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Saturday, December 15, 2018

Anthony Caruso's collaborations with Alan Ladd

This post is my contribution to the What a Character! Blogathon, hosted by the great blogger team of Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, Paula of Paula's Cinema Club, and Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled. Go to any of those sites to read the other blogathon entries on this always fascinating topic of character actors.
Anthony Caruso in the 1940s
Like many of the best character actors during the 'golden age' of Hollywood, Anthony Caruso's output was prolific. Need a menacing henchman for your mob lead in a gangster picture? Call Caruso. Require an Indian chief to complicate the life of your Western hero or heroine? Caruso's your man. Caruso did it all and more in a 50-year career in movies, TV, and radio. Some of his parts were large, others were tiny, although most were villains or at least unsavory characters. His best roles allowed him to display his sensitivity and humanity. Today, there is not much written about him, but a few interview clips with him are available. What is interesting is that in those that I've seen he discusses his relationship with star Alan Ladd. On the surface, two more different actors could not be paired - Caruso, large and swarthy; Ladd, diminutive, soft-spoken, and blond. But yet the two careers were tightly intertwined in the 1940s and 1950s.
Caruso in Johnny Apollo film poster, 2nd from left.

Caruso was born in Indiana to Italian immigrants, but moved to California at age 10. His acting career started when he was still a teenager, playing in "all the chronicles Shakespeare ever wrote, from King John to Henry VIII"(1), at the Pasadena Playhouse. When young, he was a handsome guy, but his dark and brooding face and large muscular physique had the studios steering him into 'bad guy' character parts almost immediately. His first film role was in the 20th Century Fox Tyrone Power gangster film Johnny Apollo. His name appears way down in the credits as 'Joe the Henchman' but he appears in a film poster (2nd from left) with Power. His final film credit was in 1990, and he died at age 86 in 2003.

Throughout the 1940s, Caruso found steady work as a character player for multiple studios. His collaboration with Alan Ladd started very early in both their careers, in the 1942 Paramount gangster comedy (!) picture Lucky Jordan. This was a film Paramount rushed out when after This Gun For Hire, they realized they had a star in Ladd. (In another twist, Caruso was being seriously considered for the lead in This Gun For Hire, but Paramount chose to cast Ladd against type). Caruso had one short scene, sharing the screen with the film's villain Sheldon Leonard. Blink and you'll miss it.

A couple of years later, he had a bit part in another Ladd film, And Now Tomorrow, also starring Loretta Young. In this role, he again didn't have a chance to make much of an impression on the audience, but he did make one on Ladd. This is where their lifelong friendship and film collaboration truly took off.
Caruso (r) supporting Sheldon Leonard in his (unsuccessful)
attempt to take down Alan Ladd's character via a sharp shot
through a window in Lucky Jordan.
Caruso's version of the story goes like this. On the set, Alan asked Caruso to come to his dressing room to chat, and it was quickly clear to him that Caruso didn't remember their encounter nearly 10 years earlier. He refreshed Caruso's memory: in 1933 both aspiring actors were trying out for roles at the Pasadena Playhouse, and because Ladd had no lunch money, Caruso, who would have been 17 to Ladd's 20, bought Ladd lunch. Ladd related that he never forgot that act of kindness and wanted to give Caruso work whenever he could: "From that time on, Alan, a star, would throw me a script and say, 'pick a part'."(2) "He insisted that I be in his films, whenever I was available."(3)

Due to his bankable star status, Ladd had considerable sway at Paramount. It's not clear, though, if he played a role in Caruso's casting in The Blue Dahlia (1946), or Wild Harvest (1947). In The Blue Dahlia, Caruso is memorable, but again uncredited, as a Marine recently returned from WWII who is provoked by William Bendix's character at a bar's jukebox. His role in Wild Harvest is likewise tiny. Interestingly, Ladd's last role for Paramount was as the titular character of the classic Western Shane (1953). Caruso stated that he would have liked to have done a part in Shane more than any of the Ladd pictures he did do (3).

It didn't seem that Caruso needed Ladd for his career. In 1950 he was a major supporting player in one of the finest movies of his career, the great noir heist film, The Asphalt Jungle. Here he plays the safecracker Louis Ciavelli, a desperate man trying to provide for his family during difficult times. He gets shot when the heist goes wrong, but takes hours to die, staying loyal to his compadres to the end. The role took full advantage of Caruso's sensitive side and elicited the sympathy of the audience.
Caruso (second from right) plans a heist with Sam Jaffe,
Sterling Hayden, and James Whitmore in The Asphalt Jungle.
It was when Ladd moved to Warner Brothers in the early 1950s that Caruso's profile in Ladd's films increased. This was a time of career uncertainty for Ladd, as he was challenged to find his footing at his new studio. His response was both negative and positive--he started drinking heavily, but he also built his own production company, Jaguar Films, under the Warner Bros. umbrella, and produced a series of mostly Western films. None of these rose to the stature of Shane, but most were entertaining and bankable. Ladd relied heavily on many colleagues from Paramount and developed his own 'stock company', in which Caruso was a prominent member. Reliable directors such as Delmer Daves and Frank Tuttle, and co-stars such as Virginia Mayo, Shelley Winters, Edmond O'Brien, and Charles Bronson added to their value.

