Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Recently I rewatched Stuart Rosenberg’s The April Fools (1969) for probably the thirtieth time and I was struck by how much I absolutely adore late character actor Jack Weston. The great Weston, who sadly passed away just over a decade ago, appeared in nearly 100 films and TV shows in his four decade career and I think it is safe to say that every one of them was improved in an immeasurable way by his presence.
Glancing over Weston’s page at IMBD a few things stood out…such as the fact that he was never once nominated for an Academy Award. In fact he is listed as to have not won even one major award in his career and that is something that I have a hard time reconciling. How could a man so talented and original have left this world without some solid recognition from his peers as to how great he was? There are actors with dozens of awards on their shelves right now who wouldn’t have been fit to even shine Weston’s shoes and it really makes me sad and more than a little angry…but that is the way it was, and is, for many of our great unnoticed character actors.
Weston charged into this world in the late Summer of 1924. Born in Cleveland as the son of a shoe repairman, Weston’s father was the first who noticed his considerable dramatic skills and he signed him up for a local playhouse at the age of ten. Weston excelled here and became quite popular in his hometown before a draft notice arrived just after his 19th birthday and changed his life completely.
He served as Machine Gunner and even did some work for the USO during World War Two. He immediately started acting again when he was discharged in the late forties just shy of his 25th birthday. First it was the Broadway stage that called Weston’s name, and he would indeed return to it throughout his life, but it was film that really captured his soul and heart.
His first roles in front of a camera came via some live television work in the early fifties and he immediately stood out from the crowd, and by the late part of the decade he was landing plum guest spots on everything from Perry Mason to Peter Gunn.
A striking looking heavy set man with a warm and engaging smile, Weston made his big screen debut for legendary New York director Sidney Lumet with a small but memorable role in 1958’s Stage Struck. A few more small appearances followed, including a bit in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation Of Life (1958), before he landed the first really great part of his career in the charming Doris Day vehicle Please Don’t Eat The Daisies (1960) for director Charles Walters.
Weston stole every scene he was in for Walters and it got him a lot of notice. Soon film, and even more television work, came pouring in for the tireless professional. In film after film, such as the Dean Martin flick All In A Night’s Work (1961) and the early Steve Mcqueen picture The Honeymoon Machine (1961), Weston would prove himself as a charismatic comic force who made every move seem completely natural and real.
His television work in this period also contained some real noteworthy performances, with special note going to the influential Twilight Zone episode "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street" (1960) where Weston showed that it was in fact drama and not comedy that had been the first thing he had mastered.
One of my favorite early performances by Weston is in Norman Jewison’s The Cincinnati Kid (1965) which would find him working again with Mcqueen. Who else but Jack Weston could divert my attention from the likes of Steve, Tuesday Weld and Ann-Margret but Jack Weston? He’s one of the truly great elements to Jewison’s still undervalued minor masterpiece.
And so it went throughout the rest of his career with dozens upon dozens of supporting roles in television shows and films. Try to imagine Wait Until Dark (1967) or The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) or Cactus Flower (1969) without him and you will find it impossible.
Rosenberg’s The April Fools is one of my all time favorite films and Weston’s work in it is one of the great comedic performances. He would garner a Golden Laurel nomination for his hilarious turn as Jack Lemmon’s drunken lawyer Potter Shrader and it is a performance that never fails to make me laugh. It is one of many roles that the Academy should have noticed and failed to throughout Weston’s distinguished career.
1972’s Fuzz is probably among the most important film Weston ever made as it is the first film that teamed him up with Burt Reynolds (the two had previously worked together on a Twilight Zone episode). The two had an immediate connection on screen and off and the couple of films they made together, Gator (1976) being the other, show them as one of the great partnerships of the seventies. It is a shame that they didn’t work together more but by the late seventies Weston finally started to slow down as health problems begin plaguing him more and more.
Gator is a real feather in Weston’s cap and his large role as Irving Greenfield is one of his most potent and surprising Gator, Reynold’s first film as a director, is one of the mid seventies finest and it contains perhaps Weston’s finest work in front of the camera.
Weston’s final film with Reynolds should have marked a new phase in his career but now in his fifties, Jack’s work slowed down considerably. He made a dozen or so pictures in the eighties and his career sadly ended with the disappointing Short Circuit 2 (1988).
Jack Weston doesn’t have any books written about him that I know of and you won’t see his name pop up on any best actor lists, but that is an oversight on both counts. Over at the IMDB message boards there are just a few posts about him. One is from someone who claims they knew him and their post says simply, “He was the sweetest.” I think that is a good way to describe this guys really remarkable career. I know every time I see a film or TV show with Jack Weston’s name on it, I am in for something special just because he is in it regardless of the quality of the film. He was the sweetest…may God bless him.