William Marshall: The black Christopher Lee
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Remembering a great screen and stage presence - and one hell of a cool vampire!
After his electrifying performance as Blacula (1972), the great William Marshall was briefly considered a worthy successor to Christopher Lee's vampire king. A respected Shakespearean actor with an impressive theatre background, he was set to become a major horror star of the seventies, but like his fellow stage actor Robert Quarry, who achieved the same status as Count Yorga, his film career faded rapidly after the genre went through a radical re-think following the commercial success of The Exorcist (1973).
The cousin of screen actor Paul Winfield, William Horace Marshall was born in Gary, Indiana on 19 August 1924. He attended Roosevelt High School and graduated from New York University with a BA in Art. He studied acting at New York's Neighbourhood Playhouse and Lee Strasberg's famous Actors Studio.
Marshall remained in New York to train in as an actor and director in Grand Opera and Shakespeare, although he had to support himself in a variety of jobs before making his professional stage debut. At 6ft 5inches, he was an impressively built, handsome, strong-featured actor with a booming bass baritone voice to match his towering presence. Not surprisingly, he quickly built up a formidable reputation as America's finest Shakespearean actor, second only to the great John Carradine.
Marshall's first brush with horror came early in his career as understudy to Boris Karloff's Captain Hook in the 1950 Broadway production of Peter Pan. When the horror vogue faded in the forties, Karloff worked frenetically on stage, where he made the role of Hook his own. Taking over from Karloff years later, Marshall was equally popular as the pirate villain, playing the part several times on stage throughout his career.
In addition to Shakespeare, Marshall used his fine singing voice to portray opera legend Paul Robeson on stage and received critical acclaim for his performance as Senator Frederick Douglas, the slave abolitionist who Marshall developed a great admiration for; he spent 15 years researching the statesman's life.
Marshall also held acting workshops at several colleges including the UC Irvine Institute. He taught acting at the Mufandi Institute in Los Angeles, where he served as director in the sixties.
Marshall made his film debut in Lydia Bailey (1952). Despite his reputation on stage, his film career was less impressive because of Hollywood's reluctance to cast black actors in leading roles. His first major film was Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) opposite Victor Mature, where his performance as Glycon, the gladiator who finds Christianity, was singled out for praise.
Marshall began making regular TV appearances in the sixties at a time when black actors were slowly being accepted in leading, non-stereotype roles. Among those popular on American TV were Greg Morris in Mission Impossible, Don Marshall in Land of the Giants and Nichelle Nichols in Star Trek. Marshall himself would later make an imposing presence guest-starring as Dr Richard Daystrom, the genius inventor of 'The Ultimate Computer', in the legendary science fiction show. Other TV appearances included Danger Man, The Man from Uncle, Ben Casey and The Wild Wild West.
Marshall's film career slowly gathered momentum in the late sixties with small but prominent roles in The Boston Strangler (1968) and Skullduggery (1970).
In terms of cinema, leading roles for black actors were still limited until Sidney Poitier crossed the racial barrier in the sixties. The massive success of the excellent cop thriller Shaft (1971) paved the way for low budget blaxploitation movies in similar vein. Although these films provided work for many black actors, with Richard Roundtree, Fred Williamson and Pam Grier becoming stars in their own right, the trendy flares, platform shoes and afro hair, prominent in contemporary seventies cinema, have since turned blaxploitation into the subject of ridicule, a point put across in the affectionate spoof I'm Gonna Git You Sucka (1988). But at the time, it was the right kind of entertainment to attract cinemagoers, and had a safe core market in the very strong demographics of the African-American movie-going contingent - at which it was originally aimed.
One movie mogul aware of the success of blaxploitation cinema was horror specialist Sam Arkoff of American International Pictures. Arkoff saw the potential of combining horror with blaxploitation, and following the box office success of AIP's Count Yorga, Vampire (1970), produced Blacula. Only one actor was capable of playing a Victorian vampire in a modern day setting, and that was William Marshall.
Prior to Blacula, good acting roles for black actors in horror films were limited to being an extra on King Kong (1933) or in a Tarzan film. The best roles available were usually the hero's comic relief chauffeur or butler, a character often frightened of his own shadow. Among those who made a career from this kind of role were Manton Moreland as Charlie Chan's chauffeur Birmingham Brown, Willie Best, the scared manservant who makes good use of his feet when the going gets tough, and the jive-talking Stepin Fetchit.
Serious roles were very rare, and consisted mainly of creepy witch-doctors, African chiefs or genies, the latter providing the definitive role for the excellent Rex Ingram in The Thief of Baghdad (1939).
When horror films took a more realistic turn at the end of the sixties, George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) introduced audiences to the genre's first black hero in the shape of Duane Jones, a lean good-looking former teacher, who plays the resourceful but tragic Ben. What made the film important is the fact that no reference is made to Ben's colour, and the part could have easily been played by a white man.
