OBITUARY

William Edward Phipps

February 4, 1922June 1, 2018

William E. Phipps

Veteran actor William Phipps, whose stage, movie and TV career spanned over a half-century, died Friday night (June 1) at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, California. He was battling lung cancer which, according to his primary care manager Dr. Jill Brink (https://aginginterventions.com/ ), was then complicated by pneumonia. At 96, he was one of Hollywood’s oldest actors.

Phipps never aspired to movie or TV stardom, happy instead to consider any part offered to him, large or small. He prided himself on his versatility, which is demonstrated by his résumé: On little theater stages, he acted in plays by Chekhov, Shakespeare and Brecht while in movies he was perhaps best-known for his work in B-Westerns and cowboy TV series. When Hollywood first began pumping out science fiction films in the 1950s, Phipps became one of the genre’s first “regulars,” starring in the post-apocalyptic drama Five, co-starring in schlocky titles such as Cat-Women of the Moon and The Snow Creature, and becoming one of the Martians’ first victims in The War of the Worlds (and more). For fans of Disney animation, his claim to fame was providing the speaking voice of Prince Charming in the studio’s 1950 classic Cinderella.

Phipps was born in Vincennes, Indiana, on February 4, 1922. When he was six, his parents divorced, and his mother moved William and his 18-months-older brother Jack ten miles to St. Francisville, Illinois, where she remarried. Growing up in farm country and riding horses was good preparation for the scores of Western movies and TV episodes in which he would appear. A self-described “river rat,” he learned to swim in the nearby Wabash River. Phipps began acting when he played the wife-killing Bluebeard in a play in second grade; he later performed in high school plays. In 1939, he began attending Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois, where he took every course in accounting with the thought of going into that line of work, and appeared in plays on the side. Ironically, according to the future actor, “I got elected to every office I ran for in college except president of the drama class.”

In 1941, Jack Phipps joined the Army Air Force. Later that year, William hitchhiked to San Antonio, Texas, to watch his brother receive his Wings. Following the graduation ceremony, he decided to forgo his EIU studies and proceed to California to pursue his acting dream.

In the early days of World War II, after Jack Phipps died when his plane was shot down in the South Pacific, William enlisted in the Navy. He attended naval radio training school at the University of Idaho and served as a radioman aboard six ships between 1942 and 1945. After his discharge, he returned to Hollywood and used the G.I. Bill to enroll at the Actors Lab, the theater company-acting school. To earn a living, Phipps worked at Schwab’s Pharmacy, a popular hangout for actors and other movie people; using the drugstore’s three-wheeled motorcycle, he was their delivery boy.

When Phipps starred in an Actors Lab production of Men in White, his work impressed two audience members in particular, actor Charles Laughton and Helene Weigel, wife of playwright Bertold Brecht; the two were then casting an upcoming little theater production of Bertold’s Galileo. Backstage, Laughton told Phipps, “Young man, you hold an audience’s attention and you're talented. Would you like to be in my play?” Phipps appeared in the Laughton-directed Galileo and other Laughton stage productions, remaining friends with the actor and his wife Elsa Lanchester to the ends of their lives.

In 1947, Phipps’ movie career got off to an auspicious start when RKO placed him under contract and gave him his first assignment: Crossfire, a film noir about a police investigation into the hate-crime murder of a Jewish man by a member of a group of recently discharged soldiers. Phipps played one of the suspected soldiers, a quiet Tennessee boy who works with the police to nail the guilty party. The modestly budgeted movie performed far beyond expectations, both critically and box office-wise (it was RKO’s biggest hit that year). It also received many major Oscar nominations, including Best Writer, Director and Picture. RKO soon placed Phipps in the first of his B Westerns, The Arizona Ranger and Desperadoes of Dodge City.

Cinderella and Sci-Fi

Phipps auditioned for the job of voicing Prince Charming in Disney’s Cinderella; Walt Disney heard Phipps’ recording and personally told the actor the job was his. Recording the fairy tale prince’s lines for the movie was two hours’ work one January 1949 afternoon, according to Phipps, and he was paid $100. More memorable than the recording session itself was a night some time later, when Disney promoted their forthcoming movie with a nationwide contest for young women: The winner would be brought to Hollywood and have a date with the voice of Prince Charming. In white tie and tails and top hat, Phipps and the winner met in front of a live audience, on the stage of the Pantages Theater during a coast-to-coast radio broadcast of Art Linkletter’s show. According to Phipps, “They gave me (I think) $100 pocket money and gave me a limousine and a driver, so we could go anywhere we wanted. We went to Ciro's and the Mocambo, which were the two most famous places on the Sunset Strip at the time, and we went to the Trocadero, too. At the end of the night, around midnight, the limousine driver and I took her back to the Roosevelt Hotel, where she was staying. And then the chauffeur took ME back home — a rooming house we called the House of the Seven Garbos. A home for fledgling ACTRESSES, where 1 lived in a room in the basement for seven dollars a week! The next day I went to the tuxedo rental place and turned in my stuff.” The prince was a pauper again.

