Even casual couch potatoes will concede that throughout years of television viewing, there’s no avoiding William Schallert!
His distinctive, mellow voice and comfortingly familiar face have appeared on series since the 1950s ranging from “Father Knows Best” to “Desperate Housewives” and everything in between (see www.william-schallert.com).
“I’ve never added up the total, but I did work a lot!” said Schallert, from his home in Pacific Palisades, Calif.
The Internet Movie Database web site lists his tally of television appearances at close to 300, with another 100 feature films – the first being an uncredited role in “The Foxes of Harrow” in 1947 which Schallert still vividly recalls.
“I had one line as a banker delivering a message to the New Orleans stock exchange: ‘Gentlemen, gentlemen, the bank of the United States in Philadelphia has closed its doors!’”
Schallert says the scene was memorable because it called for another actor to shoot himself, but was unable to coordinate firing the gun with the gunshot sound produced by crew backstage.
“They couldn’t see each other, so the shot would go off sometimes before or sometimes after the trigger was pulled. It got to be hysterical,” laughed Schallert. “But they kept me over and I ended up getting three day’s pay for one. So I figured this was a great way to make a living!”
In the beginning, however, Schallert says roles came slowly, but by 1959 he was hot.
“I worked 57 times that year, then got a recurring role on ‘Dobie Gillis,’ and of course as the father on ‘The Patty Duke Show’ in 1963,” he said.
In the popular family sitcom, Patty Duke played dual roles as ‘identical cousins,’ a term that still makes Schallert chuckle. “That could be very disturbing when you think about it!”
Though originally to be set and filmed in California, the cast and crew moved to New York.
“Patty was under 18 and could only work a certain number of hours every day according to child labor laws,” he explained. “But she was required for almost every scene as one girl or the other, and sometimes both. So they moved the production to New York which didn’t enforce the law as stringently as the West Coast.”
A father of four himself during the show’s run, Schallert says having their father play a TV dad didn’t seem to bother his kids. “I don’t think it was a big deal in their lives and they never complained or got razzed about it at school.”
However, the uncertainty of series work could become unsettling.
“I knew the show was coming to an end, and was concerned what would happen,” he said. “Fortunately I started doing voiceover work in commercials and that really paid the bills for the next 20 year.”
Schallert has been a popular guest at sci-fi conventions due to roles in ’50s film classics such as “The Man from Planet X,” “Them,” and “The Incredible Shrinking Man.”
In the latter, he says “I had a great line as a doctor to Grant Williams who was shrinking – ‘People don’t get smaller!’”
Schallert also guest starred in one of the most popular “Star Trek” episodes – The Trouble with Tribbles.
“I’ve been to some of the ‘Star Trek’ fan conventions for autograph signings, and they’re amazing. I’d start at 9 am and wouldn’t finish until 5 or 6 pm. They just never stopped!” he said of the devoted fans.
For the tribble episode, some 1,500 of the furry critters were made and are seen overrunning the Enterprise decks. The iconic props are now rare collector’s items – an original tribble sold for $1,000 in 2003 – while many that still exist have lost their fur due to age.
“I’m not sure how much a bald tribble would be worth today,” said Schallert with a laugh, “but I expect there’s still a market!”
One of Schallert’s favorite TV guest roles was in “Get Smart,” where he appeared in several episodes as the very elderly and unsteady Admiral Hargrade who would fall over at the slightest touch – an irony not lost on the 92-year-old Schallert, now coincidently the exact age as his character during the 1968 season.
“The admiral was a charming character and looking back as an actor, I still think the ways I made him tumble over were funny,” he said. “But now I am the age his character was supposed to be, and the actual falling down part isn’t funny anymore! Falls can become serious health issues for seniors.”
While Schallert says he has experienced some falls, his main health issue is his legs.
“I have peripheral neuropathy and wear braces,” he said. “They help me stay balanced if I use a walker, but it’s just easier to get around in a wheelchair.”
Despite the physical limitation, Schallert doesn’t entirely rule out working in the future.
“Although I’m more or less retired, if someone offered me a stage role and it was something I could manage, I’d probably do it,” he says. “But working in film or TV would be too difficult now. Besides, I did my share!”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 400 magazines and newspapers.