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Wednesday, September 29, 2010
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Joe Mantell, one of Hollywood’s most prolific character actors for over half a century, has passed away at the age of 94, his family informed me this evening. Mantell is probably best remembered for “Marty” — both the landmark live television version that aired on “The Philco Television Playhouse” in 1953, with Rod Steiger, and the best picture winning film version in 1955, with Ernest Borgnine — in which he portrayed the title character’s best friend Angie, who famously asks him over and over again, “Well, what do you feel like doin’ tonight?” (He was nominated for the best supporting actor Oscar for the latter.)

Mantell seemed to pop up in at least one classic television show or motion picture every decade. After appearing on stage in New York and studying at the famed Actors Lab in Hollywood, he made his big screen debut as a newsboy in Joseph H. Lewis’s “The Undercover Man” (1949). In the 1950s, he played the lead in “Guilty Witness” (1955), a memorable installment of Alfred Hitchcock’s popular television series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” and worked with Jerry Lewis in the film “The Sad Sack” (1957). In the 1960s, he had a recurring part on the CBS series “Pete and Gladys” (1960-1962), and starred in two of the most celebrated episodes of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone,” playing a small-time criminal with a guilty conscience in “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room” (1960) and a promoter representing a mechanic boxer in “Steel” (1963). (In “Nervous Man,” he lectured a mirror — “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Oh yeah. Yeah, sure you are.” — years before Robert De Niro did the same in “Taxi Driver.”) He also appeared in Hitchcock’s “The Birds” (1963), playing a traveling salesman who tells an elderly ornithologist defending the birds that the town should “Kill ’em all!” In the 1970s, he played the partner of Jack Nicholson’s private eye in Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” (1974) and delivered one of the most famous lines of dialogue in film history, closing the film by saying, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” Mantell and Nicholson became close during the making of the film and reunited 16 years later for its sequel, “The Two Jakes” (1990).

Mantell, who was born on December 21, 1915 in New York, died today at the Providence Tarzana Medical Center in Tarzana, California, with his family by his side, following a long illness. He had lived in nearby Encino since 1961, and is survived by his wife Mary, daughters Jeannie and Cathy, son Robert, daughter-in-law Glei, and grandchildren Liam and Kyler. He will be laid to rest at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in California. A private funeral service is planned for Sunday.

UPDATE: I just got off the phone with 93-year-old Borgnine, who won the best actor Oscar for his performance opposite Mantell in “Marty,” and who was terribly saddened to learn of Mantell’s death: “Since the time we made the picture, we’ve never seen each other. I don’t know why — we live close by and everything else, and I’ve often wondered about Joe, and what he’s doing, and everything else — but we never got together again. But I’ll tell you one thing: he was a wonderful actor, and he made me look good, God bless him. He was just that kind of a wonderful partner who’s right there in the midst of it, you know what I mean? And he made it real, you know?” He added, “I can’t say enough about Joe, by golly. He was a heck of a good guy, and a wonderful actor, and unassuming as hell.”

Photo: Ernest Borgnine and Joe Mantell in the film version of “Marty” (1955). Credit:United Artists.

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