No actor exemplified the downtrodden film noir schlemiel better than Percy Helton. If his hunched frame and marsupial-like features weren’t enough to convince audiences of his servile timidity, there was always the unique Helton voice which made his screen characterizations permanently distinctive. Never was a vocal inflection more perfectly suited to a performer.
Percy Helton uttered his lines with a breathy vocal lilt akin to the sigh of an exhausted calliope. When alarmed or threatened- a frequent occurrence- he reached a higher octave reminiscent of a damaged ukulele. Even though the diminutive performer seemed to be specifically constructed as a mid-century urban whipping boy, Helton’s thespian roots dated back to the nineteenth century.
He made his stage debut in 1896 with his vaudevillian father, Alf Helton, at the Tony Pastor Theatre on 14th Street in New York City. Percy Helton was two years old. At age eleven, he appeared with David Belasco on Broadway in Return of Peter Grimm. The adolescent thespian had a long speech in the play that he recited verbatim over six decades later during a guest appearance on the Merv Griffin television show. In addition to his early stage work, he also appeared in several silent pictures filmed in New York.
During his career along the Great White Way, Helton worked for George M. Cohan for five years and appeared in a variety of productions opposite notables such as Lloyd Nolan, Helen Hayes and Peggy Woods. As he retained his youthful appearance and played adolescent roles into his twenties, Helton earned the nickname of “Dype”, short for the diapers that he appeared to belong in.
Helton worked exclusively in his native New York, treading the boards and appearing in several musical short films during the late 1930’s. Moving into middle age and acquiring a curved spine alternately ascribed to either late growth or osteoporosis, Helton’s career began to falter a bit as he finally outgrew playing juveniles. A Gotham film location shoot in early 1947 changed everything. Director-writer George Seaton cast the actor as a drunken Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street. Helton was uproariously perfect as an inebriated St. Nick who passes out while rehearsing Jingle Bells for the Macy’s holiday parade and is replaced by the “real” Santa, Edmund Gwenn. Percy’s comedic turn in what would be a perennial holiday classic resulted in his continual employment as a film actor during the next quarter century. He was summoned to Hollywood by Twentieth Century Fox to play a bit part in Call Northside 777 (1948) and remained in L.A. for the rest of his life.
Percy Helton racked up an impressive string of film noir credits over the next several years, beginning with the seldom-seen Larceny (1948) starring John Payne, Dan Duryea and a boisterously brassy Shelley Winters. Helton plays a servile hotel manager who searches for his registration book that he misplaced under, “…my jiu-jitsu manual.” In Robert Siodmak’s superbly crafted Crisscross, (1949), Helton essays a memorable turn as a Bunker Hill barkeep. When a cuckolded Burt Lancaster returns to his former nocturnal haunt in search of femme muse Yvonne De Carlo, he encounters Percy tending bar. Burt gets cute with his inquiries, not wanting to own up to the Statue-of-Liberty-sized torch he is resolutely carrying for Yvonne. Helton quickly tags Lancaster as an undercover liquor “checker” before having to apologize for the oversight. Later on, the perpetually regretful bartender has to “take the liberty” of breaking Lancaster’s heart. He informs him that Yvonne has eloped with lowlife crook Dan Duryea and double-crossed him once again. Helton neatly summarizes the age-old bartenders’ credo about personal entanglements in a mournful tone to a female lush whose posterior polishes a barstool every evening: “I don’t get involved. Nowadays, it doesn’t pay.”
The Set-up (1949) features a classic Helton portrayal of a beaten-down boxing trainer who works in ham-and-egger Robert Ryan’s corner. Percy vainly warns Ryan’s obtusely corrupt manager (George Tobias) that he had better let their fighter know that the fix is in and a dive to the canvas is in order: “Stoker can still punch… you gotta tell him!” Treading in a sea of bottom feeders, Percy is just another minnow, getting ripped off for a miniscule slice of the crooked payoff and literally running away from the ring after Ryan scores an upset knockout, abandoning the helpless palooka to face the wrath of the crossed gamblers.
The Crooked Way (1949) included a memorable Helton portrayal of a pitiful loser. A flunky mired in servitude to a nut-job gang boss (a near-drooling Sonny Tufts), Helton constantly totes his only friend, a pet cat named Hector, around with him while intermittently sneezing because of an allergy to feline dander! He attempts to protect his pet when a gangster firefight erupts, but ends up getting a bullet in the back for his trouble. Not that the actor was unfamiliar with gunfire.
Percy Helton went “over there” to Europe with the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) during World War I, experiencing battlefield combat for nineteen months. The diminutive actor was reportedly awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s 2nd highest military decoration for extraordinary heroism in battle. Settling quietly in a Hollywood apartment, Helton became the first vice-president of the noted thespian club, the Masquers, and enjoyed a long, successful marriage with his wife Edna, a former Ziegfeld dancer.
Before film noir began to disappear from theatre marquees and morphed into televised crime dramas, Helton continued to make an indelible imprint in dark cinema: Never Trust a Gambler (1951), The Tall Target (1951), Vice Squad (1953) Crashout (1955), No Man’s Woman (1955) and Terror at Midnight (1956). Although he appeared in hundreds of television shows and films of different genres, the actor’s most unforgettable turns proved to be a bookend set of seminal film noirs.
Helton was memorably repellent as a corrupt coroner who gets too greedy for his own good while trying to shake down private eye “Mike Hammer” in the iconic Kill Me Deadly (1955). Instead of being filled with greenbacks, Percy’s extended hand is memorably slammed in a desk drawer by a grinning Ralph Meeker as a dubbed (and fake sounding) shriek gradually subsides to an actual Helton whimper.
There is no doubt that Percy Helton’s most compelling screen performance was in Russell Rouse’s uniquely perverse Wicked Woman (1953). The rangy Beverly Michaels stars as a weirdly moist tramp with blown-out, peroxide hair and an attitude to match. Her saga begins when she gets off a bus in a bohunk town and moves into cold water flat. Third-billed Percy Helton is “Charlie Borg”, a perpetually horny tailor who resides directly across the hall. Helton’s jaw hits the floor as he becomes immediately transfixed with the six foot tall blonde. After landing a job as a cocktail waitress, Beverly occupies her time seducing married saloon owner Richard Egan, convincing him to unload the gin mill by forging his wife’s signature so the star-crossed pair can lam off to Mexico. At the same time, the greedy Michaels strings Percy along, titillating his over-active libido in order to borrow money from him. After dodging his direct advances, an increasingly pressured Beverly ends up being blackmailed by Helton who discovers her chicanery to fleece Egan’s alcoholic wife and skip town. The audience is led to believe that a grotesque coupling occurs. The entire situation finally explodes when an enraged, scantily clad Beverly Michaels cuffs a whining Helton around like an errant Chihuahua after she is caught by Richard Egan being lasciviously pawed by her ardent neighbor. With a total absence of morality amid bizarre characterizations, Wicked Woman remains a highlight reel of mid 20th century camp.
The “Charlie Borg” performance was a personal highlight for Percy Helton who continued working steadily until he passed away in 1971 at the age of seventy-seven. While visiting San Francisco with his wife shortly before his death, Percy was complimented about his work in Wicked Woman. The slight thespian replied with a breathy sigh that it was his favorite movie. Edna Helton immediately chimed in, revealing that her “Perc” had the one sheet poster of Wicked Woman hanging on the wall above their bed back home in Hollywood!