Sunday, January 18, 2015

R.I.P. Terry Becker.

Actor Terry Becker, best known for his role of CPO Francis Sharkey on the TV series VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, passed away on December 30, 2014, at the age of 93. 

Becker debuted in the role of Chief Sharkey with the first color episode of VOYAGE, “Jonah and the Whale”, to lead off the series’ Second Season, on September 19, 1965.  

Meet Chief Sharkey... and Riley.  First moment for both. 
He succeeded actor Henry Kulky, who played Chief Curly Jones in VOYAGE’s First Season – and who actually died in real-life DURING that season.  The character of Chief Sharkey would serve aboard TV’s Submarine Seaview through the end of the series in 1968.

The Second Season Cast of VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (1965-1966): Richard Basehart as "Admiral Harriman Nelson", David Hedison as "Captain Lee Crane", Allan Hunt as "Crewman Stu Riley", Terry Becker as "Chief Francis Sharkey", and Bob Dowdell as "Executive Officer Chip Morton". 

Chief Sharkey was a favorite character of mine, and a VOYAGE fan-favorite in general.  It’s been reported that he drew more fan-mail than series stars Richard Basehart and David Hedison. 

Though he certainly has fit the bill over the course of the series, it would be inaccurate to describe the character of Chief Sharkey as mere “comedy relief”.  But, Terry Becker’s portrayal of Sharkey lent itself to many needed “lighter moments” on a series that, though often quite bizarre, was rather straightforward and even grim in its overall approach. 

Lighter moments...

...And the other kind!  All in a day's work for Chief Sharkey! 

Sharkey’s frequent sort-of “father and son” conversations with Crewman Kowalski (and sometimes Patterson and Riley), in which the “son” often got the best of the “father”, served as welcome bits of characterization, given VOYAGE’s decided preference for “plot” (and particularly action and special effects) over “character”. 

Kowalski, Sharkey, and Riley in some down-time. 
Make no mistake, though; Chief Petty Officer Francis Ethelbert Sharkey was always ready for action, and well-able to handle himself… even if he wasn’t always completely hip to the strange nature of the threats that came his way. 

I wish I could remember where I read this, but someone once wrote about the character of Chief Sharkey (and I’m paraphrasing from memory):  “He doesn’t always know what’s going on, but he knows he doesn’t like it”.   

What's lurking down that corridor, Chief?  
This was a quality I regard as unique to the talents of Terry Becker.  The ability to portray Sharkey as sometimes “clueless”, yet “nobody’s fool”. 

Some good “Sharkey-centric” episodes of VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA are: 

The Lost Bomb” (1966): Sharkey reunites with a childhood friend (from New York's Lower East Side), now a government weaponry expert, in a race against time with a mercenary submarine to recover an activated super-bomb from the ocean floor. 

Old friends. 

The Death Watch” (1966): Sharkey is unwittingly a key factor in a behavior-modification experiment gone deadly wrong.  This show is a “three-character masterpiece”, solely inhabited (in sort-of TWILIGHT ZONE mystery, or Hitchcockian suspense, fashion) by Basehart, Hedison, and Becker – with the viewer left completely in the dark, as to “what the heck’s going on”, until the final reveal. 

Blow-Up” (1967):  Admiral Nelson becomes a dangerous paranoid, nearly sending both sub and crew to a watery grave.  As the ship’s officers and crew slowly move toward the solemn decision of relieving Nelson of duty and confining him for his own good, Sharkey is the “last holdout”.  When he finally declares to stand with his shipmates, you can almost feel his pain.  (Click on each illustration to better read subtitled dialogue)

Becker, Hedison, and especially Basehart are outstanding in this one.  Even the ordinarily “wooden” Bob Dowdell, as Executive Office Chip Morton, shows us a little “something extra” here.  It was also a fine showcase for Richard Bull, who played the Seaview Doctor.

Becker and Bull

Not uniquely-Sharkey, but worth noting is “The Haunted Submarine” (1966) for the private talk that Nelson has with Sharkey, to help him come to an important decision.  It is indicative of the mutual trust and respect the two characters had for one another.  It was also the last time Nelson and Sharkey (or any other character on VOYAGE for that matter) smoked on-camera.  …I guess that would mean that more than one “important decision” was arrived at on that day.  

Nelson and Sharkey "Butt-Out". 
Other series on my DVD shelf, on which Terry Becker appeared, include: THE TWILIGHT ZONE, GUNSMOKE, BONANZA, WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE, THE UNTOUCHABLES, and two turns on PERRY MASON. 