Caruso as Brog in The Big Land
At Jaguar/Warner Bros. from 1952-1958, Caruso worked with Ladd on seven films: The Iron Mistress (1952), Desert Legion (1953), Saskatchewan (1954), Drum Beat (1954), Hell on Frisco Bay (1955), The Big Land (1957) and The Badlanders (1958). In two of these, he played a Native American, today a controversial casting choice, to be sure. However, despite that, in those roles Caruso was convincing.

One reason Ladd may have been eager to cast Caruso--according to Caruso, he was willing to slouch, stretch out his hips, or contort in other ways so as not to be taller than Ladd. "I know Alan appreciated that", he said (5).

I'd like to highlight two contrasting films of this time. The first, The Big Land, is a middling Western with Ladd teaming with Edmond O'Brien to make the Great Plains safe for cattle merchants. In this one, Caruso has a large part as the main villain, Brog. He's a ruthless cattle buyer who uses intimidation and murder to shut out the competition. There is no subtlety in the role, as Caruso leers and sneers, milking a mediocre script for all it's worth.

The second film is widescreen Cinemascope color noir Hell on Frisco Bay. This film evokes some memory of Ladd's success in noir in the 1940s, and adds to its noir credentials with the likes of Edward G. Robinson and Paul Stewart. It's worth checking out on DVD. Here, Caruso has a cameo that is a far cry from the cardboard villain Brog. He's a devoted father who happens to have some knowledge of a mob murder on the docks that ex-con Ladd is investigating. Ladd visits Caruso in his flat and catches him in the middle of a shave. While wanting to be helpful to Ladd, he realizes the price he may pay, and the risk to his young son, if he reveals too much. Over the course of the short scene he's tough, threatening, soft, fearful, all in quick succession. His casting here is a work of genius and perhaps the peak of the Ladd/Caruso collaboration.
Caruso assures Ladd he knows little about murder at the docks
in Hell on Frisco Bay.
Caruso with his young son (Peter J. Votrian) in Hell on Frisco Bay.

Sadly, Alan Ladd struggled professionally and personally at the end of the 1950s and early 1960s, until he died from an accidental overdose at age 50 in 1964. In this later period, the film The Badlanders (with Ernest Borgnine and Caruso in a small role) is definitely worth checking out. It's a western version of The Asphalt Jungle, and Ladd brings an appropriate amount of world-weary cynicism that enhances the adventure.

As for Caruso, his career lasted almost another 30 years after Ladd died, and he continued to find success in Westerns, mobster, and 'ethnic' roles in TV and movies. Fans of the original Star Trek TV series will recall him as a gangster in the time travel episode 'A Piece of the Action' from 1968. If he were born a generation later, he may have found long-lasting success as a member of the New Jersey mob in the acclaimed TV series The Sopranos. In real life, apparently, Caruso's life was quite the opposite of many of his characters. His hobbies included cooking and gardening, and his marriage lasted 63 years. His career is a model of character actor success in Hollywood-a nearly 50-year career in all kinds of roles, using a variety of talents, and knowing that taking work is sometimes more important than ensuring that every role has substantive screen time. Whenever Caruso pops up in a film, you're guaranteed to be entertained.
Caruso (l) confronts Captain Kirk (William Shatner) in Star Trek's episode
"A Piece of the Action"

(1) Interview with Sunset Carson
(2) Alan Ladd: The True Quiet Man (Documentary)
(3)-(5) Interview with Sunset Carson 


  1. A very charming and interesting article on Caruso and his Ladd connection.

    I was very pleased when my daughter spotted him as a cab driver in Across the Pacific and wanted to see more of Anthony Caruso. I could then show her The Asphalt Jungle (and she wondered what took me so long!).

    As a western fan, I have many fond memories of this Golden Boot recipient on television, particularly on many episodes of Gunsmoke. Outstanding among the Gunsmoke gigs is the episode Ash, co-starring John Dehner. I highly recommend this emotional episode with fine performances. I know you will be impressed.

    1. Thank you! I hope your daughter has remained a fan of Mr, Caruso.

      I looked up the episode of Gunsmoke you mentioned and for some reason my streaming service only allows me to go through season 6, So I need to work a bit more to find this one. But just looking at some of the earlier episode previews makes me want to start at the beginning and dive into the series. When I was growling up I remember seeing a few episodes but now I would probably be much more able to appreciate them. It’s odd that I never imagined becoming a Western fan, but I have kind of turned into one!

