The What A Character Blogathon gives me the perfect opportunity to discuss one of my favorite movie supporting players--the English actor Michael Ripper (1913-2000).
Anyone who is a huge fan of Hammer Films (such as myself) can't help but smile whenever Michael Ripper shows up on the screen. The first thing people think of when Hammer is mentioned is of course Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and then all the beautiful ladies featured in their productions, and then maybe the Gothic period atmosphere of the company's many horror films. But Michael Ripper was just as important to Hammer as those aforementioned elements. Ripper appeared in more Hammer movies than any other performer, starting with THE DARK ROAD (AKA THERE IS NO ESCAPE) in 1948. The actor's last acting job for Hammer was in THAT'S YOUR FUNERAL, made in 1972.
If Cushing and Lee represented the aristocracy of Hammerland, and the gorgeous scream queens represented the glamour, then Michael Ripper represented the working class. Ripper, with his everyman's face, was not physically imposing or impressive. But he did have the one main ability that every great character actor must posses--the ability to take a small or supposedly non-important role and make it memorable. Ripper never played a lead in a Hammer horror film, and he never played a mad scientist or a vampire, but he played just about everything else for the company. Very few characters in a Hammer film seemed to actually have to work for a living--but those that did were usually portrayed by Ripper.
Ripper was a very valuable commodity for Hammer. The company's productions were made under a strict budget, and there was no time to waste with difficult or unprofessional talent. Ripper could handle just about any role....well, maybe any role--his casting as a Japanese soldier in the WWII melodrama THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND wasn't the best use of his abilities. But other than that, Hammer's front office knew that Ripper could be relied upon to be on time, know his lines and give something more to his role--and the film he was in--than could be measured in the script. He was able to play good guys and bad guys with equal ease. Depending on the character he played Ripper's smile could be kindly and whimsical, or devious and threatening. The actor also had a well-honed sense of comic timing. (Most of the darkly humorous moments in Hammer cinema are directly provided by Michael Ripper.)
Ripper started his acting career as a young man, and most of his work in the 1930s and 40s was on the British stage. Ripper appeared in a number of movies during this period, but most of his roles were uncredited. In the early 1950s the actor underwent an operation for a thyroid condition, and his throat was weakened as a result. This forced Ripper to concentrate more on film roles (when you do watch Ripper in one of his many Hammer roles notice how he very rarely raises his voice, and when he does he sounds rather hoarse).
Ripper appeared in more than just Hammer movies--he shows up in such famous British films as RICHARD III, REACH FOR THE SKY, and SINK THE BISMARCK!. But he will be remembered for the many horror titles he was associated with. Ripper was a personal favorite of Terence Fisher and Freddie Francis, the two most important directors of English Gothic cinema. Ripper's relationship with Francis enabled the actor to be in such non-Hammer horrors as THE DEADLY BEES, TORTURE GARDEN, and THE CREEPING FLESH.
There's something to enjoy in every one of Ripper's film performances, but I'd like to point out a few of my favorites. In Hammer's 1962 period adventure NIGHT CREATURES (AKA CAPTAIN CLEGG), Ripper plays the role of Mipps, the steadfastly loyal member of Peter Cushing's crew of smugglers. In THE REPTILE, Ripper appears as the friendly Tom Bailey, who goes out of his way to help a young couple fight a strange menace in a small Cornish village. DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE has Ripper in probably his most well-known role, as the lovable (and somewhat philosophical) tavern keeper Max. DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE is one of the many Hammer outings in which Ripper was behind a bar or in front of one, so I might as well include one of the actor's several tipsy performances--the magnificently named "Old Soak" in THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, where he literally gets scared straight when he has to spend time in a jail cell with Oliver Reed's tragic lycanthrope.
As Hammer started a sharp decline in the 1970s, Ripper's film roles started to decrease. He began to concentrate on British TV before his retirement in the early 1990s. Before his death in 2000 he was able to attend a few monster movie conventions in the United States where he was (to his astonishment) received with great warmth from many Hammer fans.
The Hammer Films catalogue has had an important part in my life as a film buff. Because of that, I'm more familiar with Michael Ripper's performances than most "big time" mainstream actors. He really was a character--and to classic horror film fans, something of an old friend. It's very easy for a supporting player to be overshadowed by the likes of Baron Frankenstein, Count Dracula, and various voluptuous young ladies in nightgowns--but Michael Ripper left his mark on every single production he was ever involved in.