Robert Nichols, 1924-2013

Robert Nichols in This Island EarthRobert Nichols at right, with Rex Reason in This Island Earth (1955).

 

Noted actor and all-around neat guy Robert Nichols has passed away. He was 88.

Nichols is a favorite character actor of mine, someone who, without fail, charmed me every time I saw him on screen — and he had a habit of showing up in the oddest, most delightful places. He achieved his most notable screen successes in the 1950s, with one of his earliest and best roles as Mac in The Thing From Another World (1951). He was one of the members of the Olympic team sailing with Lorelei and Dorothy in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Pinky in Giant, and had uncredited but notable parts in films such as Julius Caesar and Monkey Business.

Starting in the 1960s, he began to get smaller, odder roles, especially on television. His hard-drinking Seal — the Seals being an analogue for the Shriners — in a 1966 episode of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” was surprisingly complicated, a funny role with more than a hint of edge to it. One sensed that Nichols wasn’t asked to play the part that way but simply did, because he could, and because he wanted to. The same could be said for many of his later film roles: His travel agent in The Yellow Rolls Royce, the airplane passenger in the original Out-of-Towners, and the inexplicably small role of a desk clerk in the similarly inexplicable Wicked, Wicked.

He most famously appeared as Joe Wilson, lab partner to Dr. Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) in the 1955 sci-fi classic This Island Earth. The film is rather unfairly maligned thanks to MST3K fandom, despite it being a terrific example of a 1950s sci-fi matinee movie. Certainly, it’s a film specifically created to entertain, but displays more depth than many similar films of the era. Much of that depth comes from the character of Joe, played by Nichols as less “weenie sidekick” than reasoned observer. Films of the 1950s cast heroes as physically strong and imposing, with the villains and sidekicks made weak and smaller in comparison, and some of Joe’s character necessarily reflects that; that’s the trait that most of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie focuses on, because even in the super futuristic year of 1996, a man showing emotion was hilarious.

Joe is more than just silly weakling next to the movie’s real hero, however. He’s the guy still excited by science, eager for discoveries, but a reasonable man, not a hotshot pilot who doesn’t know the difference between bravery and foolishness. Joe is also the audience stand-in, rightly questioning the motives of the aliens, and the one person willing to tell Cal that he’s a damned idiot for getting on a plane that has no pilot. Nichols was smart enough and a strong enough performer to play Joe as a little desperate, a man unafraid to show emotions, without making him a caricature. His final moments in This Island Earth, staring into the foggy night sky, exhausted after trying to reason with a hard-headed hero, are genuinely touching.

Robert Nichols in This Island EarthKeep watching the skies, my friend. You will be missed.

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11 Comments

  1. Love the film, always enjoyed him.

    • Hey Bob, nice to see you around — yes, I absolutely always loved to see Nichols show up in a film. I about fell over when I saw him in So You Married An Axe Murderer.

  2. He’ll definitely be missed…

    I wonder why the bother to make an MST3K movie was even tried. Each episode is movie length anyway, the series just didn’t have a studio to screw them over by radically shortening their time, and refusing to give them a bad movie! And as for the psychos in MST3K fandom (there seem to be a lot with MST3K for some reason!), I’m sure Robert Nichols will haunt the crap out of them and force them to watch loops of REAL bad 50′ sci-fi!

    • Ha! Yeah, I have had run-ins with MST3K fans that were extremely unpleasant. I credit MST3K for getting me interested in “bad” movies, but now, after nearly 20 years of watching actual bad movies, I lose patience with MSTies who scream about how awful Roger Corman or even Ed Wood are. Then they complain that they can’t even make it through a MSTed Coleman Francis movie, and I just laugh.

      This Island Earth? Not even close to being bad.

  3. The MST3K movie was a clusterfuck from the very beginning. They were more or less handed This Island Earth by Universal (originally, I believe, they were planning to do World Without End [1956], which they’d already riffed live at the first MST3K convention, but couldn’t get the rights), and while I’m sure it was a relief to finally do a film with some nice production values and good actors, it did work against the premise of the show. A lot of MST3K:TM is brilliantly funny, due in large part to Rex Reason’s hilariously mannered, relentlessly sonorous line readings and the fact that his character, Cal, is inexhaustibly ineffectual (pretty much everything he does either fails or explodes, and his sole action sequence involves sneaking up behind a bipedal insect and braining it with a Thernos). But ultimately This Island Earth is a fun, gorgeous film with some thought-provoking themes, which didn’t leave the SoL crew a whole lot to work with, causing them to default far too often to tired references (the Gilligan’s Island stuff is worked to death) non sequiturs and fart jokes during scenes that didn’t really require any commentary to get through. Then of course, Universal dropped the picture, and the company that eventually released it insisted on edits which resulted in a feature film that was actually shorter than the average TV episode (and considerably shorter than the running time of TIE, which accounts for much of the narrative incoherence).

    But Mr. Nichols emerges with his dignity intact from the experience, giving the same kind of wry, easy-going performance that meshed so well the almost improvisational naturalism of The Thing ensemble, but leaving Mike and the Bots little to mock except, as you say, for the generic nerdy sidekick gibes.

