By Ed Garea
Actor William Schallert, best known as Martin Lane, the father on The Patty Duke Show and for his troubles with tribbles, passed away May 8 at the age of 93 at his home in Pacific Palisades, Calif.
Schallert was the epitome of the working actor, with nearly 400 credits in a career that began in 1947.
Besides his work on The Patty Duke Show, Schallert was also known for his role as Nilz Baris, the Federation Undersecretary of Agricultural Affairs who discovered the batch of furry grain-devouring aliens who multiplied faster than rabbits in “The Trouble With Tribbles,” the classic December 1967 episode of NBC’s Star Trek.
Born July 6, 1922, in Los Angeles, he was the son of Edwin and Elza Schallert. Edwin was a reviewer, columnist and drama editor of the Los Angeles Times from 1919 to 1958. Elza handled publicity for Sid Grauman, had her own radio show, and wrote for movie fan magazines. In interviews, he said that his parents’ connections got him into birthday parties for child star Shirley Temple on the Fox lot.
Schallert enrolled in UCLA with the goal of becoming a composer, but when America entered World War II he left to serve as an Army fighter pilot. He returned to college and graduated in 1946, then studied theater for a year in England on a Fulbright scholarship. Returning to Los Angeles, he joined The Circle Theatre, an intimate group that performed in the round in a former drugstore.
Among the Circle actors were Charlie Chaplin’s children Charles Chaplin Jr. and Sydney Chaplin. Father Charlie directed Schallert and June Havoc in a 1948 production of Somerset Maugham’s Rain. Over the next three or four years, Schallert appeared in about 25 plays. Also among the Circle players was actress Leah Waggner (born Rosemarie Diann Waggner). She married Schallert in 1949, with the marriage lasting until her death in 2015.
In 1947, he made his film debut in The Foxes of Harrow, starring Rex Harrison and Maureen O’Hara, for 20th Century Fox. Cast in the uncredited role of “Philadelphia Banker,” he was paid $75 per day for three days. His first credited role was as “George Brant” in producer Jerry Fairbanks’ 1947 drama Doctor Jim, starring Stuart Erwin as a country doctor.
Schallert received his first significant screen time as the scheming Dr. Mears opposite Margaret Field, the mother of actress Sally Field, in Edgar G. Ulmer’s low budget classic The Man From Planet X (1951).
Many film buffs know Schallert for his work in sci-fi films like Captive Women (1952), Them! (1954), Gog (1954) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). But he also worked in such films as Red Badge of Courage (1951), Singin’ in the Rain (1952, though his scene was left on the cutting room floor), The High and the Mighty (1954), Written on the Wind (1956), Friendly Persuasion (1956) and Pillow Talk (1959).
And who can forget his turn as unfortunate Oracle, Texas Marshal Scott Hood, whose assassination in the opening of Roger Corman’s Gunslinger (1956) left his widow Rose (Beverly Garland) to take his badge and finish the job of cleaning up the town? He also played Walter Matthau's mild-mannered deputy in the Kirk Douglas film Lonely Are the Brave (1962, a role he later said was his favorite), small-town Mississippi Mayor Webb Schubert in the Oscar-winning best picture In the Heat of the Night (1967), a down-and-out ex-racer with Elvis Presley in 1968’s Speedway, a professor in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969), and a sheriff in Charley Varrick (1973) with Matthau.
Joe Dante, long a fan of Schallert’s sci-fi appearances, cast him in such films as Gremlins (1984) as Father Bartlett, Innerspace (1987) as Dr. Greenbush, and the cult favorite Matinee (1993), where he played Dr. Grabow in the trailer for Mant, about a man who becomes an ant.
Realizing that being a supporting actor in movies wasn’t enough to pay the bills, Schallert turned to television, where he cranked out an impressive resume. In 1956, he starred in the very first installment of the famed live CBS anthology series Playhouse 90, directed by John Frankenheimer.
Over the years, he guest starred on such TV series as The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Father Knows Best, Death Valley Days, Maverick, The Twilight Zone, The Jack Benny Show, Peter Gunn, The Red Skelton Hour, One Step Beyond, 77 Sunset Strip, Have Gun Will Travel, The Donna Reed Show, Perry Mason, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Wagon Train, Zane Grey Theater, The Andy Griffith Show, The Rifleman, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bonanza, Dr. Kildare, Here Come the Brides, Maude, Lou Grant, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Desperate Housewives, How I Met Your Mother, and 2 Broke Girls.
