Character actors may never be the star, but they are essential to the success of a movie. They have to make an impression that they’re more than just someone walking on and speaking a line, but not be overwhelming. Sometimes they just fade into the background afterwards. And Whit Bissell was one of the best.
Bissell took to the theater early, appearing on Broadway in 1933, when he was 24.* He worked very consistently on the stage for over ten years, then tried his hand a films. Many of his early roles were uncredited; his first credit was in Brute Force as one of the prison guards. From then on, there was no stopping him, and he’d appear in 6-10 movies a year. In the mid-50s, he started to find the niche in which he’s best remembered: science fiction films. Starting with Target Earth, he fell into the characterization that became his trademark: a scientist or other authority figure who was there to help the hero.**
He had a small but pivotal role in the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers as one of the two actors in the frame tale.***
His biggest film roles were as a scientist (of course) in the drive-in classics I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein.
As the studio system died, he switched to TV as an all purpose actor. Despite being in the medium almost from the beginning, he didn’t have any recurring roles until 1965 (a seven-episode stint in Peyton Place). His first regular role wasn’t until the next year, where he played General Kirk**** in The Time Tunnel. He also appeared in Star Trek’s “The Trouble with Tribbles” as the manager of the space station where the trouble began.
Bissell continued to work regularly in TV until the early 80s, when he seemed to retire. Overall, he appeared in over 300 shows and movies, making his face one of the most familiar of all actors.
*His debut, appropriately enough, was small -- one of the cards in Eva LaGallienne’s version of Alice in Wonderland.
**I note that in The Atomic Kid, he was billed as “Dr. Edgar Pangborn.” Pangbourn had a couple of novels out at this time, though not his masterpiece Davy.
***The two scenes – at the beginning and at the end of the movie – were added to the film because the studio wanted a more hopeful ending. Director Don Siegel hated the change.
****A general was almost the same as a scientist in 50s SF.