Humphrey Bogart with character actor Ben Welden in Kid Galahad
(The Usual Suspects is an ongoing series of posts about some of Bogart’s more regular collaborators. You can check out other entries in the series here.)
Born in Toledo, Ohio on June 12, 1901, Ben Weinblatt discovered acting while studying engineering at college, leading to a career that took him from the London theater scene (where he changed his name to “Weldon” and then later “Welden”) all the way to Hollywood where he played parts in well over two hundred films and television shows.
Working with Bogart five times, Welden solidified his long and storied career by portraying tough guys and gangsters on screen. Against his naturally kind and generous personality, Welden became a staple character actor in Hollywood anytime the studios needed someone who could look mean, talk tough, and hold their own against some of Tinseltown’s greatest actors. Just to name a few besides Bogart, Welden shared the screen with James Cagney, Bette Davis, Susan Hayward, Buster Keaton, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, and countless other greats in many of Hollywood’s most celebrated films.
I was deeply honored to be able to have a chat with Ben’s nephew, Charles Weinblatt. Charles, author of the novel Jacob’s Courage, blogs about writing on his own site here. Charles knew his famous uncle very well, as he got to visit with him many times during the years between 1957 and 1965. Charles wrote to me, “As Ben had no children, I was as close to that as is possible for him. We spoke at least once a week for many decades; he visited here often and Ben came to love my wife and children as his own.”
I asked Charles to answer some of the questions that I would have loved to ask Ben if I’d gotten the chance:
Bogie Film Blog: Can you give us a little background on Ben’s life?
Charles Weinblatt: As a child, Ben played the violin and longed to pursue a career building things. Ben went to Carnegie Tech, where he majored in Engineering. While there, a friend pushed him to take a theater course. The rest is history. Long before Ben went to Hollywood, he was on stage in London, England. There, he made a name for himself and he was forced to change his name. In the 1920s and early 1930s, it was not appropriate for an actor to use an obviously Jewish name, like Weinblatt. Ben thought that he might change it into something that would brand him as a good actor. This changed “Weinblatt” into “Well-don”, which became “Weldon,” which later became “Welden.” In fact, I’ve seen some credits with the spelling “Weldon.”
BFB: Was Ben a contract player for Warner Brothers at the time that he worked with Bogart? Did he have contracts with other studios?
CW: As far as I’m aware, Ben was under contract with Warner Brothers for decades, [and] that’s when he worked with Bogie. He also worked as needed for Universal and MGM.
BFB: Did he ever get to choose his roles, or were they usually assigned to him due to the studio contract system?
CW: Ben was the penultimate typecast actor. While I would say that he didn’t pick and choose his roles, especially when he was very busy (1940’s through the early 60’s), I believe that the studios understood his value and they came after him when they needed a gangster.
BFB: What role out of his more than 200, would you say that Ben was most proud of?
CW: I never asked him this question, but I suspect in a formal sense Marked Woman was his greatest achievement. He found it interesting to work with big name stars like Bogart and Bette Davis. When the film arrived in Toledo, the theater was packed to standing room only. I think every Jewish person in town was there. In the middle of the film, Ben was supposed to take Bette Davis into a hallway and beat her up. Of course, in those days violence in films was not graphic, as it is today. But Ben grabbed her by the arm and shoved her into a hallway where you could hear him punching her, her crying out, and then the thumps as she was pushed down a flight of stairs. At that very moment, my grandmother (Ben’s mom) stood up the in theater and screamed, “That’s not my Benny. He wouldn’t do a thing like that!” As you can imagine, the audience loved it, with laughter trailing off for a minute or two.
BFB: Do you have any specific memories of being on a set and seeing Ben interact with the cast and crew? Perhaps even filming a memorable scene?
CW: I never saw Ben acting on a set. That being said, I recall being introduced to Tony Curtis and Suzanne Pleschette (40 pounds of Trouble), Ronald Reagan (Death Valley Days), Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird), Steve McQueen, Julie Andrews, Lee Marvin, and a host of directors and producers. I recall a memorable scene watching Gregory Peck interact with the children in To Kill a Mockingbird. The kids were inside of an old abandoned car in front of a large painting of a forest. I recall thinking that no one will watch that movie and believe that the painting was a real forest. Yet, when I watched the movie, I would swear that the forest was real. That’s when I began to realize that Hollywood had some sort of magic. I once tried to recall my Hollywood-related experiences with Ben’s career and my essay is here.