He’s also had recurring roles on Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe (Ted Richards), The Adventures of Jim Bowie (Justinian Tibbs), Steve Canyon (Maj. Karl Richmond), Philip Marlowe (Lt. Manny Harris), The Nancy Walker Show (Teddy Futterman), The Waltons (Stanley Perkins), and The New Gidget (Russell Lawrence).
In a 1960 interview with The Milwaukee Journal, Schallert praised the number and variety of available television parts: “In the past year, for instance, I have appeared as an old, feuding hillbilly; a vicious prosecuting attorney; an intelligent psychiatrist; a submarine commander; a blind ex-tennis player; a priest; a bartender; a hard-bitten Civil War major; an acidulous high-school teacher; a Bowery bum; and now a police lieutenant.”
Some of the recurring roles brought him a bit of fame, such as his portrayal of English teacher Leander Pomfritt, who was perpetually perplexed by students Dobie (Dwayne Hickman) and his beatnik buddy Maynard G. Krebs (Bob Denver), to whom he often asked, “You ready, my young barbarians?” on CBS’ The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, (1959-63).
After Dobie Gillis was canceled, he won the role of Martin Lane, the warm-hearted father of impetuous teenager Patty Lane and uncle to her sophisticated and level-headed twin cousin Cathy on The Patty Duke Show (1963-66). The memories of the show were still strong enough that in 2004 Schallert placed No. 39 on the list of TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Dads.
Other well-known Schallert roles were on Get Smart as Admiral Hargrade, the brittle founder of CONTROL; The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries as Carson Drew, Nancy Drew’s (Pamela Sue Martin) father; Agent Frank Harper on The Wild, Wild West (stepping in after Ross Martin was sidelined after suffering a heart attack); Wesley Hodges, the elderly boarder in The Torkelsons who lives on Martin Lane (get it?); and Mayor Norris on True Blood.
Schallert performed in numerous miniseries, including 1979’s Blind Ambition (as Nixon adviser Herbert Kalmbach), 1986’s North and South, Book II (as Robert E. Lee), 1988-89’s War and Remembrance (as Harry Hopkins), and 2011’s Bag of Bones (as Harry Devore).
Schallert even lent his voice to animated shows These Are the Days (1974), David and Goliath (1986), Sparky’s Magic Piano (1987), Dinosaurs (1992), and What’s New, Scooby Doo? (2003-2005). He did voiceover work for numerous television and radio commercials over the years, including a long-running role as the voice of Milton the Toaster, the spokesman for Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts.
But perhaps there was no better example of the trials and tribulations of being a supporting actor than Schallert experienced in 1964, when he was chosen for the lead in Philbert, an innovative TV pilot for ABC that combined live action camera work with animation. The series, created by Warner Bros. animator Friz Freleng and directed by Richard Donner, cast Schallert as a cartoonist whose creation, Philbert, comes to life. But when the producers told ABC the series would cost $75,000 per episode, the station wanted a top name in the lead to bring in viewers. At this point, Warner Bros. pulled the plug on the series, although the completed pilot was later released in theaters as a short subject. In an interview, Schallert said, “It was a hard pill to swallow.”
Offstage, Schallert was elected president of the 46,000-member Screen Actors Guild in 1979. The next year, he led the union in a 13-week strike over issues including actors’ pay for films made for the then-new cable television industry. During his tenure, he founded the Committee for Performers With Disabilities. In 1993, Schallert received the Ralph Morgan Award for service to the guild.
The settlement the union reached to end the strike was widely criticized by many in the union, and in 1981, Schallert was succeeded by Ed Asner. Asner, in turn, was succeeded in 1985 by none other than Mr. Schallert’s former screen daughter, Duke.
For years Schallert kept working despite suffering from peripheral neuropathy, which required him to wear braces on his legs, a secret he finally divulged in a 2014 interview.
Schallert is survived by sons Edwin, Joseph, Mark and Brendan and seven grandchildren.