He would rise to national fame as a breakout performer in a classic piece of American drama, and yet his true legacy would eventually find its origin in one of the most influential genre B-movies of all time. In 1951, the striking, lantern-jawed Kevin McCarthy turned heads in the role of Biff Loman, playing alongside the great Fredric March in the landmark screen adaptation of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. It seemed his course had been laid. But destiny had other plans for Mr. McCarthy, and a mere three years later he would star in the film that would quickly trump Salesman as the one for which he'd be forever known.
The image of a raving mad McCarthy sprinting down Main Street, USA, warning anyone who would listen about the insidious pod people who had infiltrated the planet--this is one of the enduring moments in the history of cinematic horror. And Cold War knee-jerk propaganda though it may be, it also does what all great propaganda does--it resonates. Deeply. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the kind of film that gnaws at fears deep inside us, fears we dare not even admit to having. And a large part of what makes it work is Kevin McCarthy and his unforgettable performance.
Kevin McCarthy is no longer with us, having passed away on Saturday of pneumonia at the age of 96. He leaves behind many, many fans who will always remember him as the leading man-style actor who became a cult movie favorite; the kind of actor who was wise enough to know that there are no parts beneath a performer unless he treats them that way.
I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. McCarthy some ten years ago at New Jersey's Chiller Theatre convention, and I can honestly say that there are few celebrities I have ever encountered who were as friendly, as warm, and as appreciative of his fans as he was. He was a man who lived for his work, and who was never happy unless he had some projects lined up--which is attested to by the fact that he continued to appear on screen right up to the end.
Made an orphan at the age of four thanks to the great influenza pandemic of 1918, McCarthy was raised by his grandparents, aunts and uncles in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After considering a career in diplomacy, he decided to pursue acting instead, and came to New York in the late 1930s to attend the world-famous Actors' Studio.
By the time he was offered the role of Biff in Columbia Pictures' Stanley Kramer-produced Salesman film, McCarthy was already an established actor on Broadway and radio. He had the looks, he certainly had the talent, and it seemed like stardom was his for the taking. And in a way it would be, just perhaps not in the way his Actors' Studio instructors would have envisioned.
And yet, it took years following his unforgettable turn as Dr. Miles Bennell, Body Snatchers' beleaguered voice of reason, for McCarthy to embrace his most well-known film, and set about becoming a genre legend. He continued to do quite a bit of television and mainstream film, including The Misfits--the legendary teaming of Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe that became Gable's last movie.
By the 1970s, with "genre culture" going mainstream following the rise to maturity of an entire generation that had grown up on films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, McCarthy found a great deal of opportunity available to him thanks to the recognition he had gained from appearing in that movie. By then pushing 60, he was more than happy to enjoy the rewards, and started appearing in more and more horror and sci-fi projects, including notably, Joe Dante's original Piranha, in which he played the mad scientist who unleashes the flesh-eating fish. He even enjoyed a cameo in the 1978 remake of Body Snatchers.
This would be followed with more such work in the '80s and beyond, in movies that would permanently cement Kevin McCarthy as a star in the cult actor firmament, including The Howling, Invitation to Hell, Innerspace, and of course, who can forget his turn as the unbearably obnoxious heavy in Weird Al Yankovic's magnum opus, UHF?
McCarthy continued to work in front of the camera right up until this year, by which point he had also become one of the most beloved guests of the genre convention circuit, following decades of appearances. His body of work is as interesting as it is far-reaching, and it's no wonder that he has the loyal following he does. This week, those followers mourn the loss of one of the great ones. The Vault of Horror respectfully dims the torchlight for the one and only, Kevin McCarthy...