Camp David

CAMP DAVID NOVEMBER 2007: JOHN ABBOTT & MARTIN KOSLECK

By • Nov 5th, 2007 • Pages: 1 2 3 4 5

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THE GRUESOME TWOSOME

John Abbott

Since it is the Halloween season, I decided to devote this installment of Camp David to revisiting my experiences with two of Hollywood’s most bizarre and talented character actors. The urbane and sophisticated John Abbott whose unique voice and bulging eyes made him ideal type-casting for fussy professors or a timid murderer with a perverse kink in his psyche. The other, equally colorful, personality was known internationally as one of Hollywood’s master interpreters of Nazi villains, especially Joseph Goebbels, whom he would play on film five times – the great Martin Kosleck.

These two men actually appeared in a film together once over at Universal Studios in 1945, one of the last Basil Rathbone “Sherlock Holmes” features, the lackluster PURSUIT TO ALGIERS. But more on that shortly.

I became acquainted with John Abbott first as a close friend and neighbor of my dear friend Curtis Harrington. Curtis introduced us at one of the director’s many parties at his Vine Way abode, and after a few encounters we discovered a mutual interest in vintage films and British theater so we became friends. John had retired from motion pictures when I knew him and had found a new and even more rewarding career as an acting teacher. He gave classes and workshops in his home until his health would no longer permit it.

Martin Kosleck would enter into my life a bit later, oddly enough through one of John’s students, a hunky lad we shall call “Tony” who befriended Kosleck and his longtime companion Christopher Drake, visiting them regularly at their secluded Laurel Ave home six blocks from Santa Monica Blvd in West Hollywood. Tony would also help John run errands when needed and made a ritual of taking the fussy actor twice a week to Bob’s Big Boy restaurant where John would indulge himself in several cups of what he always referred to as “the best dammed coffee in Los Angeles”

Both actors had appeared in so many classic films that it would be difficult to pick a favorite. However since I was such a devotee of the horror genre, the films that made me remember them both with great pleasure were the few excursions they both made into that realm of the fantastic.

John Abbott was always a reliable supporting player, whether at Warner Bros acting opposite such stars as Bette Davis and Claude Rains in DECEPTION, or holding his own with scene-stealer Peter Lorre in the highly enjoyable mystery thriller THE MASK OF DIMITRIOUS. His greatest supporting role in films would have to be as the outrageously eccentric Frederick Farlie in the Wilkie Collins Gothic chestnut THE WOMAN IN WHITE, featuring a barnstorming performance by Sidney Greenstreet as the evil Count Fosco. John had a 16 mm print of this film and one night we screened it in my friend, photographer Dan Golden’s, loft on Boyd Street in downtown Los Angeles where just the day before he had Kenneth Anger show his new edit of LUCIFER RISING. We wisely kept both events separate although we had the same audience both nights.

John Abbott

There was only one occasion when John had his name above the title in a horror film and that was over at Republic Studios (a studio known for making primarily westerns) in a little known “B” picture, THE VAMPIRE’S GHOST. This particular film, blessed with a literate script by Leigh Brackett, has acquired a substantial fan base over the years as a sleeper with a refreshingly unique take on the overdone vampire formula by creating a character who, while centuries old, is world-weary in a Byronic mode, rather than relying on the eternal characterization of Stoker’s oft-filmed DRACULA.

The film is set in Africa and follows the trail of blood caused by the undead Webb Fallon, cursed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I to wander the earth as a vampire. John’s unusual features suited this character quite well although it was a startling to see him as the tough owner of a seedy tavern, the watering hole of drunken sailors and misfits. John played this creature against type, as Webb Fallon could walk the earth in the daylight, and his blood-taking was all done off-camera. It was great to see John take on a lead role, allowing one to see what a great actor he could be when Hollywood allowed him to carry a film. My good friend at the time, author Richard Lamparski, quoted me regarding John Abbott in the 11th edition of his long running series of books on Hollywood celebrities, ‘Whatever Became Of…?’ I singled out THE VAMPIRES GHOST, John’s star turn in a classic vampire film, which was a well-kept secret among horror fans.

Martin Kosleck caught my attention as a monster kid growing up in the fifties with multiple screenings on late night TV’s Shock theater package of horror films which included Universals THE MUMMY’S CURSE and HOUSE OF HORRORS. The real star of this “horror noir” was the iconic Rondo Hatton, whose tragic real life acromegaly made his participation in any movie scream of exploitation. Be that as it may, Rondo has a huge fan base among horror geeks. An award is even given in his name and image once a year online for those worthy of his blessing.

What makes this particular outing so unique is the odd chemistry on screen between Kosleck and non-actor Hatton. They are a bit like the double act of the Frankenstein monster and Ygor from the SON OF FRANENSTEIN, only without the pathos.

Now one might describe Martin Kosleck as an actor very much in the mode of say a Peter Lorre, with his accent and icy demeanor. The difference was, of course, that Lorre was a great actor who lost interest in the Hollywood scene as it began to lose interest in him, and began sending himself up for lack of any real passion for whatever projects the studios gave by the end of the 1940’s. Kosleck did not have a Fritz Lang in his life, nor did his performances rise to the level of art like Lorre’s did with UFA at the end of the twenties. Having made that assessment I would liken Martin’s acting style more to Udo Keir and the kind of roles he has been doing in the last decade. If Martin Kosleck were alive today and around Udo’s current age he would no doubt be working non-stop.

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One Response »

  1. That was a really terrific, heartfelt article. Thanks for sharing!

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