• 21 February 1896
  •  Newark, New Jersey, USA

Charles Wagenheim


Initially drawn to an acting career to counterbalance an acute case of shyness, diminutive character actor Charles Wagenheim's career comprised hundreds upon hundreds of minor but atmospheric parts on stage, film and TV. Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1896, he was the son of immigrant parents. Enlisting in the military during World War I, he was compensated for an education by the government and chose to study dramatics at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, graduating in 1923. After touring with a Shakespearean company, he appeared in a host of Broadway plays, several of them written, directed and/or produced by the prolific George Abbott, including "A Holy Terror" (1925), "Four Walls" (1927) and "Ringside" (1928). Following a stage part in "Schoolhouse on the Lot" (1938), the mustachioed Wagenheim turned to Hollywood for work. His dark, graveside manner, baggy-eyed scowl and lowlife countenance proved ideal for a number of genres, particularly crime thrillers and westerns. In films from 1929, the character player scored well when Alfred Hitchcock chose him to play the assassin in Foreign Correspondent (1940). He went on to enact a number of seedy, unappetizing roles (tramps, drunks, thieves) over the years but never found the one juicy part that could have put him at the top of the character ranks. Usually billed tenth or lower, Wagenheim was more filler than anything else which his blue-collar gallery of cabbies, waiters, deputies, clerks, morgue attendants, junkmen, etc., will attest. Some of his better delineated roles came with Two Girls on Broadway (1940); Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum (1940); Halfway to Shanghai (1942); the cliffhangers Don Winslow of the Navy (1942) and Raiders of Ghost City (1944); The House on 92nd Street (1945); A Lady Without Passport (1950); Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953); and Canyon Crossroads (1955). One of his more promising roles came as "The Runt" in Meet Boston Blackie (1941), which started Chester Morris off in the popular 1940s "B" series as the thief-cum-crimefighter, but the sidekick role was subsequently taken over by George E. Stone. Of his latter films it might be noted that Wagenheim was cast in the very small but pivotal role of the thief who breaks into the storefront in which the Frank family is hiding above in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). TV took up much of his time in later years and he kept fairly busy throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Wagenheim played the recurring role of Halligan on Gunsmoke (1955) (from 1967-1975) and performed until the very end on such shows as All in the Family (1971) and Baretta (1975). On March 6, 1979, the 83-year-old Wagenheim was bludgeoned to death in his Hollywood apartment following a grocery shopping trip when he surprised a thief in his home. By sheer horrific coincidence, elderly character actor Victor Kilian, of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976) fame, was found beaten to death by burglars in his Los Angeles-area apartment just a few days later (March 11th).