Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Fred Lightner: Another Rondo Hatton?

I recently had the pleasure of seeing some episodes of a 1950s television series called FOLLOW THAT MAN, starring Ralph Bellamy as private eye Mike Barnett. In its original run, the show was called MAN AGAINST CRIME but it went into syndication as FOLLOW THAT MAN, under which title 28 different episodes are available on disc in seven volumes from Alpha Home Video. Starting in 1949, the first three seasons were broadcast live, and I don't know if any of these episodes survive; it went to film in 1952, the year its fourth season began.

The eighth episode of that fourth season, "Get Out of Town," I found especially interesting because it features a henchman character named Stanley, clearly modelled on the persona made popular by the late Rondo Hatton in various Universal horror and mystery programmers, including THE PEARL OF DEATH and HOUSE OF HORRORS. Hatton died with his last picture, 1946's THE BRUTE MAN, still awaiting release -- the victim of a bone-distorting pituitary disease called acromegaly, which had also been responsible for his distorted features.

"Get Out of Town" begins with Mike Barnett entering his apartment, only to be quickly overcome by a gigantic hand that chloroforms him.

When Barnett awakens, he has been blindfolded -- and the monstrous hand responsible for subduing him occupies the foreground of the shot, flexing its fingers eagerly. The partner of this ominous, subhuman figure -- the fellow holding the gun -- explains to Barnett that a criminal of considerable wealth and influence wants him to get out of town for a year, and offers him a lot of money to high-tail it to Mexico.

When Barnett questions the arrangement, the ogre walks around the sofa and offers some encouragement by using his massive hand to crumple the shoulder of his sportcoat. As often happened with Rondo Hatton's characters, this character of the henchman named "Stanley" is kept under wraps a bit longer, which adds to the weight of his presence, but his face is eventually shown as he, his partner Sammy, and the requisite femme fatale escort Barnett to the airport. Here they are, seeing him off.

Looking at the actor on the right, I surmised right away that he, like Rondo Hatton, was very probably a victim of acromegaly. The end credits listed the actor as Fred Lightner, and I promptly looked him up on the IMDb to see if he left behind any other outstanding credits. His IMDb page, which does not mention the FOLLOW THAT MAN episode, lists only four other screen credits, ranging from a 1935 Western to a supporting role in 1948's THE BABE RUTH STORY. Legend has it that Rondo Hatton was a handsome college football star until wartime exposure to mustard gas prompted his disfiguring disease, so I began wondering if this might also have been the fate of Fred Lightner, whose long absence from films coincides with the war years. I also became curious about whether he had looked conspicuously different in his earliest pictures.

In a thread on the Classic Horror Film Boards, where I initiated this topic for discussion, "Doctor Kiss" posted a not-very-high-quality shot of Lightner and William Bendix together in THE BABE RUTH STORY in which he looks -- even at that late date -- like a completely different man. (I suppose I should allow for the possibility that it is.) As far as I know, there are no comparable before-and-after shots of Rondo Hatton to illustrate how quickly and lethally acromegaly derailed his once-handsome features; but if the actor in the BABE RUTH STORY still is indeed Fred Lightner, to compare the shots of taken of him in 1948 to these frame grabs from a 1952 production is a fairly sobering exercise.

No information about the later life of Fred Lightner is yet available, but it seems likely from these photos that he would not have had much longer to live. The point is not whether Rondo Hatton and Fred Lightner really were exposed to mustard gas, or if they -- like many others -- became acromegalic through some other internal process. The real point is that, until now, Rondo Hatton has always been a singular case study among actors, but this sighting of Fred Lightner proves that at least one other, authentically disfigured actor followed in his footsteps to play the sort of character he made infamous.

4 comments:

  1. Anonymous1:30 PM

    Rondo Hatton's acromegaly being caused by mustard gas was a studio invention, thought up when Universal were touting him as the next big thing in horror films. There is another actor from the same period who suffered with acromegaly, the British-born Harry Wilson (1897-1978).
    Picture here:
    http://www.aveleyman.com/ActorCredit.aspx?ActorID=79648

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  2. Anonymous7:44 PM

    Harry Wilson - (1897–1978) appeared in 276 films and also suffered from acromegaly.


    http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0933489/

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  3. Anonymous9:25 PM

    Fred Lightner was my great-uncle and that is not him in that film, trust me!

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  4. Perhaps another Fred Lightner? Unless the actor shown in these photos was not billed at all. Thanks for your input.

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