They are the highlights of most of our favorite films; coming in with the most striking lines and comedic moments.
A character actor is often the best part of the film. Not the star and a little lower than the secondary lead, a character actor has something distinct that they carry from film to film; whether it’s a funny voice, a physical appearance or personality trait. Think S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall’s chubby cheeks, Joyce Compton’s southern drawl or Una O’Connor’s fussy Irish habits.
But there are character actors who are just below these sidekick-like roles. The audience recognizes their face but may not know their name. These actors usually perform a role in the film that helps move the plot along, even if it is something as simple as being a police officer arresting the bad guy or a hotel clerk checking the lead actors into a hotel.
This role describes the versatile “every man” actor, John Ridgely (sometimes spelled Ridgeley). Born John Huntington Rea in Illinois, Ridgely was a graduate of Stanford University with plans to go into an industrial career. After performing in plays with the Pasadena Playhouse, Ridgely entered films in the 1930s.
If you have watched a Warner Brother’s film made between 1935 and 1948, chances are you have spotted Ridgley. The tall, dark haired vaguely attractive actor appeared in 145 feature films. His roles ranged from police officers, doctors, heavies, truck drivers, salesmen, orchestra leaders, part of a double date, cab drivers, hotel clerks, coroners and reporters.
Some of his films include The Big Sleep (1946), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), “They Died With Their Boots On (1941), The Letter (1940) and Dark Victory (1939), humorously listed as Man Making Crack About Judith.
Actress Lauren Bacall’s first screen test was with Ridgely for the film “To Have and Have Not” (1944), performing the famous “put your lips together and blow” scene. The scene was written without any real intention of keeping it in the film, but after seeing the screen test, director Howard Hawks changed his mind, according to Bacall’s autobiography “By Myself.”
But Ridgely received top billing in the 1943 World War II film “Air Force;” co-starring with John Garfield, Arthur Kennedy, Gig Young and Harry Carey.
For his first (and last) time in a lead role, Ridgely does an excellent job. In the Feb. 4, 1943, New York Times film review, critic Bosely Crowther called Ridgely’s performance “refreshingly direct.”
“Mr. Hawks very wisely recruited a cast with no outstanding star, thus assuring himself the privilege of giving everyone a chance. And his actors have responded handsomely,” Crowther wrote.
Two years later, Ridgely acted with John Garfield in “Pride of the Marines” (1945). Though the role is not as large as “Air Force,” Ridgely has a sufficient amount of screen time as a next door neighbor and friend of Garfield and his wife, played by Eleanor Parker.
But regardless how much screen time he received in films, Ridgley garnered media attention, as most film stars in the classic era did. This included:
- April 10, 1943: A humorous newspaper story in an April 10, 1943, article where Ridgely gave a few kids a ride. The kids asked to be let out of the car when they found out he was an actor.
- July 20, 1943: “Theater Gossip” John Garfield and John Ridgley announced to be acting with Cary Grant in “Destination Tokyo.” The two Johns are both noted for just coming from the film “Air Force.”
- Nov. 11, 1943:The Evening Independent, “Playhouse Film Provides Thrills, Flynn Stars in Hudson Bay Story of Nazi Spies”: Ridgley is noted for acting in the upcoming Errol Flynn film, “Northern Pursuit.”
- Feb. 11, 1944: “Sign on Windshield Almost Ruins Actor,” an article tells how Ridgely almost was in a car accident due to his surprise of seeing an old woman driving a 1903 Baker Electric.
- Oct. 27, 1944: “The Evening Independent” under “Theater Gossip”: John Ridgley is noted for playing a “heavy” in the upcoming film, “The Big Sleep.” “Assignment of Ridgely was announced at the same time it was disclosed Regis Toomey was signed for an important role as a fast talking muscle man…Ridgely portrayed a meteorologist in Destination Tokyo and a confused husband in The Doughgirls.”
- April 6, 1945: Ridgely is mentioned in the sub-head of a review on “God is My Co-Pilot” starring Dennis Morgan.
- May 27, 1951: article mentions Ridgely was celebrating his 19th anniversary in film and his next upcoming project, playing a doctor in the “The Blue Veil.”
Ridgely left the industry in 1953 and died in Manhattan in 1968 of heart failure. Conflicting reports say he is buried in New York while other says Forest Lawn in Hollywood. Ridgley was married to Virginia Robinson and had a son, John Ridgely Rea.
While he wasn’t a huge star, Ridgely was still considered important enough to be noted by the press. Regardless of the role, Ridgely always adds something to the film and it’s fun to pick him out in his various roles.