When producer-director Arch Oboler prepared to make the sci-fi Five, about the last five people on Earth after the Bomb, he sought some casting advice from Laughton and was introduced to Phipps, who got the starring role. The non-union movie was made in and around the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed guesthouse at Oboler’s ranch in the hills above Malibu, by Oboler and a crew about the same size as the cast (young USC students living there throughout the shoot). Phipps’ subsequent sci-fis were even more outlandish: He battled the Abominable Snowman in The Snow Creature, encountered Martians in The War of the Worlds and Invaders from Mars, and battled a giant spider in a lunar cave in the 3-D disaster piece Cat-Women of the Moon.

Phipps played small roles in pictures (a servant to Marlon Brando’s Antony in Julius Caesar, French Impressionist painter Emile Bernard in Lust for Life, etc.) and prominent roles in B movies and Westerns. He was also busy in many of TV’s best-remembered series of the era: The Cisco Kid, Rin Tin Tin, Twilight Zone, Perry Mason, Rawhide, 77 Sunset Strip, Wagon Train, Gunsmoke, Lassie, Batman, Wyatt Earp (a semi-regular as outlaw Curly Bill Brocius) and dozens more. As Charles Laughton prepared to direct his first and only film, 1955’s The Night of the Hunter, Phipps made an important contribution: He insisted to Laughton that Robert Mitchum was right for the starring role of homicidal Southern preacher Harry Powell. Laughton wouldn’t hear of it but Phipps persisted and pushed until Laughton agreed to meet Mitchum. This led to the latter’s starring role in the suspense classic.

Later Years

Work slowed in the late 1960s because, according to Phipps, “I wasn't a juvenile any more; I didn't look old enough to be a father; I was sort of in no man's land. I dropped out for five years [1969-75] and moved to Hawaii.” During Phipps’ years on Maui, there were times when he wanted to be completely incognito (he grew a beard, and drove a cab when he needed money). But apparently the urge to perform again overcame him, as he also had his own radio show and a cable TV job, hosting movies on the Friday night series Hollywood Oldies. When he returned to the mainland, one of his first roles was as President Theodore Roosevelt in the mini-series Eleanor and Franklin, a ratings hit and the winner of 11 Emmys (“Oh, what a way to make a comeback!” Phipps exclaimed). He turned down the opportunity to reprise the Roosevelt role in a sequel, but America’s Rough Rider rode again in a commercial shot in Los Angeles for Japanese television: Phipps as Teddy at his desk savoring a cup of Maxwell House coffee and proclaiming it “Good to the last drop!”

More TV work followed, including many commercials plus a job as narrator of the special 190-minute TV version of the motion picture Dune. Film-wise, he made a well-remembered appearance in Disney’s Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993), playing Quentin, the old man who saves Sassy the Cat (voice of Sally Field) from the river and nurses her back to health. His final movie role was in the 2000 indie Sordid Lives, which he also co-produced. Even though he had abruptly left Eastern Illinois University without finishing his studies, the institution gave him an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters in 2006 for achieving a record of major distinction as an actor.

Phipps was twice-married; his first wife died in an automobile accident and the second marriage ended in divorce. In the last decades of his life, he was a familiar sight (in his WORLD WAR II VETERAN cap) in Malibu, walking his dog and frequenting the restaurant Lily’s Malibu well into his 90s.

Phipps spent the better part of his life, almost 70 years, in Southern California but never forgot his roots, telling one interviewer, “I’m a Midwesterner. …Midwesterners seem to have more of an open honesty than other people. They don't have the deviousness that the big city people have. I’m a hick, and I’ll always be a hick.”

Services

  • Graveside Service Thursday, June 7, 2018
REMEMBERING

William Edward Phipps

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Kim Ledoux

June 7, 2018

We had a surprise birthday celebration at Lily’s . He was so pleased! Everyone in the place sang happy birthday, ate burritos and cake. Such a happy memory!
Loved Bill!

FROM THE FAMILY