BFB: I’ll make sure to link it to the blog! Ben was known so well for playing heavies and tough guys. Did he enjoy those roles? How did they compare to his real personality?
CW: Ben’s personality off-stage was the complete opposite of his film persona. Instead of the cold, heartless thug that we saw in movies, Ben was a very charming, warm-hearted character in real life. Although he never had any of his own, Ben loved children. On one of his visits to Toledo, he went with my wife to her classroom, where he spent an entire afternoon charming the elementary students. On film, Ben was a nasty, gruesome gangster. In real life, he was a big softie; he could charm anyone. As a child, this gave me an excellent perspective upon how character actors can become a completely different persona on film.
BFB: Since this is a Humphrey Bogart blog, I have to ask – did Ben have any stories specifically about Bogart that you could share?
CW: Ben worked with Bogie; however, he was not the best fan of Bogart. From Ben’s frame of reference, he took direction very well. But many of the most famous Hollywood actors did not. There were arguments on sets in which actors told directors how they felt the scene should play out and famous directors who felt it should be played differently. There seemed to be an increasingly arduous correlation between fame and arrogance. The one feature that likely made Ben’s career successful for decades was that he took direction well. He asked the director how his lines should be read and then followed through with it. But some of the big Hollywood stars looked down upon the director and argued over how the lines should be read. This was a director’s nightmare. Of course, the director could then speak with Ben and hear the character actor say, “How shall I play these lines?” It was music to director’s ears. Instead of an argument, the director was offered an open question… “How do you think this character should be seen and heard?”
BFB: Do you have a favorite role that Ben played while working with Bogart?
CW: Once more, with Bogart, it’s Marked Woman. He only spoke of working with Bogart in Marked Woman. In a sense, their careers were fairly diverse. Ben was making movies in Hollywood long before Humphrey Bogart became a household name. And, Ben remained in studio and TV credits long after Bogart’s career was cut short by illness. Bogart’s career was a shooting star, higher and brighter than Ben Welden. But, Ben had many more credits to his Hollywood career and he appeared in more films and TV shows, even if the appearance was in Mr. Ed, The Three Stooges, Ma & Pa Kettle and The Lucy Show.
BFB: Do you have a personal favorite overall role that Ben played?
CW: I loved many of Ben’s roles. Even though he was typically a gangster or hood, each role was slightly different and required him to be someone with a different personality. As a child, I watched virtually every TV episode of Superman, until George Reeves killed himself and his TV show simultaneously. Similarly, I was proud to see Ben acting in episodes of the TV series Batman. Some roles were just slapstick, including Ma & Pa Kettle, The Three Stooges and I Love Lucy.
BFB: I very much agree that Ben was able to make each “thug” he played just a little different. He seemed to have a great grasp on nuancing his characters. Did he ever get the chance to play a non-gangster role?
CW: Ben had one Hollywood role when he was not a gangster. In fact, he was Friar Tuck in a B-movie version of Robin Hood. It was released in the year I was born (1952), and was directed by James Yingling. The studio required an actor who was fat, bald, and could take direction well. As far as I am aware, that was the only time that Ben played a nice guy. This was NOT the version starring Errol Flynn or the version starring Richard Green as Robin. It was called Tales of Robin Hood. I have a crappy old VHS copy of this “film” buried somewhere in my house. You can apparently own, for seven dollars, another crappy, old VHS copy from Amazon here. Few people have seen it, or recall that they saw it. It’s obviously an old, low budget, shortened version of the story. Ben was the perfect Friar Tuck. Bald, fat, loved to drink, and jovial, Ben played the part with distinction.
BFB: Did Ben have any interests outside of acting?
CW: When Ben neared retirement age, he and a partner opened a store in Los Angeles called Nutcorn. This product was a scrumptious combination of popcorn, caramel, nuts and “special ingredients.” Nutcorn became the rage of Hollywood. Everyone who was someone was sending Nutcorn as a gift to friends and family. Before long, Ben was sending huge boxes of Nutcorn around the world. It was so delicious that it disappeared swiftly. Ben was at least as successful as an entrepreneur as he was an actor.
BFB: You mentioned that you have too many Ben Weldon stories to tell – but can you give me just one that really shows his personality?
