Kenneth Jesse Tobey (March 23, 1917 – December 22, 2002) was an American stage, film, and television actor, who performed in hundreds of productions during a career that spanned more than half a century, including his role as the star of the 1957-1960 Desilu Productions TV series Whirlybirds.
Kenneth Jesse Tobey
March 23, 1917
Oakland, California, U.S.
|Died||December 22, 2002 (aged 85)|
(m. 1968; died 1973)
Tobey was born in 1917 in Oakland, California. Following his graduation from high school in 1935, Kenneth entered the University of California, Berkeley, with intentions to pursue a career in law, until he began to dabble in acting at the school's theater. His stage experience there led to a drama scholarship, a year-and-a-half of study at New York City's Neighborhood Playhouse, where his classmates included fellow actors Gregory Peck, Eli Wallach, and Tony Randall.
During World War II, Tobey joined the United States Army Air Forces, serving in the Pacific as a rear gunner aboard a B-25 bomber. Throughout the 1940s, with the exception of his time in military service, Tobey acted on Broadway and in summer stock. After appearing in a 1943 film short, The Man of the Ferry, he made his Hollywood film debut in the 1947 Hopalong Cassidy Western Dangerous Venture. He then went on to appear in scores of features and on numerous television series. In the 1949 film Twelve O' Clock High, he is the negligent airbase sentry who is dressed down by General Frank Savage (played by Gregory Peck). That same year, Tobey performed in a brief comedy bit in another film, I Was a Male War Bride. His performance in that minor part caught the attention of director Howard Hawks, who promised to use the 32-year-old actor in something more substantial.
In 1951, Tobey was cast in Howard Hawks' production The Thing from Another World. In this classic sci-fi film he portrays Captain Patrick Hendry, a United States Air Force pilot, who at the North Pole leads a scientific outpost's dogged defense against an alien portrayed by James Arness, later the star of the television series Gunsmoke. Tobey's performance in Hawks' film garnered the actor other parts in science-fiction movies in the 1950s, usually reprising his role as a military officer, such as in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and It Came from Beneath the Sea (1956).
Tobey appeared in the 1952 episode "Counterfeit Plates" on the CBS series Biff Baker, U.S.A., an espionage drama starring Alan Hale, Jr. He was cast to in the 1954-1955 CBS legal drama The Public Defender, starring Reed Hadley. He guest-starred in three episodes of NBC's Western anthology series Frontier. His Frontier roles were as Wade Trippe in "In Nebraska" (1955) and then as Gabe Sharp in "Out from Texas" and "The Hostage" (1956). In 1955, he also portrayed legendary frontiersman Jim Bowie on ABC's Davy Crockett, a Walt Disney production, with Fess Parker in the title role. After Bowie's death in the series at the Battle of the Alamo, Tobey played a second character, Jocko, in the two final episodes of Davy Crockett.
Tobey then, in 1957, appeared in the syndicated religion anthology series Crossroads in the role of Mr. Alston in the episode "Call for Help", and as Jim Callahan in "Bandit Chief" in the syndicated Western series The Sheriff of Cochise. Later that same year, Tobey starred in the television series Whirlybirds, a successful CBS and then-syndicated adventure produced by Desilu Studios. In it, he played the co-owner of a helicopter charter service, along with Craig Hill. Whirlybirds was a major hit in the United States and abroad, with 111 episodes filmed through 1960. It remained in syndication worldwide for many years.
In 1958, Tobey also appeared as John Wallach in the episode "$50 for a Dead Man" in Jeff Richards's NBC Western series Jefferson Drum. In 1960, he guest-starred in the episode "West of Boston" of another NBC Western series, Overland Trail, starring William Bendix and Doug McClure. Also in 1960, he appeared as Colonel Lake on Death Valley Days and on ABC's Western The Rebel, starring Nick Adams. Tobey made three guest appearances on Perry Mason, twice in 1960 and once in 1962 as Jack Alvin, a deputy district attorney. On the long-running Western series Gunsmoke, he portrayed a cruel, knife-wielding buffalo hunter in the 1960 episode titled "The Worm". Tobey in 1962 also guest-starred on another Western series, Lawman, playing the character Duncan Clooney, an engineer who seeks to move a shipment of nitroglycerin through Laramie, Wyoming. When the town is evacuated to allow passage of the explosives, two of Clooney's employees decide they will take advantage of the situation to rob the bank.
Tobey guest-starred also in Jack Lord's 1962-1963 ABC adventure series about a rodeo circuit rider, Stoney Burke. In 1967, he performed on the series Lassie, in the episode "Lure of the Wild", playing a retired forest ranger who tames a local coyote. He also appeared as a slave owner named Taggart in "The Wolf Man", a 1967 episode ofDaniel Boone, starring Fess Parker. A few of the many other series in which Tobey later performed include Adam-12 (1969), Gibbsville (1976), MV Klickitat (1978), Emergency! (1975), and Night Court (1985).
He became a semiregular on the NBC series I Spy as the field boss of agents Robinson and Scott. Christian Nyby, director of The Thing From Another World, often directed those episodes. Tobey also portrayed a ship's captain on the Rockford Files, in an episode titled "There's One in Every Port".
In 1957, Tobey portrayed a sheriff in The Vampire (a film that some sources today often confuse with the 1935 production Mark of the Vampire). That year, he also appeared in a more prestigious film, serving as a featured supporting character with John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, the co-stars of John Ford's The Wings of Eagles. In that film, Tobey, with his naturally red hair on display in vibrant Metrocolor, portrays a highly competitive United States Army Air Service officer. In one memorable scene, he has the distinction of shoving a piece of gooey cake into John Wayne's face, whose character is a rival United States Navy aviation officer. Not surprisingly, a room-wrecking brawl ensues.
Tobey's work over the next several decades was increasingly involved in television productions. He did, though, continue to perform in a range of feature films, such as Stark Fear, Marlowe, Billy Jack, Walking Tall, The Howling, the war movie MacArthur (in which he portrays Admiral "Bull" Halsey), Airplane!, Gremlins, Big Top Pee-wee, and Gremlins 2: The New Batch. 
Although Tobey had a busy acting career in films and on television, he also periodically returned to the stage. In 1964, he began a long run on Broadway opposite Sammy Davis, Jr., in the musical version of Clifford Odets' play Golden Boy. Some of his other Broadway credits are As You Like It, Sunny River, Janie, Sons and Soldiers, A New Life, Suds in Your Eye, The Cherry Orchard, and Truckline Cafe.
As his long career drew to a close, Tobey still received acting jobs from people who had grown up watching his performances in sci-fi films of the 1950s, particularly Joe Dante, who included the veteran actor in his stock company of reliable players. Two appearances on the sitcom Night Court came the same way, through fans of his work. Along with other character actors who had been in 1950s sci-fi and horror films (John Agar, Robert O. Cornthwaite, Gloria Talbott, etc.), Tobey starred in a spoof originally titled Attack of the B Movie Monster. In 2005, Anthem Pictures released the completed feature version of this spoof on DVD under the new title The Naked Monster. Tobey's scenes in that release were actually shot in 1985, so The Naked Monster is technically his final film credit, being released three years after his death. He had, however, continued to act throughout most of the 1990s. One of those notable roles is his performance in the 1994 Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Shadowplay" as Rurigan, an alien who recreates his dead friends as holograms. Among other examples of Tobey's final decade of work are his two appearances as Judge Kent Watson on the series L.A. Law.
In 2002, Tobey died of natural causes at age 85 in Rancho Mirage, California.