BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
I just knew I had to interview Burt Mustin when he walked into the newspaper office in June 1973 and told the receptionist he was “the best they-went-that-a-way” actor working in Hollywood. Work had stopped in the film capital because of a screenwriters’ strike. So Mustin was taking a short vacation in Canada, dropping into newspapers unannounced, and telling his story to any reporter who wanted to listen.
I wanted to listen. Mustin was 89 years old then and undoubtedly had a good story to tell. How did it all get started for him?
“I like to say I’ve been a professional since I was six and an inebriated gentleman heard me singing on my way home from kindergarten, took me into Morlein’s saloon to sing for the crowd, and I went home after dark with pockets full of money and got a licking for it.”
He was kidding, of course. Mustin didn’t actually get started as professional until he was 67, after working as a car salesman for most of his adult life. He had graduated from Pennsylvania Military College with an engineering degree in 1903, “but I was the worst engineer the school turned out so I became a salesman.” He also became active in the Pittsburgh amateur theatrical and musical circles, appeared in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and sang in barbershop quartets.
Mustin (“it’s a little like mustard but not so hot – that’s what I tell ‘em all”) retired to Tucson, Arizona when he was 62. A friend who knew about his amateur theatrical experience invited him to try out for a professional production of Sidney Kingsley’s Detective Story at the Sombrero Playhouse in Phoenix. Mustin got the part, his first professional gig. The film director William Wyler saw the production and told Mustin to look him up if he ever got to Hollywood. Mustin did look him up and was subsequently cast as Willie the crotchety janitor in the 1951 film version of Detective Story. That marked the beginning of a screen career that lasted until Mustin was in his 90s.
“I wanted to get into it earlier but I had a home-loving wife,” he told me. “It wasn’t until she was satisfied there was no travelling involved that she okayed the deal.” During the ensuing 22 years Mustin appeared in 64 motion pictures and made 348 appearances on network television. That made him one of the busiest bit players in Hollywood.
His film roles were mostly forgettable. “I do a lot of westerns, but they don’t like elderly actors to ride so I usually end up as a carpenter or saloon hanger-on,” he told me. Typical of such roles were the ones where he ran into a saloon to warn the customers, “Blackie’s back in town, and he’s lookin’ mighty mean,” or shouted out the classic western phrase, “They went that-a-way.”
But Mustin had one memorable role, in the movie Cat Ballou with Lee Marvin and Jane Fonda, that gave him an opportunity to stretch out a little. Playing a character known only as The Accuser, Mustin accused an opponent of cheating at cards and pulled a gun on him. When he cocked the weapon to fire it, he realized he was out of ammunition. Columbia cut this scene prior to release but retained the next scene where Mustin approached Lee Marvin, playing an aged gunfighter named Kid Shellen, with a question: “Can you loan me a bullet, Kid?” asked Mustin. “You remember me, old … old …” Unable to remember his name, The Accuser slunk away. Later on, the director, Elliot Silverstein, wrote Mustin a congratulatory letter: “If you want to see one line stop a show, just watch yourself in this one.”
While his uncredited movie roles as saloon hangers-on, hillbilly patriarchs and town’s oldest citizens paid the bills, Mustin made his biggest mark on television. Starting in the early 1950s, he made regular appearances on such shows as Leave it to Beaver (as Gus the fireman), The Andy Griffith Show (as barber-shop patron Jud Fletcher) and several episodes of Jack Webb’s Dragnet. In one Dragnet episode, he played the world’s oldest cat burglar. In another, he played a retired detective who outwitted Joe Friday and Bill Gannon and solved a murder case. “It was the only time in the history of the series that the two mighty detectives were left with egg on their faces,” said Mustin with a laugh.
In Gunsmoke, Mustin played the part of 104-year-old Uncle Finney, who was tossed into jail by his two unscrupulous nephews so they could collect the bounty for an unsolved horse theft. “The old guy was drunk most of the time so he didn’t really know what was going on,” said Mustin. He was quick to add that he himself didn’t drink or smoke, because he believed in living a “moderate” life. “And only one wife all my life,” he added. “And no stepping out on her either.” He had been married to his wife Frances Woods, whom he referred to affectionately as “that girl of mine,” for 54 years until she died in 1969.
Another television role Mustin wanted to tell me about was in an episode of Adam-12 where he played an old man who stripped off all his clothes to show he was the reincarnation of Apollo. “And me with no muscles,” laughed the lanky actor. He said a tablecloth draped around his body like a toga ensured that sensitive viewers would not be shocked when he appeared on screen. Asked about screen nudity generally, Mustin said he didn’t approve. “It’s not much of a problem for an ugly old man like me because I’m not much in demand for bedroom scenes,” he said. “But I wouldn’t pay a dime to see the pornographic stuff. I hate it.”
Mustin still had plenty of screen work lined up when he finished his Canadian vacation and returned to California. In a 1974 episode of All in the Family, he played a pyjama-clad nursing-home refugee, Justin Quigley, whom Edith found wandering the streets and who became the family’s adopted grandfather. In a later episode, Mustin returned to help Archie celebrate a birthday, and livened up the proceedings with a song and dance.
He received the most extensive media coverage of his career in 1976 when Mustin was cast as a young-at-heart oldster named Arthur Lanson in the Cloris Leachman series, Phyllis. In the December 13, 1976 episode, Lanson married the acid-tongued Mother Dexter, played by 86-year-old Judith Lowry. “It was a hilarious and, in retrospect, poignant moment in TV history,” wrote media historian Hal Erickson. Lowry had died of a heart attack two weeks before the program aired. Mustin, who was too ill to watch the show, died six weeks later. He was a few days short of his 93rd birthday.
Copyright © Brian Brennan 2014
A YouTube tribute to Burt Mustin (Warning: loud commercials before video begins.)
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