Actor William Schallert, who played Patty Duke’s father — and uncle — in her ’60s sitcom, and led a long, contentious strike for actors, has died. He was 93.
He died at his home in Pacific Palisades, California, on Sunday, said his son, Edwin. Mr. Schallert’s wife, Leah Waggner, whom he married in 1949, passed away in 2015.
Mr. Schallert’s face was familiar to baby boomers. He played a frustrated high school English teacher in “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” in the late ’50s and early ’60s and then was the harried dad Martin Lane to a typical teen and uncle to her lookalike cousin in “The Patty Duke Show” from 1963to 1966. “Star Trek” fans may also remember his for his role as “Nilz Baris” in the iconic series episode “The Trouble with Tribbles.” Mr. Schallert also portrayed the small-town Mississippi mayor Webb Schubert in the 1967n Oscar-winning film “In the Heat of the Night.” Most recently he was featured in the TV mini-series Stephen King’s “Bag of Bones.”
According to the New York Times:
Mr. Schallert’s career spanned generations and genres. Over more than 60 years he racked up scores of credits in episodic television as well as noteworthy performances in motion pictures, on the Off Broadway stage and as a voice-over artist. With his preternaturally mature, intelligent but (by Hollywood standards) unremarkable looks, he was cast almost from the beginning as an authority figure — a father or a teacher, a doctor or a scientist, a mayor or a judge. Most active from the 1950s through the ’80s, Mr. Schallert remained seemingly unchanged in appearance and persona over time, and he was still working in his 90s, dismissing any thoughts of retirement.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, “Schallert enrolled in UCLA aiming to be a composer but left to serve as an Army fighter pilot during World War II. He returned to college and graduated in 1946, then studied theater for a year in England after he received a Fulbright scholarship. Back in L.A., he joined The Circle Theatre, an intimate group that performed in the round in a former drugstore.”
Charlie Chaplin’s children Charles Chaplin Jr. and Sydney Chaplin were among the Circle actors, and their father directed Schallert and June Havoc in a 1948 production of Somerset Maugham’s Rain. He did about 25 plays during the next three or four years.
In 1979, Schallert was elected president of the 46,000-member Screen Actors Guild, an honor held at one time or another by James Cagney, George Murphy, Ronald Reagan, Charlton Heston and other screen notables. Most of them had little to do but conduct meetings and issue statements. With Schallert it was different. In 1980 he led the union as it staged a 13-week strike over such issues as actors’ pay for films made for the then-new cable television industry.
He told the Los Angeles Times his message to actors was that “we have to respect ourselves as artists” and recalled the pre-union days when actors were sometimes expected to work until midnight and be back at work six hours later.
Schallert was defeated in his bid for a second two-year term as SAG president in 1981 by “Lou Grant” star Ed Asner, who had strongly criticized the agreement the union had reached to end the strike. Asner ran into his own controversies as SAG chief by taking stands critical of U.S. foreign policy, and he decided not to seek a third term in 1985. He was succeeded by none other than Schallert’s former screen daughter, Duke.
Schallert said in 2008 that his greatest accomplishment as SAG president was the formation of a committee for performers with disabilities. “We had established committees for all of the various ethnic minorities, women and seniors. I’m a big beneficiary of that right now because I’m 85 and I still work.”
William Joseph Schallert was born in 1922, in Los Angeles. His father, Edwin, was drama editor of the Los Angeles Times from 1919 to 1958. His mother, Elza Schallert, was a well-known journalist and radio commentator.
William spent his high school years in a seminary. After military service he graduated from UCLA and went to England on a Fulbright scholarship in 1952. He studied repertory theater and lectured on American theater at Oxford University.
In his early years he was a founding member of the Circle Theater in Hollywood. The director was Charlie Chaplin, whose son Sydney was a cast member. Schallert recalled that after a preview performance Chaplin would suggest a couple of things to correct. “When it was about five or six in the morning,” Schallert said, “Oona [Chaplin’s wife] would say ‘Come on, Charlie, let them go home. They’ve got a performance to do tonight.'”
Among his later TV roles were guest shots on “Desperate Housewives” and “True Blood.” In 2008, he played Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens in “Recount,” HBO’s Emmy-winning dramatization of the 2000 presidential election.
In all, Schallert appeared in hundreds of movies, television series and specials, playing characters and walk-ons. He was a messenger in “Singin’ in the Rain,” a Union soldier in “The Red Badge of Courage” and an admiral in “Get Smart.” In addition to Justice Stevens, he played such real-life figures such as Gen. Mark Clark in “The War Years” and Gen. Robert E. Lee in “North and South Book II.”
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1966, Schallert lamented being cast as “the second man through the door,” or supporting player. “I did come close to a lead once,” he said. “This was a pilot I made for a series named ‘Filbert.’ But when the producers calculated the series would cost $75,000 per episode, they figured a top name would be needed in the lead to assure success. So they gave up the project. It was a hard pill to swallow.”
Patty Duke, his co-star for three years on the television series that bore her name, died March 29 at the age of 69.
Contributing: Sun-Times staff reporter Miriam Di Nunzio