This article on the career of Charles McGraw appeared in The Dark Pages special edition dedicated to the classic 1946 film The Killers.
Looking back I find it comical that my earliest memory of Charles McGraw was as a poet. At least that’s what he told Pa Kettle in 1950 when the Kettles’ went to town. As it turned out he was actually “Shotgun” Munger hiding out at the Kettle farm after pulling a recent heist. This would turn out to be more in keeping with the catalogue of characters that I came to appreciate from Mr. McGraw over the ensuing years.
McGraw was born Charles Butters, an only child in May of 1914 Des Moines, Iowa. Bitten by the acting bug, as a young man he made his way to New York City where in the mid to late 30’s he went by the name of Charles Crisp in his attempts to land on Broadway. Along with Lee J. Cobb, John Garfield and Elia Kazan he was cast in the hit show Golden Boy. Although not a leading role he stuck with the play for its’ Broadway run and even the overseas tour which took the company of actors to England. It was there that he met his future wife Freda Choy-Kitt. They were married in October of 1938 and welcomed their only child Jill in 1941.
Upon returning to America he made his way to Hollywood and the lure of financial security. Since tinsel town already had a successful actor going by the name of Crisp, Charles settled on McGraw as his new stage name that he hoped might someday be displayed prominently on marquees and posters out front of movie houses. It was then in 1942 that he made his first screen appearance in the low budget shocker The Undying Monster. With America at war McGraw enlisted in the military in January of 1944 ultimately being discharged in December of that same year. From there with his distinctive voice he was a natural for radio, landing extensive work and bringing his rough edged voice into homes across the nation.
From 1946 thru to 1952, McGraw along with a few contemporaries would excel in the world of shadows, back alleys and gunplay. The Big Fix, Brute Force, Hazard and The Threat are fine examples of titles one could expect to see McGraw growling his way through.
Before these films came along he cut his teeth like many others doing bit parts in everything from The Mad Ghoul to Destroyer and one would surmise learning his craft from seasoned veterans such as Robinson and Tracy whom he would find himself on set with. When 1946 arrived, independent producer Mark Hellinger cast McGraw along with another actor on the rise, William Conrad in the title roles of The Killers.
Appearing out of the shadows and fog covered night comes McGraw’s clenched jaw line over William Conrad’s shoulder. Approaching a small town diner we see Conrad shuffling off to the side door while McGraw calm and cool, perhaps cautiously is seen moving towards the front entrance. Once inside and having corralled the 2 employees and a patron, William Conrad leads the interrogation as to the whereabouts of “the Swede” yet it is McGraw’s character Al who is seen brandishing a firearm and delivering the threat of physical violence. Making his presence felt through the first 10 minutes of The Killers had assured us that McGraw’s cinematic path was set.
The jaw line and that perfectly graveled voice would find him cast regularly throughout the next few years as the noir genre was hitting its’ stride. Anthony Mann would make good use of his talents in some superior films that he did before moving on to the western and Jimmy Stewart. McGraw would appear in the Mann helmed films Border Incident and Side Street as well as T-Men which allowed him to brutally display what he was capable of bringing to the screen. Behind drinking pal and fellow noir favorite Robert Mitchum, he would appear in a succession of films including the cultish classic His Kind of Woman. This turned out to be an exciting blend of noir, romance and Vincent Price. He continued to support Mitchum in the noir tinged western Blood on the Moon as well as One Minute to Zero and The Wonderful Country.
McGraw cemented his place in noir history appearing in a trio of RKO “B” films where he landed the lead roles. First up was Armored Car Robbery followed by Roadblock. It was the third film, The Narrow Margin that film lovers look towards as the highpoint of his noir output. The irony of this is that upon seeing the film directed by a young Richard Fleischer, Howard Hughes had other ideas in mind. Hughes was known to hold films back from release for months, even years in some cases. This time out after seeing the finished film he must have been impressed as he had a mind to reshoot it after recasting it with Mitchum and Jane Russell as an “A” feature. Thankfully that never came to pass and Fleischer got a solid feature under his belt and McGraw had a film to be proud of.
After the noir cycle came to an end, throughout the 50’s McGraw moved along with the times finding mostly secondary work in westerns such as Thunder Over The Plains and war films opposite stars of the day Jeff Chandler and William Holden in Away All Boats and Bridges at Toko-Ri.
Still packing some weight in supporting roles, Stanley Kramer cast him as Capt. Gibbons who doggedly pursues 2 escaped convicts in the celebrated Defiant Ones. He would also turn up again under Anthony Mann’s direction as one of the chief villains opposite Glenn Ford in Cimarron. Then in 1960 he appeared as Marcellus in Spartacus. It’s a role where he is deliciously sadistic, taunting Kirk Douglas relentlessly until their inevitable clash which resulted in McGraw suffering a broken jaw on set while filming his stirring demise.
The new medium of television provided a steady stream of work for actors like McGraw who were not necessarily leading men but solid working actors. He even landed a couple lead roles in shows trying to capitalize on previous big screen successes. Taking over for Humphrey Bogart he tackled the Rick Blaine role in a series pilot for Casablanca and then appearing as Mike Waring aka The Falcon for 1955/56 season. Throughout the next decade he managed to make appearances on most of the popular shows of the era. Shows like Bonanza, Thriller and Ben Casey. Fittingly, he also turned up in the noir influenced John Cassavetes show Johnny Staccato.
With a face familiar enough to casting directors and audiences alike, supporting roles continued in some high profile films such as In Cold Blood, It’s a Mad World, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, the Eastwood oater Hang’Em High as well as Hitchcock’s The Birds.
As the 60’s became the 70’s the television movie of the week was in full swing utilizing many familiar faces for the viewing audience. So not only was he appearing in favorite shows of the day like Ironside, Mission: Impossible or Adam-12 but also the most widely viewed made for TV Movie up to that point in time the cult favorite The Night Stalker.
There were a few theatrical appearances remaining as his career wound down; Chandler with Warren Oates, the sci-fi apocalyptic A Boy and His Dog and his final appearance once again opposite the Swede, Burt Lancaster in Robert Aldrich’s taut nuclear thriller Twilight’s Last Gleaming.
Sadly in 1980 McGraw would pass from this world at the age 66 after sustaining injuries from a slip in the shower.
Had McGraw come along about 20 years later in the 60’s and 70’s, I don’t think it would be a stretch to see him attaining the image of a Lee Marvin or Gene Hackman on screen. By then the tougher looking screen persona was in vogue making cult stars of actors like Eastwood, Bronson and company.
For film lovers, we all have images we recall when thinking of our movie heroes and villains. For me it’s hard not to smile when I hear that rough edged voice of his, or seeing his tough guy act on full display and lastly his protagonist Marcellus to Kirk Douglas’ Spartacus.
Perhaps if The Killers hadn’t have come along for McGraw he still would have found his place in film and noir cinema but as it stands we the viewer can look to The Killers and be thankful that the film launched him into a world of shadowy crimes on black and white celluloid.