Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Great Characters: Allen Jenkins

If you have seen at least 20 movies from the 30s and 40s you have seen Allen Jenkins.

You probably just didn't know it.

Born in Staten Island, he became the world's idea of what a regular mug from New York City should look like, sound like and act like. On screen he was the perfect not-so-smart street thug, but like most things in Hollywood, Allen Jenkins was not necessarily what he appeared to be -- he developed that rough-edged character at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Jenkins' parents were musical comedy performers, and he entered the theater as a stage mechanic after World War I. In his first on-stage appearance, he danced next to James Cagney in a chorus line for an off-Broadway musical. Soon the two chorus boys would epitomize the tough, big city gangster that movie audiences could not get enough of.

As a lover of movies from his heyday, I have always been drawn to Jenkins' characters. There's something so natural and entertaining about him in every role, small or large. And apparently I'm not alone, because the New York Times once called him the “greatest scene-stealer of the 1930s.”

And he worked a lot.

He was the icing on the cake that Warner Brothers could count on to add depth to Hollywood classics like 42nd Street, Dead End and Destry Rides Again, or to play more prominent roles in studio assembly-line productions like Jimmy the Gent and The Case of the Howling Dog.

And to Baby Boomers who may not be as partial as I am to the old, black-and-white movies that made Jenkins semi-famous – you probably know him, too.

He showed up all over TV in the 60s … The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Batman, Bewitched, Ben Casey, Marcus Welby, Adam-12 and more!

(I told you he worked a lot.)

And I only recently discovered where I first ran into one of my favorite character actors ever, without ever realizing it.

He was the voice of authority in a cartoon classic as “Officer Dibble” on Top Cat!

I'm imagining everyone around my age thinking “Oh, yeah” to themselves just about now.

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