Anthony Caruso : More Than The Henchman
This article on Mr. Caruso was kindly featured in the September 2014 issue of The Dark Pages put forth by Karen of Shadows and Satin.
My first recollection of Anthony Caruso would have to be from his appearance as Bela opposite Vic Tayback’s Krako on Star Trek’s fondly remembered episode titled “A Piece of the Action.” For Caruso, it seems very fitting that he would be portraying a gangster, having come from so many crime dramas and noir-themed films from the genre’s glory days. The world lost Anthony Caruso in April of 2003. For film and television fans, he left more than 250 acting credits to remember him by.
Tony was born in Frankfort, Indiana in April 1916. Following high school in Long Beach, California, he found himself in a tent show stock company that ultimately led him to the Pasadena Playhouse. It was here that he received his classical training, which included performing Shakespeare.
When Tony bought a down-on-his-luck actor a meal while at the playhouse, it would turn out to be a wise investment, both personally and financially in the years ahead. That young actor was Alan Ladd, who never forgot Tony’s act of kindness and went out of his way to include him on a cast list whenever possible. Tony would turn up in no fewer than ten Ladd films throughout Alan’s career.
Fittingly, Tony made his screen debut billed simply as “Henchman” opposite Tyrone Power in the 1940 film Johnny Apollo. That same year Tony married Tonia Valente and the marriage endured until Tony’s death 63 years later.
Throughout the 1940’s, Tony logged numerous credits that more often than not were characters of dubious ethics. His name must have been prominently displayed on local casting director’s lists whenever a gunman or two-bit gangster was needed to flesh out a story.
Tony found himself in a wide variety of films, ranging from “B” programmers like Tall, Dark and Handsome to “A” budget films with major stars like Watch on The Rhine, Objective Burma, The Blue Dahlia or To Each His Own. This allowed Tony to be seen with screen idols of the day like Ladd, Errol Flynn, Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland. He also turned up in comedy showcases for Bob Hope and Red Skelton. Always flirting with the gangster genre, Tony found the size of those roles varied. He’d play cameo bits with no billing, to meatier co-starring roles like Salvatore Rocco, the bookkeeper who holds the key to bringing down an extortion ring in the Glenn Ford film The Undercover Man.
It was in 1950 that John Huston cast Tony in what is probably his most widely seen film, The Asphalt Jungle. Appearing in an ensemble piece with the likes of Sterling Hayden, Sam Jaffe, James Whitmore, Louis Calhern and Marilyn Monroe, Tony’s part perhaps elicited the most sympathy from the viewing audience. His portrayal of Louis Ciavelli, the safe blower who is trying to better his family’s living conditions allowed him to hold his own with the well known cast in what has become one of Noir’s more memorable films. One year later, he appeared in another popular feature staring Noir poster boy Robert Mitchum, His Kind of Woman, where he played a vicious thug who has it in for Mitch.
In real life Tony and Mitchum were friends going back to their teenage years in high school. They maintained a friendship until Mitchum passed away in 1997. Along the way Tony appeared in a number of Mitchum’s films including the Robert Parrish western, The Wonderful Country.
Like many character actors of the day, Tony moved into the western as that genre hit it’s stride in the 1950’s. He made appearances in Cattle Queen of Montana, The Oklahoman and alongside Alan Ladd once again in a western remake of The Asphalt Jungle titled The Badlanders. With Tony’s ethnic looks, he was equally at home playing a gunman or an Indian.
In between roles, Tony found work in the new medium of television. Early appearances included guesting on The Lone Ranger, The Adventures of Jim Bowie and Ethel Barrymore Theater. The Jim Bowie appearance is amusing as he had appeared in the Alan Ladd movie version of the Jim Bowie story, The Iron Mistress. There, Tony carried a menacing presence that led to a colorful knife fight.
As television picked up steam in the next decade, Tony appeared on practically every show one can recall from Thriller to Sea Hunt and Perry Mason. Then of course he continued with TV westerns that had reached a crescendo with Bonanza and Have Gun Will Travel. He also logged a total of 14 appearances on Gunsmoke.
Tony remained active in the 1970’s with numerous credits. He guested on Policewoman, Baretta and Fantasy Island before slowing down in the 1980’s, where he even turned up opposite Bill Bixby on an episode of The Incredible Hulk. His final screen appearance was in 1990 in The Legend of Grizzly Adams.
Anthony Caruso is one of those “faces” that you know you’ve seen a hundred times before but, more often than not, cannot quite put a name to. One never knows where Caruso will pop up next, be it a 1940’s “B” movie or a classic show from television’s golden years. Either way, stop and give that face a look because there’s a real pro there acting for your viewing pleasure.