Saturday, December 17, 2016

What a Character Blogathon – David Wayne

This post is an entry in the What a Character Blogathon hosted by Paula at Paula's Cinema Club, Aurora at Once Upon a Screen, and Kellee at Outspoken and Freckled.

David Wayne is best known as a character actor with a career spanning five decades. Often, he was cast in supporting roles as the likable second banana. Wayne's first major success came in 1947 winning a Tony for Finian's Rainbow. The next year, he joined the newly formed Actors Studio in New York. 

His first major film role role was the friend/neighbor of married couple lawyers Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in Adam's Rib (1948). David Wayne plays a Kip Lurie a singer/songwriter who incessantly flirts with Katharine Hepburn, much to the chagrin of Spencer Tracy. He even writes a love song to her. Throughout the film, Wayne stays close in hopes of luring Hepburn away from Tracy. When the couple has marital issues as a result of a being on opposite sides of a vicious but very funny legal battle, Wayne is there to pick up the pieces. Despite this being only his second major film role, David Wayne easily holds his own with screen giants, Hepburn and Tracy. His character is both charming and conniving. It led to numerous other roles for Wayne as a likable cad.

In 1953, David Wayne played Freddie Denmark, the owner of the apartment that Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable, and Lauren Bacall sublet in How to Marry a Millionaire. He plays a businessman on the run from the IRS, due to his financial adviser, stealing his money and leaving him holding the bag with the government. Despite not being the best looking man in the cast, his charm  and wit are enough to win him the affections of Marilyn Monroe. 

In The Tender Trap, David Wayne plays Frank Sinatra's life-long friend, who comes to visit Sinatra in New York because he is bored with his suburban life, and wife and kids, back in Indianapolis. Sinatra is quite the playboy, and Wayne is looking to play the field. He ends up falling for one of Sinatra's castoffs, Celeste Holm. In Holm, he sees all of the excitement missing in his marriage. Ultimately Holm convinces him that the excitement he desires her would eventually dwindle if they got together and lived as man and wife. He realizes that he really does love his wife back in Indianapolis and returns to them. Again, he plays the role with wit and charm and makes you overlook the fact that he is a cheating husband on the make.

His most well-known roles tend to be of this type, but if you look a little deeper, he was a very skilled actor capable of powerful performances. In addition to work in film, David Wayne did live theater and television roles throughout his career. On television, he appeared on numerous shows including, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, Batman (played the villain the Mad Hatter), Barney Miller, St. Elsewhere, and The Golden Girls, as well as regular roles on Ellery Queen (1975-1976) and House Calls ((1979-1982).

I recently watched his episode of The Twilight Zone "Escape Clause" (season 1, episode 6). Wayne plays a hypochondriac who makes a deal with the devil to become immortal. This is not the good-natured scamp you are used to. Before making the deal, he is petty and paranoid. Afterward, he uses his immortality to stage accidents where he knows won't be hurt to defraud entities such as the subway system with accident claims. It's not a side of him you see often. Naturally, it being The Twilight Zone, it doesn't work out for him.

David Wayne (center left) in The Front Page, with Dick O'Neill (left, partially cut off),
Charles Durning (center, right), and Allen Garfield (right)

In the 1974 Billy Wilder remake of The Front Page, David Wayne plays Bensinger. You may remember the role of Bensinger from His Girl Friday (also a remake of The Front Page (1932)
). The role of Bensinger is largely the same, though it being the 1970s, David Wayne plays the character decidedly gay. Nothing like a 60-ish David Wayne going gay. It was a highlight of a fairly forgettable film. 

I saved the best for last. In one of his few starring film roles, David Wayne plays the child murderer in the 1951 remake of M, Fritz Lang's classic German thriller. Normally, I wouldn't even want to watch a remake of a film as good as M (1931), but I watched more out of curiosity than anything else. The 1951 version holds up surprisingly well. For one thing, being set in 1950s Los Angeles, it feels more real and in certain ways closer and more disturbing. The other more important reason the 1951 film holds up is that David Wayne's performance in the Peter Lorre role is absolutely chilling. The whole way through, you are telling yourself, I can't believe this the same guy from Adam's Rib. If I was an actor, the last thing I would want is to try to reprise a role as good as Peter Lorre's performance in M. How could you live up to it, but here David Wayne does so admirably.

While I was writing this, I thought about something. We tend to think about type-casting as a negative, but type-casting is what makes great character actors, whether that is the curmudgeon, the snarky nurse, the mild-mannered bookworm, or in David Wayne's case, the affable but unscrupulous friend. These actors bring these traits with them and plug them into the roles assigned. David Wayne could play the nice, but self-serving next-door neighbor or childhood friend as well as anyone. Yet, give him something real, a role with teeth, and he could blow you away. David Wayne was a great character actor, but also a great actor, period. You can't ask for much more than that.