

He supplemented his acting gigs by working for Maynard Morris, an MCA talent agent known for spotting bright new faces. Morris looked the young, blonde, male secretary over, declared him worthy of motion picture stardom and Grant Williams was born. A contract with Universal Studios came after Williams had worked on a few of the then-popular live television anthology series.

He made his film debut in 1956’s Red Sundown, a Rory Calhoun western in which he (fifth-billed) portrayed a hired gun. His character was mean and tough, at odds with Williams’ pretty looks, but his training allowed him to shade the stock character with details such as a perverse laugh in the midst of his various misdeeds.

He continued his villainous trend with Outside the Law as a gang boss trying to eradicate (hunky) Army parolee Ray Danton from his business. Then he had a bit role as one of many navy men in Away All Boats. This film featured Jeff Chandler, George Nader, Lex Barker and Keith Andes, among others, qualifying it to be a beefcake overload! His voice was used as narration in Walk the Proud Land, helping to deemphasize the lack of training found in star Audie Murphy’s.

Still in 1956, he found himself in another western, this one called Showdown at Abilene. Again, he was fifth-billed, in support of stars Jock Mahoney, Martha Hyer (who had also been in Red Sundown), Lyle Bettger and David Janssen. Unbelievably, he was not finished working yet in 1956, being given a tiny part in the plush Douglas Sirk soap opera Written on the Wind. Here, he played the hunky service station attendant “picked up” by nymphomaniac Dorothy Malone.

The following year saw Williams as one of the male suitors in Four Girls in Town, a story purporting to tell about the behind-the-scenes machinations of casting a Biblical epic in Hollywood. Here, he was paired with Elsa Martinelli. Universal next placed Grant Williams in the film and role for which he would forever be identified -- the title character in The Incredible Shrinking Man.

As Scott Carey, Grant Williams played a reasonably successful married man on a pleasure cruise with his wife. As the pair relax on the deck of their small boat, the wife goes below long enough for a strange cloud to settle over him. In a fairly fast-moving series of events, Williams discovers that he is becoming smaller and smaller with each passing day!

Before long, he has trouble ascending the furniture and soon must relocate to a doll house. Then he discovers that danger can lurk in the everyday realm of a previously non-threatening house cat! His ever-unsympathetic wife (she’s really quite a bitch in the film!) doesn’t seem to support him much at all in his trauma and is careless enough in her treatment of him that one wonders if she isn’t trying to ditch him or do him in to be rid of him.

As he continues to dwindle, he can’t even wear clothes any more (and there’s no problem with that. He’s breathtakingly handsome!) He takes to wearing a makeshift toga that is, at times, tantalizingly brief and tattered, especially in a scene involving a “flood” in which he has to swim for his life. He also has a set of misadventures in the basement that includes taking on one of the cinema’s most horrifying spiders!

The special effects are interesting and effective now, but they must have been positively mind-blowing in 1957! A lot of the ideas demonstrated here have since been cribbed by Land of the Giants, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and the ill-advised 1981 remake The Incredible Shrinking Woman, with Lily Tomlin, but the film has such a sincere sense of dread that it is set apart from those later, often campy or funny renditions. Williams’ character faces isolation, ostracism and potential ridicule, giving a subtext to the movie that appealed to many repressed gay viewers back in the day and can still be identified with now. (And we won't address potential phallic or otherwise sexual imagery (see above right and below!)Though he didn’t know it at the time, this successful, but small, movie would be the pinnacle of Williams’ career. It has, however, enjoyed a devoted cult following for many years and is well worth viewing, packing a fair share of interest, action and suspense into its trim and taut eighty-one minute running time. His performance is notable because in virtually all of the action sequences, he was acting opposite nothing but a blue screen, the effects being added in later.

The same year, he was cast in another thriller, The Monolith Monsters. This one didn’t receive quite the attention or acclaim as Shrinking Man did, but it has a reputation that is better than the sort of tacky title promises. Here, he plays a newspaper man attempting to solve the mystery of the title creatures, alien beings who suck the water out of human beings and grow to tower-like proportions only to blast apart and multiply, starting the whole process over. His costar was Lola Albright, as a teacher whose young female student is rendered catatonic following an encounter with one of the monsters.

Soon after, Universal Studios, where he had already slid to being the lead actor in B-level horror movies, dropped him. He managed to land one independent western, The Lone Texan, and sang for a time with The New York City Opera as well as with The Robert Shaw Chorale. (Strangely, he never appeared in a musical film, however, despite his well-trained tenor singing voice.)

He was soon signed with Warner Brothers, where he was put to work, like almost all of their contracted performers, in an endless chain of TV series and films. He appeared on The Millionaire, Mr. Lucky, The Roaring 20’s and Surfside 6. He also was given the leading role in the rough and tumble 13 Fighting Men, a post Civil War drama about a Yankee Officer (Williams) who is locked in combat with a Confederate major (Brad Dexter) who isn’t quite ready to let bygones be bygones. Less prestigious was his next film The Leech Woman, though, like many other horror films of this era, it has a considerable contingent of loyal fans today. He plays a man whose new girlfriend (Colleen Gray) is lovely and appealing, but who has to drain the life out of men in order to stay that way, hence the title. (This photo of him to the left is with another costar of the film, Gloria Talbot.) One of the more notable cast members in this is Phillip Terry, as Gray’s husband, best known for having been Mr. Joan Crawford from 1942 - 1946.
Williams was also cast in a recurring role on the Warner Brothers TV series Hawaiian Eye, a cookie cutter private eye series that starred Robert Conrad, Anthony Eisley and Connie Stevens (and later Troy Donahue.) Warners, at least, did really try to give Williams some sort of chance at a career. He was but one of several young men swarming around Connie Stevens in the glossy (and campy) soap opera Susan Slade, notorious as one of John Waters’ all-time favorite movies.