    2. It's been fun watching a new western fan being born. And, yes, my daughter is still an Anthony Caruso fan. He hooked her from that first role.

    3. You've been an inspiration in the process--I appreciate it!

  2. Great tribute. I too remember his brief but memorable scene in Hell On Frisco Bay .

    1. Thank you! I really liked HOFB more than I had expected to. Caruso was a delight, as were all the cast members. I’m sure I’ll watch it again soon.

  3. So he was willing to change his posture for his job! Reminds me of a story attributed to Bruce Willis, when he was testing for Moonlighting. Supposedly Cybill Shepherd asked if he was handsome enough, and he said he could "act better looking." I guess Mr. Caruso chose to "act shorter."

    1. Hi! Thanks for sharing that quote from Bruce Willis. I hadn’t heard it but I get it completely. Can’t we all name actors who ‘act good looking’ to the extent that we find them attractive more than expected?! Thanks so much for stopping by.

  4. Good to have friends in high places! Great post about an actor who knew that the star role did not always promise steady and lasting employment. Great post about an actor who not only looked the part, but provided solid performances each and every time.

    1. Thank you, Marsha. In listening to his interviews later in life it seemed like he was very much content with his career and choices. It seems that his solid personality affected others around him positively as well. I enjoyed learning about him.

  5. AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! So THAT is why he felt so familiar when I started seeing him pop up in Alan Ladd's movies a lot! He's in "A Piece of the Action"!!!! OF COURSE! That's one of my fave Star Trek eps, but I haven't seen it in years and years, and of course he's older in it, so no wonder I didn't quite make the connection. I first really noticed Caruso last year in Iron Mistress, and then he kept popping up in other Ladd films as I watched and rewatched them, enough so that I now kind of keep an eye out for him.

    Love this post of yours, of course. Ladd seems to have worked at finding roles for several pals, especially William Bendix. Which only makes me like him more.

    1. Hi, Hamlette! I thought you might like this one! And I always loved those Trek episodes where they return to the past. The writers seem to be influenced by Old Hollywood.

      Ladd inspired strong loyalty from many, like Bendix, Lloyd Nolan, and of course Caruso. It was really fun to revisit a few of these films that I hadn't seen for a couple of years. I wanted to rewatch The Iron Mistress, but it didn't seem to be available anywhere :-(

      Thanks so much for stopping by!

    2. Yes, the Trek eps where they revisit the past are some of my faves. Obviously, they made for easier costume and prop work, since they could pull stuff out of storage instead of make new alien/futuristic things, but there's something extra-good about them besides that.

      Like most of Alan's movies, I had to buy Iron Mistress on DVD to see it. It's on sale for only $11 on Amazon right now, just FYI.

  6. I would have never put Caruso and Ladd together, but that's why you're you and I'm not. :)

    Caruso's is yet another familiar face whose name I have a difficult time remembering, but what a career! A relative few leading players can match these character actors for stamina. This is a terrific, informative tribute. I am now running off to rewatch that Star Trek episode!!

    Thanks so much for joining us, Jocelyn!

    Once Upon a Screen

    1. Hi Aurora, thanks so much! I enjoyed working on this one and my deep dive into Alan Ladd's career a couple of years ago was a big help.

      It's funny that just when you think you might know every notable character actor, someone new comes up worthy of more attention--that's why this blogathon will always be relevant :-) I've been introduced to so many new ones just this year. It's a pleasure and an honor to contribute.

  7. Thanks for this fantastic post! I've always loved Caruso's work, and it was interesting to read about his friendship/collaboration with Alan Ladd!

    1. Thanks for stopping by, John. It was a pleasure for me to learn more about Caruso as well. I am looking forward to seeing more of his work.

  8. That's a great story re: Alan Ladd and Anthony Caruso. It's always refreshing to hear about people who will repay kindness.

    So glad you paid tribute to Caruso. Like you said, he really could do it all and he was always believable.

    1. Thanks so much! I'm glad I was able to enrich readers' knowledge of Caruso and also Alan Ladd at the same time. I appreciate you reading :-)

  9. I really enjoyed this, Jocelyn! I love Alan Ladd and have noticed how the same actors -- Peter Hansen is another who comes to mind offhand -- turn up time and again in his films. You really filled in a lot for me in that regard, it was great to learn about how Ladd and Caruso's relationship began and then continued over so many years.

    Best wishes,

    1. Laura, thanks so much for reading and commenting! I'll admit I had to look up Peter Hansen, but that's why this blogger community is so rewarding. :-)

      Happy New Year and see you in April!