Terrible Terry Becker and his Chopper of Death (at left), on THE UNTOUCHABLES ("The Waxey Gordon Story", 1960)

A particular stand-out among these is THE TWILIGHT ZONE’s “I Am the Night – Color Me Black” (1964), with Becker as a condemned man, in 20th century Mid-America, headed for the gallows. 

The DVD set “THE TWILIGHT ZONE The Complete Definitive Collection: Season 5” offers a very pleasant surprise for fans of Terry Becker – an on-camera interview with Becker, focusing on his TWILIGHT ZONE experiences, recorded about 2004 and running for 05:43.  

This is a rare glimpse of the older Terry Becker who, post-VOYAGE, was seldom seen, having moved away from acting and into production.    

Also, Becker’s appearance as a deputy sheriff on WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE (“Three for One”, 1960), offers-up such a surprise twist climax that even series’ star Steve McQueen (in his character of bounty hunter “Josh Randall”) admits “…didn’t figure on THAT!” 

Terry Becker with Steve McQueen, on WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE. 

Mr. Becker’s IMDB credits are found at THIS LINK

Rest in Peace, Terry Becker, and thank you for all the enjoyable “voyages”!  


Anonymous said...

Becker and Basehart (and, consequently, Sharkey and Nelson) had a very real and interesting chemistry that worked well in both the dramatic scenes and in the comedy relief. You could see the chief's loyalty, and their mutual respect.

In "The Haunted Submarine," the admiral sought out the CPO, rather than one of the other commissioned officers (Crane or Morton) for advice. That is not unheard of IRL; officers (the smart ones, anyway) often rely on senior NCO's/petty officers for advice, because they tend to have a lot of experience.

And it was fitting that Sharkey would be the last hold-out in "Blow-Up." NCO's and petty officers tend to be very loyal to their superiors, and very reluctant to openly question their competence, and even more reluctant to disobey orders.

The one scene that didn't quite ring true, IIRC, was in the episode ("The Peacemaker"?) where the madman was threatening to detonate a bomb, and Sharkey wanted to rush him, going against orders to wait him out. A CPO or sergeant would not disobey an officer's orders unless the officer was obviously irrational (and I mean to the point where that officer would be legally certifiable as insane or incompetent), and/or if the order were clearly illegal. But, that scene between the chief and the seaman on guard did provide some needed comic relief in a tense episode.

Speaking of comedy relief, there were some nice scenes between the admiral and chief in "Terror on Dinosaur Island." Also, in "The Fossil Men," there is a scene reminiscent of Abbott & Costello, where Sharkey sees the monster coming to life before the admiral (whose back is turned) does.

I've nothing more to add, except to echo your sentiments: RIP, Mr. Becker, and thanks for all the great moments aboard the SSRN Seaview.

Joe Torcivia said...

That scene in “The Peacemaker” was particularly interesting as it was both a comedy relief bit between Sharkey and Riley – AND then transforms into a more dramatic moment indicating the effect of Dr. Lang and the bomb on members of the crew!

As you note, “Terror on Dinosaur Island”, with the bit about Sharkey being forced to burn his “little black book” to start a signal fire, “The Fossil Men” (“The ROCK… It’s movin’!”) -- and I’ll add “Night of Terror” with Nelson and Sharkey, and the great character actor Henry Jones stranded on an illusion-producing island (with a real dinosaur) were all great comedic moments for Chief Sharkey.

Yet, again… Terry Becker never played him completely for laughs. It was a nicely balanced characterization.

TC said...

There was also a good comic relief scene in "Man of Many Faces" (possibly the best Fourth Season episode) where Nelson interrogates Sharkey and asks personal questions to ascertain that the chief is not an imposter. You can see his nervousness and embarrassment as he admits that his best subject in high school was Home Economics and that he got an "A" in cooking class.

And yet, Chief Sharkey was never reduced to just a comic relief buffoon. He could be funny, but he was also believable as a competent petty officer, efficiently carrying out his duties. A tribute to Mr. Becker's considerable acting talent.

Joe Torcivia said...

I completely agree, TC!

“Man of Many Faces” was certainly “up-there” as 4th Season goes, but I’ll put it behind “Fires of Death” and “A Time to Die” / “No Way Back” due to the great guest starring roles of Victor Jory and Henry Jones, respectively.

I’ll also cite “The Deadly Dolls” and “Cave of the Dead” for Vincent Price and Warren Stevens.

But, yes… I love the “Home Economics” bit for Sharkey! And there should have been more episodes like “Man of Many Faces”.