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.
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.