Updated: May 24
J. Carrol Naish mastered every acting medium of his day…stage, film, radio, and television. His career spanned five decades until his death in 1973 at the age of 77. In the 1940s he was making 30 movies a year. It was not uncommon for a movie audience to see Naish as two vastly different characters in both films of a double feature. He was a man of many faces, an actor of many roles, many dialects, and many nationalities. He played almost every conceivable ethnicity except his own…Irish.
"When the part of an Irishman comes along, nobody ever thinks of me."
-J. Carrol Naish
J. Carrol Naish’s career took place during a time in Hollywood when it was commonplace for white actors to play characters of color. That practice did not endear Naish to Native American, Asian, Hindu, Arab, and Hispanic actors who lost roles to him. Their frustrations were justified. Still, J. Carrol Naish was twice nominated for a Best SupportingActor Oscar. Those nominations were also justified. He was a supporting actor to almost every major star from 1931 to 1971 and he was almost unrecognizable in every role.
Naish had a rare talent which made him the most in demand character actor during the Golden Age of Hollywood. He appeared in more than 200 feature films and never failed to deliver a memorable performance. From a gangster to a governor to a gorilla turned into a man, J. Carrol Naish fully inhabited every role.
I first became aware of the name J. Carrol Naish as a kid in the 1960s who loved classic horror flicks. It was Naish’s sensitive, yet sometimes terrifyingly murderous portrayal of Daniel, the hunchbacked strangler assistant to Boris Karloff’s mad scientist in The House of Frankenstein (1944). It was not Naish’s first unforgettable role in a Horror/Science Fiction film. Earlier that same year, he was The Monster Maker, an amoral physician who injects a famed musician with a physically deforming serum in order to steal the musicians fortune and his daughter’s hand in marriage.
In 1942, Naish was Dr. Renault’s Secret, an ape the scientist transformed into a shy, but loyal manservant. He followed that unique role with that of the archvillain Dr. Daka in the 15-part film serial Batman (1943).
“This (Dr. Renault’s Secret) is a very well made, stupid programmer, that’s notable mainly because J. Carrol Naish’s performance is quite good.”
-John Landis, film director
J. Carrol Naish would follow up the Batman serial that same year with his first Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for the World War II drama Sahara starring Humphrey Bogart. Naish plays an Italian prisoner of war who delivers one of the most memorable wartime speeches in film history.
“Mussolini is not so clever like Hitler, he can dress up his Italians only to look like thieves, cheats, murderers, he cannot like Hitler make them feel like that. He cannot like Hitler scrape from their conscience the knowledge right is right and wrong is wrong, or dig holes in their heads to plant his own Ten Commandments- Steal from thy neighbor, Cheat thy neighbor, Kill thy neighbor! But are my eyes blind that I must fall to my knees to worship a maniac who has made of my country a concentration camp, who has made of my people slaves? Must I kiss the hand that beats me, lick the boot that kicks me? NO!”
-Giuseppe (J. Carrol Nash)
“This is war. There are deaths and tragedies—but there's a final ironic triumph, too. Sergeant Gunn holds the power of life or death over an Italian prisoner, and when J. Carroll Naish pleads for his life, the scene is one of the most poignant of the year's film moments."
-The Boston Globe, 1943
Now back to 1944 and The House of Frankenstein. J. Carrol Naish followed that portrayal of the brokenhearted hunchback killer with a 1945 film performance that would earn him his second Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and his firstGolden Globe Award. This time Naish was the Hispanic father of the title character in A Medal for Benny, and once again his amazing ability to become totally absorbed and physically transformed by a character took a film as art to a new level.
“The performances are exceptional. J. Carrol Naish is warm and picturesque as the ignorant father of Benny and Dorothy Lamour is surprisingly genuine as the virtuous girl whose affections do not rest very firmly on the Benny-myth.”
-The New York Times
J. Carrol Naish’s acting career kicked into high gear in the 1940s. His ability to move a storyline along in a more interesting manner was evident in the 1946 mystery horror film The Beast with Five Fingers. With a cast starring Robert Alda and Peter Lorre, Naish’s name was somewhere in the middle of the opening credits. Still, his portrayal of the police commissioner of a small Italian village stole the show. The ending of The Beast with Five Fingers seems to pay homage to the actor who carried the film.That actor was J. Carrol Naish.
In addition to seemingly non-stop film work, Naish was a prolific performer on radio. From 1948 to 1953, he had the role he is probably most associated with, albeit with just his voice as the title character on the radio show Life with Luigi. The program was so popular, it prompted CBS to take it to television. However, that visual version was short-lived lasting only four months. It had high ratings, but a high number of complaints from Italian-Americans lead to the original cast being replaced and the show being cancelled a few weeks later.
J. Carrol Naish faced another backlash in 1957 when he was cast as the legendary Chinese detective Charlie Chan in the television show The New Adventures of Charlie Chan. His biggest critic was his Asian co-star James Hong who was insulted and offended by the Irish actor’s portrayal of an Asian. The show lasted only one season.
“He was not easy to get along with during that time. The makeup, especially the eye appliances used to make him appear Asian, gave him a great deal of pain, plus he was drinking a lot at the time because he was unhappy with the situation, and I think he just took it all out on me.”
-James Hong, co-star, The New Adventures of Charlie Chan (Television Academy Archive Interview)
Despite his initial bad experiences with television, J. Carrol Naish continued to be a sought-after actor on the small screen while maintaining his top character actor status in feature films throughout the 1950s and 60s. As he had always done in his career, he was a supporting actor to the biggest movie stars of the day and immersed himself in memorable characters of his own inner creation.
J. Carrol Naish was a stalwart talent, ever dependable, ever creative, ever in love with the art of acting. He didn’t stop working until his body finally failed him. His last performance was in a wheelchair in the dreadfully bad, low budget horror flick Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971). He was suffering from emphysema, but he gave it his all in his performance…a professional to the very end.
The first 25 years of J. Carrol Naish’s life were spent drifting. He enlisted in the Navy during World War I, but deserted when he got to Europe and joined a buddy in the Army. He flew missions over France and when he was discharged, he had $60 in his pocket and roamed Europe for a few years. Finally, in 1926 a tramp steamer dropped him off in Hollywood. He struggled to make a living as an actor until he received his first major film role in 1932. It was The Hatchet Man starring Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young. Naish had found his niche. He played an elderly Chinese businessman who gets a hatchet chop in the back. In some ways, Naish was the title character in a film that launched his eclectic career.