|Born||January 23, 1889|
Newark, New Jersey, U.S.
|Died||July 20, 1958 (aged 69)|
Laguna Beach, California, U.S.
Franklin Pangborn (January 23, 1889 – July 20, 1958) was an American comedic character actor famous for playing small but memorable roles with comic flair. He appeared in many Preston Sturges movies as well as the W. C. Fields films International House, The Bank Dick, and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. For his contributions to motion pictures, Pangborn received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1500 Vine Street on February 8, 1960.
Pangborn was born in Newark, New Jersey. During World War I, he served for 14 months with the 312th Infantry in Europe.
An encounter with actress Mildred Holland when he was 17 led to Pangborn's first professional acting experience. He was working for an insurance company when she learned about his ambitions for acting and offered him an extra's position with her company at $12 per week, initially during his two weeks' vacation. That opportunity grew into four years' touring with Holland and her troupe. Following that, he acted in Jessie Bonstelle's stock company.
In the early 1930s, Pangborn worked in short subjects for Mack Sennett, Hal Roach, Universal Pictures, Columbia Pictures, and Pathé Exchange, almost always in support of the leading players. (For example, he played a befuddled photographer opposite "Spanky" McFarland in the Our Gang short subject Wild Poses.) He also appeared in scores of feature films in small roles, cameos, and recurring gags.
Pangborn played essentially the same character: prissy, polite, elegant, highly energetic, often officious, fastidious, somewhat nervous, prone to becoming flustered but essentially upbeat, and with immediately recognizable high-speed, patter-type speech. He typically played an officious desk clerk in a hotel, a self-important musician, a fastidious headwaiter, or an enthusiastic birdwatcher, and was usually put in a situation where he was frustrated or flustered by the antics of other characters.
Many years after Pangborn's death, LGBTQ historians claimed some of the characters he had portrayed onscreen had been gay stereotypes. Throughout his long career, such a topic was too sensitive to be discussed overtly by screenwriters, directors, studio executives or the newspaper columnists and critics who publicized movies. In 1933, before the Hays Office began censoring films, International House included a rare instance of a screenwriter and director briefly alluding to homosexuality in a scene that included Pangborn’s character. A character known as Professor Quail, portrayed by W.C. Fields, has just landed his autogyro on the roof of the titular hotel in the Chinese city of Wuhu, but he does not know where he is. He has the following exchange with the hotel manager, portrayed by Pangborn:
- Professor Quail: Hey! Where am I?
- Woman: Wu-Hu.
- Professor Quail: Woo-Hoo to you sweetheart! Hey Charlie! Where am I?
- Pangborn: WU-HU!
- (Fields then removes the flower from his lapel) Professor Quail: Don't let the posy fool ya!
Pangborn was an effective foil for many major comedians, including Fields, Harold Lloyd, Olsen and Johnson, and The Ritz Brothers. He appeared regularly in comedies, including several directed by Preston Sturges, and in some musicals of the 1940s. When movie roles became scarce, he worked in television, including The Red Skelton Show (in which he played a comical murderous bandit) and a This Is Your Life tribute to Mack Sennett, his old boss. Pangborn was briefly the announcer on Jack Paar's The Tonight Show in 1957, but was fired after the first few weeks for a lack of "spontaneous enthusiasm" and replaced by Hugh Downs.
Pangborn's final public performance came as a supporting player in The Red Skelton Show episode for April 22, 1958.
Pangborn lived in Laguna Beach, California in a house with his mother and his "occasional boyfriend", according to William Mann in Behind the Screen. He died on July 20, 1958.