Thurston Hall: The Great Senator

You’ve seen him before…that imposing stature, that jovial smile, his booming voice, and those eyes, those eyes that bulge at just the right moments. Thurston Hall is his name and governors, senators, businessmen, and doting fathers are his game. His name is often confused with Thurston Howell III (Jim Backus) of Gilligan’s Island fame, and although the series’ creator Sherwood Schwartz never directly admitted that his multi-millionaire character was based on Hall, he certainly could have been!

Thurston made nearly 270 films in his career which spanned between 1915-1958. Westerns, dramas, musicals, comedies, adventure films….he did them all. If any film featured a blustery authoritarian you could be sure that it was Thurston Hall playing the part.

This 6′ tall Bostonian toured New England with a theatrical troupe in his youth, later forming his own theater company and traveling throughout Australia and South Africa. He was kept busy throughout the early 1900s and 1920s juggling both stage performances with numerous silent film appearances. However, his rich baritone voice could not be heard in silent films and so audiences did not embrace him as the leading man he could have been. It was not until he was nearing the age of 50 that he found his niche as a character actor appearing in films for just about every studio in Hollywood.

Thurston was a delightful character, and it did not matter whether he played unscrupulous men, or pompous politicians…you just couldn’t help but like him. A prime example of a typical Thurston Hall role was Mr. Bruce Pierce, publisher of the sensational Pierce paperbacks in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947). Walter Mitty (Danny Kaye) would continually come up with excellent suggestions for company, all of which Mr. Pierce would later boast were his own brilliant ideas. Ten years earlier, he had portrayed a similar role as Irene Dunne’s flustered New York publisher Arthur Stevenson in Theodora Goes Wild (1936).

In Fast Company (1938) he was crooked District Attorney MacMillen, a man always ready to swoop down on the Sloanes…especially when he felt them breathing down his neck. In almost every film, Thurston had a fat cigar hanging from his lips, and he would often puff on it nervously when his character’s underhanded political dealings were about to be exposed. It was these political roles that Thurston excelled at in particular. His face, his manners, and that voice of his were the ideal image of an American politician….particularly a congressmen or senator. The Great Gildersleeve (1942), Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943), The Farmer’s Daughter (1947), Welcome Stranger (1947), and Up in Central Park (1948) were just a few of the films where he played men of political prominence.

Remember that wealthy socialite Mr. Bel-Goodie in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1938)? That was Thurston, too. When he wasn’t portraying crooked financiers or politicians he played wealthy upper-crust men of society. In First Love (1939) Deanna Durbin made sure to tickle the snooty gent the right way because she was smitten with his son (Robert Stack).

Thurston also played military men with ease, often portraying colonels or captains of the Army and Navy (as in Going Places and Brewster’s Millions ). When he wasn’t donning a uniform you could find Thurston with a cowboy hat atop his head. Jasper Jim Bandy (Swing the Western Way), Big Jim Hanlon (Rim of the Canyon ), Horatio Huntington (Belle of Ole Mexico), Big Jim Lassiter (Whirlwind ), and Mr. Gaytes (Texas Carnival ), were some of the larger than life Texan characters that Thurston tackled in the 1940s and 1950s.

When Thurston Hall’s film career came to a close in the mid-1950s, he focused his attention on television, appearing in episodes of The Abbott and Costello Show and My Little Margie as well as being a regular in The Adventures of Hiram Holliday and Topper. Incidentally, his role of the blustery boss Mr. Schuyler in Topper is what he is most remembered for.

In Hollywood today there aren’t many character actors who are known for playing one particular kind of role. Even if these actors still existed, we doubt that anyone could personify a politician as well as Thurston Hall. We like to call him “The Great Senator”. After all, who could claim they were a senator so many times in their career?

Constance Metzinger runs the website Silver Scenes, “a blog for classic film lovers.”