His bigger push came with 1962’s The Couch, a provocative drama about a young man with intense emotional problems who romances his psychiatrist’s receptionist (Shirley Knight) in between office visits and serial killings! Publicized as a disturbing and sensational piece of filmmaking, it either scared too many viewers away or else failed to live up to the hype and promises. (Sadly, I’ve never seen it!)

By 1963, he was back to the familiar position of fifth billing, this time in another maritime beefcake parade, PT109, all about President Kennedy’s adventures prior to his life in the political arena. Cliff Robertson was the lead and Ty Hardin costarred. This was the last film of any quality that Grant Williams was able to land.

He continued working on TV on shows like The Outer Limits, Perry Mason and The Munsters (as an oil company executive who is enlisted to wake up a potion-affected Marilyn Munster with a kiss.) A 1969 appearance on Dragnet was a dire experience. Something happened between Williams and star-producer Jack Webb that led to a major disagreement. It pretty much marked the end of his career on television, though he did appear in a couple of very low-budget and exceedingly low-rung exploitation/horror/sci-fi films. Titles include How’s Your Love Life?, Doomsday Machine and Brain of Blood.

Doomsday Machine was a pathetically cheap, unbelievably tacky science-fiction film in which Williams’ character, for no apparent reason, goes from being a stalwart officer on board a spaceship to a raving, sexually aggressive tormentor of one of the females. The cast includes Bobby Van, Mala Powers, Ruta Lee and Henry Wilcoxon, you know, all the people you’d expect to see on a spaceship! It has become the subject of a new MST3K style program called Cinematic Titanic, in which five onlookers ridicule the movie as it plays before them.

Brain of Blood was the very last scripted thing Williams ever appeared in. A startlingly low-grade piece of exploitational drek, it concerns the transplant of a foreign dignitary’s brain into a new body in order to keep him alive and avoid a political upheaval. Filmed for $5.73, it features Williams as a doctor, dressed in a mod, white suit and a goofy Ukrainian looking hat fighting against an evil surgeon with a midget henchman who keeps Asian women locked in a basement dungeon!

Williams’ cohort in the film is buxom, blonde Regina Carrol (the director’s wife!) who has to be seen to be believed, cavorting around in a peek-a-boo white mini-dress with hair teased to the heavens, white lipstick and heavy black eyelashes. She has a memorably amusing chase through some woods as a hulking brute with half his head mangled chases her relentlessly.

Grant looks embarrassed to be in this piece of trash, but not embarrassed enough. He seems to be trying to give an earnest performance, but there was no hope in the slightest of this being anything but drive-in level gunk at its all-time worst. He was only 41 at the time, but looks terrible, with lank, greasy-looking hair and a drawn face. (To be honest, few people concentrated on clean-cut grooming in the early 70s, but still…) Occasionally, a frame or two will reveal his once handsome face, but generally he is rendered obsolete by the project.

He would not be seen again in any type of major media until 1983 when he appeared on Family Feud as part of a celebrity tournament that gathered together Hawaiian Eye cast members. Looking lean, with a slightly crooked grin, he came off as happy and reasonably energetic, but looked older than his 52 years. These "reunion" style shows, fun as they are for fans of classic TV and movies, can sometimes seem a little sad.

Williams departure from the world of TV and movies has always been something of a mystery, not because he was a huge star, but because he was an actor who generally received good reviews for his work and seemed to have the right ingredients to have at least as successful career as some of his less talented peers who fared better.

He always denied that there was any friction with the studio chiefs, having never rejected a role or gone on suspension (perhaps he should have turned down a couple of those parts along the way!) Other accounts claim that he was a victim of homophobia, he being a lifelong bachelor who was rarely seen on dates whether for publicity or otherwise. For his part, he staunchly denied this. A devout Catholic, he stated that he would never even portray a homosexual (though there’ve been a lot of homosexuals who wouldn’t play one!)

What happened was that when the wheels came off his acting career, he moved to West Hollywood (to a rather seedy neighborhood that gave him cause to keep several loaded guns in his apartment!) and started giving acting lessons. Unable to completely grasp that his career was not only short-lived, but practically impossible to resuscitate, he felt the need to advertise himself as “interrupting” a twenty-seven year career in order to impart his teachings to hopeful students. He did publish a couple of books on acting, but died in 1985, allegedly from peritonitis following a bout with blood poisoning. An honorably discharged veteran, he was buried in Los Angeles National Cemetery with his Air Force rank engraved on his headstone and no mention of his acting career.

Grant Williams had beautiful blonde hair, smooth, tan skin and an attractive physique. He also had a gentle, haunted manner that he could sometimes put aside in order to portray more colorful characters. He could play action as well as drama and had untapped potential as a musician. Somehow, though, for whatever reason, he just couldn’t make it happen. Still, his primary film stands out as one of the 1950s’ most arresting thrillers, even if its title ultimately wound up describing its star as much as the lead character
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