Edgar Stehli


In movies -- a career path that he didn't begin until he was 71 years old -- Edgar Stehli was known as a gifted character actor, capable of making small parts memorable and transforming larger supporting roles into parts rivaling the stars' prominence in whatever work he was in. He naturally played old-man parts, in everything from Westerns (No Name on the Bullet) to science fiction and fantasy (4D Man, the Twilight Zone episode "Long Live Walter Jameson"), and was in numerous major movies, including Robert Wise's Executive Suite and John Frankenheimer's Seconds. But for 40 years before that, he was a successful stage actor and, later, a busy radio actor as well. Born in Paris, France in 1884, Stehli came to America at age three and was raised in Montclair, NJ, where he resided his entire adult life. He attended Cornell University and earned a master's degree in Teutonic languages. He was planning on a career as a linguist when fate -- in the form of a touring company doing the play Raffles -- came through town and enlisted Stehli for a small role as a butler. From that point on, there was no looking back for Stehli, who abandoned linguistics in favor of the theater. Every few years after that, some critic or other, either in New York's Greenwich Village or some venue to the west, north, or south, would "discover" a great "new" talent in Edgar Stehli, as Bunthorne in a Village production of Patience or playing Osric on-stage with John Barrymore in Hamlet. He was never without work and ultimately cast in great roles in major plays, including portraying Dr. Einstein in Arsenic and Old Lace to Boris Karloff's Jonathan Brewster. As a New York-based actor, film work eluded Stehli for the first 50 years of his career, and didn't seem to interest him. Instead, he turned to radio, most visibly as the voice of the sagely Dr. Huer in Buck Rogers, although by his own account he played hundreds of judges and other characters routinely defined as older authority figures. He turned to television -- which was also mostly produced in New York in those days -- in the late '40s, and it wasn't until 1954, when Stehli was 71, that he made his movie debut. With his wrinkled features, slightly raspy yet gentle voice, and wizened yet troubled eyes, he often was called upon to play crafty or tormented old men (who were sometimes both, witnessed by his work as Dr. Carson, the aging head of the research lab in Irvin S. Yeaworth's 4D Man, concerned about his advancing age and fading reputation, and not above stealing or being complicit in the theft of an idea or invention). One of his best screen roles, oddly enough, was in a Western, Jack Arnold's No Name on the Bullet (1958), as an ex-judge who is hiding a secret that may kill him before his terminal illness does. And in the Twilight Zone episode "Long Live Walter Jameson," he is fascinating to watch as an aging academic who learns, to his horror, what beating the aging process has done to a "younger" colleague of his. Stehli worked all through the '60s, in every genre from drama (Parrish) to sci-fi and fantasy (Seconds, Atlantis, the Lost Continent). He retired in 1970 and passed away three years later, at age 90.