Anecdotal Spores: The Character Actor
by Matt Hughes
Most people would recognize him on sight, although few would know his name. Even in his ragged old age, however, he retains those features that have made him so memorable a presence as a character actor in over a hundred films.
If one were to type-cast people who would spend their lives being type-cast, he would be among those chosen. His roles scarcely deviated from the image and prescription of a Nazi officer in uniform, gazing out of an expression of cold and bilious fanatacism that was itself a small perfection of art.
Actually, though, that is not exclusively the case, for there were some half dozen films when he did not play a Nazi officer, but simply a German officer in World War I. Furthermore, the part he took was always an extension of what he believed himself to be—therefore, of what he was.
Throughout the years, many of the Jewish producers, directors, and staff— along with his Jewish fellow actors—could never quite believe in him, for he too nearly epitomized their institutionalized nightmare. In every conceivable way, as an ideal Junker he was a perfected type, an absolute of its kind, transcending the human need for a minimal reality.
He has been married twice, and is now living with a younger woman of fifty-two, who has had six operations for cancer but retains her courage and youthful appearance, and looks after him as if he, not she, were the invalid.
He spends long hours remembering the past and brooding upon his career. The offers do not come now as frequently as they once did. He knows very well that this is only natural. It is the way of things.
Sometimes he talks with his 52-year-old companion, whose name is Helen. They sit on their small patio in back of their house in San Marino, drinking cold pale Rhine wine and talking in low voices.
She cannot look at him without seeing a score of legendary Nazi officers striding through great manorial halls as they tug at the fingers of their long gloves in pulling them off or idly return salutes . . . nor, when he speaks, can she fail to hear these legendary officers as they issue commands that cannot be denied. All of this accounts for part of her fascination, perhaps even her love for him.
Sometimes, late at night, when it is peaceful and the stars are shining over the city, he shares with her his deepest thoughts. Thinking aloud, he contemplates how vastly different his life would have been if, by some chance, the Nazis had won the war.
“If they had won,” he muses, “I would not have had any business acting like one of them. I would have had nothing to do, in terms of what my life has actually turned out to be.”
“It is very strange,” Helen agrees. She is a comfortable woman—a little too plump, but content with her traditionally defined womanhood, and warm and attentive and filled with the capacity to love a man.
“If they had won,” he continues, “then they would not have presided over certain things as they have.”
“I don't know what you mean,” she says.
“There wouldn't have been any room in the imagination, you see.”
“You mean, in all those films?”
In the darkness he nods. “Yes,” he says, “in all those films. In that world, rather than this one.”
Matt Hughes lives in the country in the wooded Appalachian foothills of southeastern Ohio. The Theatre Studio in Manhattan recently produced four of his one-act plays, the latest being Inside the Outside, or the Mobius Trip. He collects old and rare books and, with his wife of many years, antiques. He likes to go yard saleing.