Kenneth Tobey: Monster Movie Icon

by Mykki Newton

Kenneth Tobey appeared in hundreds of feature films and television shows of almost every genre, but to Monster Kids he is best remembered as the romantic figure of a career military man who never backed down from a monster fight.

I guess I should explain what a “Monster Kid” is to those not familiar with the term.  A Monster Kid is someone who grew up watching classic science fiction and horror movies produced prior to 1970. Many Monster Kid’s first exposure to Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and all the Cold War creatures representing our fear of the nuclear bomb and communism came from late night local television. At that time, every television market had a “Creature Feature” movie program with its own unique host.

Now back to Kenneth Tobey and a 1985 interview from my archives. With his leather flight-slash-monster fighting jacket, Kenneth Tobey tangled with a giant carrot creature from outer space at the North Pole, the radioactive Rhedosaurus that stomped through Lower Manhattan, and a nuclear-powered octopus that crushed the Golden Gate Bridge.

In 1949, Tobey had a bit part in I Was a Male War Bride and director Howard Hawks saw something he liked in the 32-year old actor. Hawks cast him as Captain Patrick Hendry, United States Air Force and the lead in The Thing from Another World (1951), but first Tobey had to impress studio boss Howard Hughes.

“I got a call when I came in slightly tipsy one night about 2 in the morning and the caller said, ‘Mr. Hughes wants to meet you,’” Tobey recalls. “I told the caller I’d be in first thing Monday morning, but the caller said, ‘No. No. No. No. Mr. Hughes wants to meet you right now.’ So, I drove over to his bungalow and met him. You can’t turn down Howard Hughes.”

Kenneth Tobey wielding an axe in “The Thing

The Thing from Another World and The Man from Planet X both went into general release on April 27, 1951. Both films mark the first-time people on Earth fought invading space aliens in an American feature film. The Man from Planet X is somewhat adorable in its simplicity and comic book visuals, but The Thing from Another World is terrifying and sophisticated even today.

Going into the 19-week shoot, Tobey said he thought it was just another adventure film. The Thing from Another World turned out to be far more than just an adventure film. It was ground-breaking cinema thanks in large part to the over-lapping dialog which brought a tense pace and sense of reality to the film.

“I’m going to take a little credit for that and give Howard Hawks a great deal of credit for using it,” Tobey said. “I had just come from the stage in New York and on the stage we overlap, so I automatically did that because I hadn’t done many pictures. Hawks liked it and got the whole cast to do it and we had a lot of fun doing that.”

The box office success of The Thing from Another World made Kenneth Tobey a gainfully employed film actor and a reliable frequent fighter of giant movie monsters. However, his next venture into science fiction was not the starring role. That spot was already taken by the title character, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Before there was Godzilla, there was Rhedosaurus, the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms…although he actually came from deep in the ice of the Arctic Circle during a nuclear bomb test dubbed “Operation Experiment.” Maybe it isn’t the most original title for a government operation or an experiment, but Kenneth Tobey is there to do his duty for his country. This time he is Colonel Jack Evans, United States Army and the monster is classic Ray Harryhausen stop motion animation. It is one of the first films to tap into our Cold War fear of nuclear annihilation.

“Ray Harryhausen is the best. Some of the movements of the giant brontosaurus…uh, whatever the hell it was, looked very real,” Tobey said. In science fiction pictures with monsters and things like that, the most important thing is for the actors to believe that that’s a creature. The audience will take the actor’s word for it. If the actor is truly scared or takes the creature seriously, then the audience will.”

Kenneth Tobey (center) gets a love scene

Tobey would again face a Harryhausen creation in 1955 when It Came from Beneath the Sea. “It” being a gigantic octopus driven from its natural habitat and food supply by hydrogen bomb tests. This time Kenneth Tobey crosses over into his third branch of the military. He is Commander Pete Mathews, captain of a nuclear submarine and traditional 1950s American male who doesn’t understand “these modern women these days.” While the giant radioactive octopus is wrapping its tentacles around the Golden Gate Bridge, Commander Mathews is trying to wrap his big paws around Professor Lesley Joyce (Faith Domergue) of Harvard University.

“I liked It Came from Beneath the Sea because I had love scenes and I had a longer part than in Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and I starred in it,” Tobey said.

Before the end of the 1950s, Kenneth Tobey would fight one more sci-fi monster…a pill-popping vampire in The Vampire (1957) of course, and once again Tobey was in an innovative, albeit low budget film. Unlike previous movie vampires created by pure evil, the devil, a bat, or a bite from Count Dracula, this vampire was created by science out of control and playing God. It was another common fear in our new Nuclear Age and a new kind of Kenneth Tobey, Monster Fighter. He is now a civilian, somewhat anyway. He is Sheriff Buck Donnelly of “Any Small Town, U.S.A.”, and he’s got a grotesque blood-sucker terrorizing his county.

Tobey’s talents shifted to television late in 1957 when he starred as the co-owner of a helicopter charter service in the series Whirlybirds until 1960. It was a major success worldwide and remained in syndication for decades. There was even a reunion of sorts with the Thing. Tobey was a guest actor on a 1960 episode of Gunsmoke starring James Arness who played the giant carrot creature from outer space in 1951.

Tobey (far left) in “Airplane!”

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Tobey would pop-up in small supporting roles in some of the biggest box office hits. Including Billy Jack (1971), Airplane! (1980), The Howling (1981), Gremlins (1984), Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), and Big Top Pee-wee (1988). He even tried to kill the real-life, somewhat mythical giant figure of legendary Tennessee lawman Buford Pusser in the original Walking Tall (1973).

Kenneth Tobey passed away in 2002 and didn’t live to see his final film released. It was film done on a bet to see if director Ted Newsom could produce a movie for $2,500. It began shooting as an 8mm film in 1984 and switched to videotape in the 1990s. It was finally released straight to DVD in 2005 as The Naked Monster, a spoof/tribute to the classic sci-fi horror films of the 50s. Kenneth Tobey reprised his role as Captain Patrick Hendry from The Thing from Another World. For the last time, Kenneth Tobey would don his leather flight-slash-monster fighting jacket. It is a film only Monster Kids will understand and appreciate.

“I enjoy acting,” Tobey said. “Whatever the genre is, I love it. Of all the science fiction films I’ve done, The Thing is my favorite because it brought me the most fame and I’ve gotten my last 10 parts because of The Thing, which was 30 years ago.”

Mykki Newton is a grown-up “Monster Kid”, a connoisseur of cinema schlock and a videographer/editor at the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss.

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