Duane Jones may have been horror's first black hero, but William Marshall was the first black villain, albeit a reluctant one. He plays Prince Manuwalde, an African nobleman who journeys to Transylvania to give Count Dracula (Charles McCauley) a petition calling for the abolition of slavery. Since Dracula likes to enslave his minions in more unorthodox ways, he has to be the worst person to plead such a case to and soon enough Manuwalde becomes a vampire while his wife Luva (Vonette Magee) joins the endless list of Dracula brides.
Fast forward to seventies Harlem, the fashion capital of America, where Blacula is inadvertently revived by two gay interior decorators and soon runs amok until he meets Tina (Magee again), who happens to resemble his lost love.
Of course the vampire prince continues his killing spree until the baffled New York Police force finally get wind of it all and kill Tina. Distraught by Tina's death, Blacula smashes up his coffin and walks out into the sunset.
As a film, Blacula is about as daft as the other blaxploitation films of the time, with plenty of finger-clicking, jive-talking Huggy Bear look-alikes raising more than just a few smiles. Both the script and William Craine's sluggish direction lack the punchy humour that made Count Yorga, Vampire so effective.
What really makes Blacula is Marshall, whose performance is so good that one forgets the film's sloppy production. Although Christopher Lee is an obvious inspiration, especially when Blacula claims his victims, it is Marshall's stylish touch that makes it all work; he even re-invents the part, because Blacula was originally written as a dimwit. Resplendent in evening suit and cape, he plays the role with total conviction, his classical training and booming voice projected to maximum effect in a performance that is powerful and dignified throughout.
For his excellent work on the film, Marshall won the First Annual Award from the Academy of Horror and Science Fiction and the Cinema Award from the Count Dracula Society.
As an actor, Marshall was a natural for the genre. His imposing presence equals that of Christopher Lee, while his stage background and acting range runs alongside Peter Cushing. Like Cushing he put 100% total commitment to each role no matter how bad the film was, but there was also a sense of fun much along the lines of Vincent Price, that tells the audience we can trust his expertise fully.
The success of Blacula was due to a word of mouth publicity campaign Arkoff organised around Harlem and other black ghettos using black fraternal magazines and journals. With such a positive response, a sequel was in order.
Despite bringing in Count Yorga director Robert Kelljan, Scream Blacula Scream (1973) is a pretty weak film that lacks the curiosity of its predecessor. Once again Marshall gives an impressive and intelligent performance, but the poor script finally defeats him. The film itself met with box office indifference.
At a time when Marshall should have become a major horror star, his film career faltered. Plans for a third Blacula film were scrapped along with a chance to star opposite Vincent Price and Robert Quarry in the third (unfilmed) Dr Phibes movie.
Marshall also had the chance to star opposite Peter Cushing in the Amicus werewolf chiller The Beast Must Die (1974) but had to pass it up because his AIP contract prevented him from doing horror films for other studios. Instead he opted for another AIP blaxploitation horror Abbey (1974), as exorcist Bishop Garnet Williams. Blaxploitation cinema was now passé and, despite another good performance, the film did poorly at the box office.
The success of The Exorcist finally destroyed the market for low budget gothic horror films. AIP moved into other areas of exploitation and Arkoff clearly had no use for a contract player. Marshall's horror career came to a quiet end.
Marshall continued making film and TV appearances, but the theatre remained his first love. Now popular on stage as Captain Hook, he gave the performance of his career as Othello. Following a triumphant 1981 tour of America and Europe, the BBC broadcast a TV version of the play to tremendous critical acclaim with the Times hailing Marshall as the "best Othello of Our Time".
Following a recurring role in the popular TV show Rosetti and Ryan and making a creepy Grim Reaper in Benson, Marshall became popular to a new generation of children as the Cartoon King in Pee-Wee's Playhouse for CBS TV - a role he accepted following mounting pressure from his grandchildren!
In 1991, Marshall took his one-man show Enter Frederick Douglas on a successful tour of America; it was filmed by PBS TV the same year.
A resident of Hanson Dam in Pacoima, California for many years, Marshall retired from acting in the mid nineties due to ill health. Other than a nice cameo in Maverick (1994) playing poker with fellow Star Trek veterans Henry Darrow, Bert Remsden and William Smith, his later films were a sorry bunch; Amazon Women on the Moon (1987) and Dinosaur Valley Girls (1996) are a long way off the relative sophistication of Blacula.
A long sufferer of Alzheimer's disease, William Marshall spent his final years in a Los Angeles retirement home. He died from a heart attack on 11 June 2003.
Like Robert Quarry before him, Marshall's horror career began at the wrong time. Had it been a decade earlier, and with less prejudice in casting black actors for film roles, he could have easily rivalled Vincent Price as the king of American gothic. As it is, he will remain one of the genre's great cult figures for his performance as the reluctant vampire king.
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