While watching The Ominous Outcast the other day, I was surprised and delighted and amused to see Walter Burke playing the prosecutor! He’s a fine actor, but that wasn’t the type of role I expected to see him in. Usually he’s a sidekick or a small-time conman or other roles that don’t quite have the prestige a district attorney would. I decided it was high-time to give him a spotlight post.
As is the case with quite a few character actors, I can’t seem to learn a lot of biographical information. Born in Brooklyn on August 25th, 1908, Walter started acting as a teenager, appearing in several Broadway plays from 1925 to 1930. He then worked with the American Opera Company in several productions, starting with a non-singing role in Faust. It doesn’t say if he sang in the other productions; I am curious to know.
He went back to Broadway in 1936. He surfaced in Hollywood in The Naked City in 1948, and from there went on to appear in a few more plays and an assortment of movies, including All the King’s Men. I’ve seen that film, but I don’t recall his part in it. It was quite some time ago that I saw it.
Television is probably what he is most remembered for. One of the classic character actors who pops up just about everywhere, Walter appeared in everything from Westerns to detective shows and fantasy/sci-fi. I’ve definitely seen him on many detective series, including The Untouchables, and I remember a turn as a mayor on The Wild Wild West. Fun times.
On Perry, Walter made five guest appearances over the nine seasons, starting with Freddie in the much-hated season 2 venture The Jaded Joker. I did a spotlight post on that episode not too long ago, so I won’t discuss it again, except to say that I greatly enjoyed Walter’s interpretation of the character and how much he cared about the titular character played by Frankie Laine. A conman-turned-companion and friend, Freddie is extremely loyal and determined, albeit he doesn’t really like to talk about what he’s done for his friend.
The Ominous Outcast came in season 3, and here we see Walter with glasses as he plays prosecutor James Blackburn. He does well in the role, although of course I suppose the prosecutor’s lines were written with Hamilton in mind, so there isn’t a great deal different dialogue-wise. Instead, Walter uses the delivery of the dialogue to make the role unique.
He doesn’t appear again until season 5’s The Missing Melody, and here it’s a much smaller role, the smallest he played on the series, I believe. I only recall him being in one scene. He’s a gambler at odds with a politician who wants to change gambling laws. But he’s horrified when he realizes that a blackmailer decided to get to the politician through his daughter and then expects the gambler to pay for the blackmail evidence. He refuses.
Again Walter disappears, resurfacing in season 8’s The Wooden Nickels as panhandler Jerry Kelso. But since this episode isn’t one I see as much, I can’t quite bring his character to mind. I remember him there, but I don’t entirely remember what he was doing other than observing the odd cloak-and-dagger chase around town. And I think eventually he was caught and made to talk, but then again, that could have been a scene from his final Perry appearance. In season 9’s The Crafty Kidnapper, perhaps the darkest episode of the series, he plays a private investigator. I also can’t recall many of the details of this performance.
I always delight in seeing him turn up, whether on Perry or other shows. I’m surprised he was only in five Perry episodes; sometimes it seems like there were more than that. But five isn’t shabby, and he turns out some wonderful performances in all of them.
As I recall, like Milton Selzer, Walter didn’t often play unsympathetic characters. Usually they were good guys, or else if they were on the shady side, there was still something human and likable about them. That, I believe, is one reason why I particularly think fondly of him.
Walter continued to make many appearances on shows up until 1980, and according to IMDB, he also worked as an acting coach in the 1970s. Sadly, being a heavy smoker, he succumbed to emphysema on August 4th, 1984. Another great character actor departed from us.