    Anyway, loved every Robert Nichols performance I’ve had the good fortune to catch, and if anybody out there has a copy of Jet Job they’d care to lend me, I’d be ecstatic, because my Bucket List includes seeing him essay the role of “Dynamo Jackson” (it would help if the one sheet said, “Robert Nichols is Dynamo Jackson!”, but I’m not picky.)

    • I need to admit here that I have MST3KTM memorized. That is not hyperbole: I have the film and its riffs memorized. (“There goes a stupid, stupid man.”) I think much of it is hilarious, but it fails when it falls back on tired stereotypes.

      The MST3K crew were prone to stereotypes — they are ruthlessly sexist toward Vivian Schilling of Future Shock. They also hammered many a joke into the ground in episodes, not just the film. If the Gilligan’s Island references got you down, I do not recommend Clonus. The Biography jokes were so frustrating I could not finish that episode. So I know that they were hindered in the movie, but I also know some of their faults were theirs alone.

      The movie was a bad idea, really, and there have always been rumors that Joel left in part because Mallon was so adamant about the movie that Joel felt it was either stay and cause a rift or leave and try to keep the cast/crew together. The rift happened anyway, I think. There’s an interesting comment from Joel during a con (recorded and an extra on some DVD, hell if I remember which one) where he says he didn’t think Kevin Murphy would work out and so resisted allowing him a spot on the show, and I always assumed that explained why Kevin wasn’t part of the current “Joel” group.

      I looked in my usual haunt (ahem) for Jet Job and no luck. It may not be available anywhere at all.

      • Thanks for looking up Jet Job — can’t say I’m surprised it’s a “lost film,” although on the bright side, there are probably fewer tears being shed over it than, say, London After Midnight. I saw Joel’s one man show (“Riffing Myself”) when it was in development, and you’re right, he was fairly explicit that it was the movie, and Jim Mallon’s assumption — and then insistence — that he, Jim, would direct it, that caused the final rift between the two. Kevin, who I like, was always Mallon’s ally in any creative disputes, since they’d gone to school together, and Kevin had worked for Mallon at KTMA before MST was ever conceived.

        I don’t think they ever did Future Shock on MST — they did do Future Wars, but you may be thinking of Soultaker, also written by and starring Vivian Schilling, which they riffed in the final season on Sci Fi. I have an unusually vivid recollection of that movie only because it was shot in the same area we made Frankenfish (I instantly recognized the convenience store the kids run to after their car accident, since I passed it night after night on my way to set, and that craphole was the sole oasis of light on Highway 225, a relentlessly dark and creepy two lane road that runs along the Tensaw River).

        Parts: The Clonus Horror is the only MST episode I’ve never been able to sit through twice. Intensively disliked it the first time, thought I should give it another chance a few years later but no, it was just as sucky as I remembered, and I dived for the remote less than halfway through.

        • I admit that I just went to the LiveJournal MST3K group to look up the Schilling film that was riffed — she had been recently mentioned there, because I could not for the life of me remember it. Google was unhelpful. But yes, it was Soultaker, and I see people on LJ and the semi-official discussion board and mst3kinfo all still slamming her for “thinking she’s pretty when she’s not” and such. I’m not saying MST3K or its creators are responsible for that kind of crap, but I do think that, when they choose to make those kind of jokes, they attract that kind of audience. In the case of TIE, the weenie jokes about Joe felt very similar to the racist Asian jokes in the Gamera films, the sexist jokes about Schilling, the gay jokes or the fat jokes.

          When I went to the Rifftrax “Birdemic” show in Topeka a few months ago, Bill Corbett made a lot of Jabba the Hutt jokes about the mother in the movie, because she was fat. He kept following up by saying “Hey, I can say it because I’m fat, too.” I sat behind a group of three couples, two of which seemed to be exceptionally curious about what *I* thought of the jokes, because I’m a fat woman. A guy at one point, unable to help himself, looked back to see if I was laughing, and you could tell from his disappointed face that he was upset that I wasn’t hurt by the jokes. Again, not Rifftrax’s fault, but they will attract that kind of “that guy’s joke gives me an excuse to be an asshole” audience member.

          Joel, or at least the reports of what Joel said after leaving, were inconsistent at the time. I’m still hearing different stories even to this day, not just about why he left but why J Elvis was let go or “allowed” to leave or whatever it was that happened. Clearly there is some tension there; at another con panel on a DVD extra, J Elvis was more than a little rude to Bill Corbett, and Mary Jo has lashed out at the MST3K DVDs being released. As for Kevin, when I saw the con panel I mentioned earlier, I wondered if some of Joel’s reticence to hire him initially was because he WAS friends with Mallon.

  4. Love the site, added you to our links page!

  5. Stacia,
    As usual, a very eloquent, insightful tribute. You are simply the best at taking actors, films, scenes, etc. that many of us don’t give a second thought, putting them into insightful context, and getting to the core of what makes them so good and so worthy of consideration by thoughtful film fans.

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