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Russell Hicks – Hollywood Professional

Saturday, September 12th, 2015

“I want to show you I’m honest in the worst way!” – Russell Hicks in The Bank Dick

Russell Hicks, the consummate Hollywood professional character actor, is seen above in one of his most memorable roles as the astonishingly corrupt con man J. Frothingam Waterbury in W.C. Fields’ The Bank Dick (1940, directed by Edward F. Cline), who successfully unloads some worthless shares in “the Beefsteak Mines” (whatever that is) on Fields in a rundown bar with some memorably shady hard-sell dialogue.

As Waterbury tells his mark, Egbert Sousé (Fields) in the film, “Waterbury’s my name, J. Frothingham Waterbury. I’m in the bond and stock business. Now, I have five thousand shares of the Beefsteak Mines in Leapfrog, Nevada, that I want to turn over to your bank. I like this little town and I want to get some contacts. I think you’re the very man.

Now, these shares are selling for ten cents a share. The telephone company once sold for five cents a share. These shares are twice as expensive, therefore, consequently they’ll be twice as valuable. Naturally, you’re no dunce. Telephone is now listed at one seventy-three and you can’t buy it. Three thousand, four hundred and sixty dollars for every nickel you put into it.

It’s simple arithmetic — if five’ll get you ten, ten will get you twenty. Sixteen-cylinder cars, a big home in the city — balconies upstairs and down. Home in the country — big trees, private golf course, stream running through the rear of the estate. Warm Sunday afternoon, fishing under the cool trees, sipping ice-cold beer.  And then this guy comes up the shady drive in an armored car from the bank, and he dumps a whole basket of coupons worth hundreds of thousands of dollars right in your lap.

And he says, ‘Sign here, please, on the dotted line.’ And then he’s off, to the soft chirping of our little feathered friends in the arboreal dell. That’s what these bonds mean. I’d rather part with my dear old grandmother’s paisley shawl or her wedding ring than part with these bonds. Gosh! Oh, pardon my language. . . I feel like a dog. But it’s now or never. It must be done. So take it or leave it.”

“I’ll take it!” Fields responds, thereby setting off a chain of events that makes The Bank Dick one of the handful of films that has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. But Hicks’ work in The Bank Dick is just one of more than 320 feature films and television programs the actor appeared in, including, among many other projects, such significant films as Scarlet Street,  Blood and Sand, The Great Lie, Sergeant York and The Black Arrow, racking up no less than 19 credits in 1942, and another 25 films in 1941.

For all of this, Hicks received comparatively little remuneration, as this employment card from for The Little Foxes from 1941 shows; he was a day player, with a rate of just $150 per day with a weekly guarantee for $600, and remained in constant demand because of his absolute professionalism, the fact that he could remember reams of dialogue and almost never blew a take, and could be relied on to essentially “direct himself,” so that even when the film he was appearing in fell apart, or the director had no idea what he was doing, Hicks would emerge unscathed, ready for his next assignment.

Russell Hicks’ employment contract for The Little Foxes, dated May 1, 1941.

Hicks worked right up until his death, and as you can see, he had to; for his entire professional career, Hicks was a perennial freelancer, moving from studio to studio, from the majors to the minors, without hardly missing a beat. With his sonorous voice, photographic memory, and dignified bearing, Hicks could move from playing a shady mob lawyer (in Hold That Ghost), to a judge (Tarzan’s New York Adventure), or an army colonel (They Died With Their Boots On), or a CIA “handler” (The Flying Saucer) without missing a beat.

Amazingly, he even took on the role of an aging Robin Hood – surely a stretch – in the 1946 film The Bandit of Sherwood Forest, and managed to pull it off in style. Some of his roles took just a day; others a week or so, but Hicks could always be relied to show up, say his lines, and wrap up his portion of the project with smooth assurance.

Indeed, his career stretched all the way back to 1915, and his work on D. W. Griffith’s horrifically racist Birth of A Nation, as well as Intolerance in 1916, and he was never out of work for more than few weeks before the next job came along.

Hicks’ last work was in Betty White’s pioneering television fantasy sitcom Date With The Angels in 1957; he died of a heart attack at the relatively young age of 61 that same year. So his career truly spanned cinema from almost the medium’s inception straight through until the modern sound era. It’s always fun to watch him at work; no matter how small the part, he never disappoints, and plays each new role with conviction and style.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Betty White

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

Click here, or on the image above, to read Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s new essay “Life with Betty White: Performing the Authentic Proto-Feminist in Pioneering Early Television” in the latest issue of Film International.

