Unless you've watched a lot of Warner Bros. and MGM movies on TCM like I have, you may not be familiar with character actor Henry O'Neill, though he appeared in more than 160 films. Even if you know this prolific actor's name, you may not be able to recall (or instantly identify) his face. In fact, you might find yourself confusing him with another prematurely gray-haired (yet mustached) actor Lewis Stone (born a couple of years before O'Neill), who began his movie career in the silent era (15+ years earlier than O'Neill) yet appeared in two dozen fewer pictures; they played similar roles. After watching the channel for a while, you might become convinced that (at least) one of them appeared in every B&W film!
Henry O'Neill was born on August 10th, 1891 in Orange, New Jersey. He began his acting career on the stage; his first feature film for Warner Bros. was I Loved a Woman (1933), with Edward G. Robinson and Kay Francis, both of whom he worked with a handful of times. He specialized in playing reliable authority figures: fathers and Fathers; district attorneys, judges and other lawyers; doctors and military officers. He was recognized with a star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood, the city where he lived when he died just shy of his 70th birthday in 1961.
Given the scant number of pictures available (e.g. on the Internet) of Henry O'Neill, or other personal information, one could surmise that he'd failed to make an impact or impression on moviegoers. If you google his name without surrounding quotes, you won't find an image of him for several pages (and using quotation marks, you'll be hard pressed to find more than two anyway). Even though O'Neill's name is listed 53 times in the index of Clive Hirschhorn's superior studio chronology The Warner Bros. Story index, he appears in only two photographs that I could find - in one his face is partially obscured by another actor and in the other his face is turned such that his profile is barely seen. While it's ridiculous to think that the historian purposely picked film photographs which excluded the actor's visage, it is unlucky for O'Neill fans (or anyone seeking a picture of his face). The index of The MGM Story (by John Douglas Eames) lists the actor's name 27 times, and the first photo in which O'Neill appears shows the back of his head, though he can be seen better on the next page and four more times between its covers (including next to William Powell in the one provided). Fortunately, the characters that O'Neill played are more enduring than any readily available photos of the actor are.
Some memorable Henry O'Neill (films and) film roles include playing: Robert Mitchum's dept. store boss in Holiday Affair (1949), the general in charge of deploying the first atomic bomb in The Beginning or the End (1947), an admiral in Anchors Aweigh (1945), Powell's exasperated boss in The Heavenly Body (1944), Colonel Sykes in A Guy Named Joe (1943) - airing Saturday, Andy Rooney's wealthy father in Girl Crazy (1943), the wealthy father of Rooney's girlfriend in The Human Comedy (1943), the medical officer on the admiral's ship in Stand by for Action (1942), Father Juan in Tortilla Flat (1942) and Father Xavier in Anthony Adverse (1936) - he raises the illegitimate title character as a boy of his own in much the same way that his character had raised Jackie Cooper's in White Banners (1938) (his judge character had adopted a son from Greer Garson's in Blossoms in the Dust (1941), forcing him to recuse himself during her trial) - a parole officer (taken advantage of) in Johnny Eager (1942) and Invisible Stripes (1939), the title character's physician in Knute Rockne All-American (1940) and another (ship's) doctor in & 'Til We Meet Again (1940) whereas he played doctors skeptical of medical breakthroughs to Robinson's title character in Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet (1940) and The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935) with Paul Muni, another actor (like Powell and the aforementioned) with whom O'Neill appeared a handful of times (most notably Black Fury (1935), Bordertown (1935), Dr. Socrates (1935), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), and Juarez (1939), one of nine in which he appeared with Bette Davis). O'Neill's first two notable lawyer parts were uncredited: as Baxter, who informs Francis's character of the conditions of her benefactor's will in The House on 56th Street (1933), and as J.L. Chase in Bordertown (1935). These were followed by a handful of D.A. roles such as the prosecutor of Davis's Marked Woman (1937), similar parts as the California Supreme Court Justice in Gold Is Where You Find It (1938) and another judge in The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938), and the role of the prosecuting U.S. attorney in Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939). His most unusual part came before his type was cast: he played the scheming Duc de Choiseul in Madame DuBarry (1934), which featured Dolores del Rio in the title role.
Though I'm sure that the actor will never be featured as a Star of the Month, you can enjoy a Henry O'Neill film festival virtually every month on the channel.
© 2007 Turner Classic Movies - this article originally appeared on TCM's official blog