CW: Ben loved children. As I mentioned earlier, he charmed children in the school where my wife taught – and they had likely never seen him on film. As tough as his appearance was as a gangster in movies, he was that much an opposite in real life. Ben went to Hawaii to film Ma & Pa Kettle at Waikiki Beach. He was so profoundly in love with the islands that he spent a huge percentage of the rest of his life in Hawaii. He took my parents and I there in 1965 and we too fell in love with the islands and the Hawaiian people. I’ve since been there three more times, including my honeymoon and our 15th wedding anniversary. In Hawaii, Ben was the most pleasant, polite, and gentle guy that you can imagine – a far cry from his on camera gangster persona.
BFB: What would you want the world to know about Ben that they might not already know?
CW: As a child, Ben played the violin. It’s my understanding that his parents wanted him to become a concert violinist. That doesn’t jive well with his selection of engineering as a major, or his university (Carnegie Tech). I would want the world to know that Ben was a gentle person who loved people and children. I would also like the world to know that Ben married a real duchess when he was on stage in England. (If you want to read more about Ben’s marriage to the duchess, you can check out Charles’ writeup on the Jim Nolt’s Adventures of Superman tribute website here – BFB)
BFB: Thank you so much, Charles! I really appreciate the chance to get to talk to you about your uncle!
Marked Woman – 1937
Eduardo Cianelli with Ben Welden
Welden plays Charlie, the enforcer who does the dirty work for nightclub owner and gangster Johnny Vanning (Eduardo Ciannelli). Welden does a wonderful job here as he menaces in the background, a constant, looming threat to Mary (Bette Davis) and her call-girl roommates as they come into conflict with their boss. Perhaps his most memorable scene is left mostly to our imagination as we see him enter a room with Davis to punish her on Vanning’s behalf, and the movie-goer only gets to hear the gruesome beating.
Kid Galahad – 1937
Bogart with Welden
Welden plays Buzz Barett, the smiling enforcer for gangster and boxing promoter Turkey Morgan (Humphrey Bogart). What I love so much about Welden in this film is that he plays essentially the same character as he does in Marked Woman, but with the addition of a large and toothy grin. The change makes him comes off as a much more likable, albeit sometimes goofy, thug as he stands behind Bogart, backing up his boss’ every threat.
The Roaring Twenties – 1939
James Cagney with Welden and Gladys George
Welden has a brief cameo as a Tavern Proprietor who has to deal with a drunken and down-on-his-luck James Cagney just before the climax of the film. Cagney is chatting up Welden’s nightclub singer, Gladys George, and Welden would rather that she be doing her job. It might be a small part, but how many actors can say that they got to give Cagney a tough time in a film?
All Through the Night – 1942
Welden with Frank McHugh and Bogart
It’s another brief appearance for Welden as Smitty, the taxicab dispatcher that helps Bogart and his crew track down Kaaren Verne’s sultry nightclub singer.
The Big Sleep – 1946
Welden with Tom Fadden and Bogart
Welden plays Pete, one of the two henchmen helping gangster Eddie Mars (John Ridgely) as he blackmails the Sternwood family. Teamed up with Tom Fadden, who plays the other henchman, Sidney, Welden gets a great little role as the thug who’s endlessly amused by his partner. Fadden deadpans to Bogart left and right while Welden gets to laugh and comment, “He kills me!” I truly enjoy Welden’s roles where he gets to smile – despite the fact that he’s a hired thug! In a fun side note, the character names Pete and Sidney are both a nod to two other regular Bogart costars – Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet!
For a more in depth write up on Ben Welden’s personal life and career, make sure you check out the page that Charles wrote for him over at Jim Nolt’s tribute page for The Adventures of Superman! Thanks Jim for allowing me to use your site as a reference and helping me get in touch with Charles!
* All research for this post was done with Jim Nolt’s Adventures of Superman tribute page, the above interview with Charles Weinblatt, A. M. Sperber’s Humphrey Bogart biography, Bogart, Stefan Kanfer’s Humphrey Bogart biography, Tough Without a Gun, Ben Welden’s Wikipedia page, Ben Welden’s IMDB page, the official website of The Humphrey Bogart Estate, and various movie entries on IMDB. All screen caps were done by the author and are intended for review/criticism of the films mentioned. – BFB