As Foster notes, “Betty White has always been ahead of her time. This has been both a blessing and a curse. Most people, even scholars who specialize in television history, have little to no knowledge of the importance of Betty White in early live television, in the invention of the television sitcom, and as a pioneering television writer, producer, and actor. At 91, Betty White couldn’t be much hotter. As of February 20, 2013, her television “Q” score – her “likability quotient” – was the highest in the industry. Her popularity amongst all different markets, regardless of age, race, and demographics, is truly staggering, giving the Kardashians a run for their money.

White currently appears in two first-run TV programs, the network series Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, which she also co-produces, and Nick at Nite’s Hot in Cleveland, a show worth watching primarily to catch White stealing scene after scene and to watch her inventively breathe life into a character (Elka Ostrovsky) who is a strong, smart, unapologetically sexy elderly woman like none other. White won a Screen Actors Guild Award for her portrayal of Elka (Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor) in 2011. And she is considered to be the most popular and most trusted celebrity among Americans according to a 2011 poll conducted by Reuters.

But being ahead of her time has not always best served the interests of Betty White. Back in the nineteen-fifties, both playing and living the life of an independent and very capable funny and pretty woman in charge of her own sexuality, Betty was arguably too far ahead of her time, and she was eclipsed by the dim-witted, clowning, simple-minded character portrayed by Lucille Ball on I Love Lucy. It’s fascinating to compare the trajectories of Betty White and Lucille Ball in early TV history, and even more interesting to think about how female gender roles on television may have had an entirely different influence on American women had Betty White’s Life with Elizabeth (1952-1955) and Date with the Angels (1957-1958) stayed on the air and enjoyed the success and seemingly endless syndication of I Love Lucy. Lucy was still in reruns when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s and even now enjoys legendary popularity, despite its retrograde and sadly influential characterization of the female comic as sexless, clownish, childish, stupid and ever dependent on men, most significantly her husband ‘Ricky.’

Few note that well before Betty had success with Life with Elizabeth she had actually begun her TV career as early as 1939, when, only three months after graduating high school, Betty appeared on an early experimental Los Angeles TV station, singing songs from The Merry Widow. She did modelling, and during the war she served in the American Women’s Voluntary Services. She was very active in radio, in programs such as Blondie, The Great Gildersleeve, and This is Your FBI. She even had her own radio show, The Betty White Show. Even before White developed Life with Elizabeth, she rose to prominence as a beautiful, confident, intelligent, quick-witted comedic actress and eventual writer/producer known for her writing skills, her business acumen, her comic timing and her ability to ad-lib and write for television.

After an early career in radio and modelling, White was one of the first recognized early TV stars. White starred in the live five and one half hour ad-libbed variety show, Hollywood on Television, which was shown six days a week on station KLAC in Los Angeles from 1952 to 1956. This grueling trial by fire afforded White a platform to hone her skills as a writer and actress noted for both her audacity and her authenticity, the same elements she is celebrated for today. Hollywood on Television taught White to think on her feet, and connect with her viewers, most of whom were women working at home. They identified with White’s independence and resourcefulness. They enjoyed her intellect, her delicious sense of humor, and her ability to create a woman of both intellect and sensuality, especially in the repressive environment of the nineteen-fifties.

Betty had a mind for business, and in 1952, the same year she began solo hosting Hollywood on Television, she co-founded Bandy Productions with producer Don Fedderson and writer George Tibbles. The three of them created the comedy Life with Elizabeth. Betty was not only the star of the show but one of the producers. Life with Elizabeth enjoyed national syndication, and White was one of the only women in TV at that time with full creative control both in front of and behind the camera. In 2010, White won a Screen Actors Guild award for Lifetime Achievement, in recognition not just for her work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Golden Girls, but also for her early pioneering work on Life with Elizabeth and [her other pioneering television series, discussed at length in the Foster's article] Date with the Angels. It’s truly a shame that most people are not as familiar with Life with Elizabeth or Date with the Angels, because in these very unusual programs, Betty White created and performed a very modern version of what I’d call a proto-feminist visionary in the 1950s.”

This is fascinating, deeply incisive work, with excellent research and detail. Read all about it here!

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at or

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