INTERVIEW & STORY BY
Colorful fictional characters that the movies have adapted from books, radio shows, comic strips etc. have usually hit it very big with the public.The ability of the motion picture to give life and depth to there popular figures is quite unique.However, the medium alone needs another very important ingredient in this type of endeavor – actors!Talented personalities must take this task upon themselves and for the movies (of filmed TV shows) made, they must become the characters they are playing.Sherlock Holmes, Superman, The Lone Ranger, Flash Gordon, Zorro and their kind have become more popular on the screen that [sic] they ever previously were.In this way the audience accepts the actor portraying a particular character as being that actual character.This situation is okay as long as the films are being produced.However, once the series is out of production, there remains an actor who is thought of in some show business circles (and to numerous fans) as only a particular detective, or adventure hero etc.His identity as an actor, who is able to play an unlimited variety of roles, has been lost.This is type casting!Many a successful career has been ruined or hurt in some way due to this type of situation.
In the case of Charlie Chan, one of the screen’s most popular fictional characters, three men are usually thought of today as the main performers behind that noted oriental detective’s big success.The three famed actors and the years during which they played the part are as follows:
Warner Oland (1931-1938), Sidney Toler (1938-1947) and Roland Winters (1947-1949).An unusual sidelight is the fact that each of these three had the ol sound in their names: Oland, Toler and Roland.Although of no extreme importance, this name-sound business helped to identify the actors with their parts.Others have played the role too and even the talents of J. Carroll Naish couldn’t help a Chan TV series that was as successful as early silent screen attempts to present Earl Derr Biggers’ famed sleuth.
Roland Winters, strangely enough, has defeated Charlie Chan’s ability to turn him into a type cast actor.As a matter of fact, Roland is better known as Mr. Boone, tough boss on CBS-TV’s mid-1950’s comedy show, MEET MILLIE.In this way he is very few actors to escape the dangers of getting involved with a character as popular as Chan.Without a doubt this case for type casting is probably the only one the noted sleuth has lost.
Roland Winters has been prominently featured and starred in about 30 non-Chan movies in addition to numerous TV and Broadway stage appearances.I dropped in backstage at the Ambassador Theatre, where he was appearing in CALCULATED RISK (last May), to discuss his career and days as Charlie Chan with him.We had talked together about his detective career two years before on the set of NAKED CITY, when he was starring in a episode of the popular series.Once again I found him to be a wonderful individual, serious and interested in his work, but still able to joke about various humorous mishaps that take place in the course of producing movies.
He was born Roland Winternitz on November 22, 1904 in Boston.His father Felix, was a world famous composer and concert violinist, who had been quite successful on several world tours that he had made.I am always curious to learn of the various ways that actors get interested in and then become members of show business’ ranks.According to Roland Winters:
“I was restless when I was young and always looked for something exciting to do.I decided to become a sailor as a teenager and shipped out with the United Fruit lines for two summer trips; one to Central America and the other to the West Indies.When I was 16 a friend of mine got me interested in one of Boston’s little theatre groups.This led me to working with many stock companies and eventually on Broadway in 1924.A classmate of my brother’s, Lawrence Schwab,. Was producing the FIREBRAND and so I landed a part in the play.The cast was loaded with other actors, who like myself, were to come into their own later on.Joseph Schildkraut, Edward G. Robinson, Allymn Joslyn and Frank Morgan were the type of “unknowns” that I worked with back in 1924.”
As we talked about the days of the old stock companies, I learned that Roland toured, spent two seasons in Brocton, Mass., one season in Dallas and two seasons in Portland.This brought him up to 1931 when he became a staff radio announcer with WNAC in Boston (the Yankee Network).He stayed there until 1937 as an announcer, sportscaster (“I did 154 games a season with the Braves and Red Sox”) and news commentator.On April 21, 1937, Varietyreviewed a radio show he did as follows:
THE BRITISH ARE COMING — “WAAB’s Roland Winters went down to the bay with full equipment to radio-describe the British fleas in the ships lounge amidst the bar flies (various nationalities) and found the trainer had a charming British accent….. It goes to prove how far radio will go.Winters displayed much poise in rising to the social requirements.”
The years rolled by and Roland Winters acted as one of our government’s most effective and valuable radio propaganda broadcasters when he answered various enemy announcers who constantly tried to dominate the international airwaves.In 1946 he made his official film debut in 13 RUE MADELINE with James Cagney, for Louis de Rochemont.I was taken quite by surprise however, when I learned that he also had a briefcareer in silent movies.(“I did a bit in a Dick Barthelmess picture shot in Philadelphia and appeared with Rudolph Valentino in MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE, which was shot at Paramount’s Astoria studios in 1924.”)
The original Warner Oland Chan series was filmed by Fox, who employed Sidney Toler in the part in 1938 after Oland’s death.The Toler series was continued by Monogram after shifting over from fox in the early 1940’s.Sidney Toler’s death in 1947 sent Monogram executives on a frenzied hunt to find a suitable actor to carry on in the popular films.Roland Winters was suggested for the part and embarked for California by train from New York.Oddly enough the porter who attended him on this trip had the name S. Toler on his badge.It did not turn out to be Sidney though.
Arriving at Monogram, makeup tests were made and finally a screen test was shot.Standing on the sidelines, producer James S. Burkett congratulated Roland with, “You’ve got the job!”, before the film was even processed.The first in the series, THE CHINESE RING (originally THE RED HORNET), won an immediate new audience for the new Chan.A re-make of a Karloff-Mr. Wong film, as was his second – DOCKS OF NEW ORLEANS, the films nevertheless were quite successful.Aided by Victor Sen Young as “Tommy” Chan and Mantan Moreland as “Birmingham” (“We still exchange Christmas cards each year.”), Roland Winters fell right into toe role and solved each intrigue that the writers delivered.The release of THE CHINESE RING (1947) met with critical praise from the Daily News: “Roland Winters proves an able successor to the oriental sleuthing role.” Variety felt the same way greeting DOCKS OF NEW ORLEANS (1948) with: “…..famed oriental detective well portrayed by Roland Winters…..”
Four more films followed in the series – THE GOLDEN EYE (1948), THE SHANGHAI CHEST (1948), THE FEATHERED SERPENT (1948) and SKY DRAGON (1949).The original Chan son Lee, from the Warner Oland series (Keye Luke), joined Victor Sen Young (whose name was changed from Jimmy to Tommy when the Toler series went to Monogram) in THE FEATHERED SERPENT and Sen Young dropped out in the last film, SKY DRAGON. Looking for a change in locale, Monogram hired Oliver Drake to do an original screenplay for FEATHERED SERPENT, which was to take place in Mexico, amidst ancient ruins.As it turned out, he simply re-wrote his script for the 1936 Republic – Three Mesquiteers production of RIDERS OF THE WHISTLING SKULL, adapting a few new characters and situations to the story.To make an even more unusual film out of this, quite by accident Robert Livingston (star of the original RIDERS OF THE WHISTLING SKULL) was signed on as Charlie Chan’s mysterious opponent archaeologist “John Stanley!”Perhaps the best film in Roland’s series, other veteran actors Nils Asther and George Lewis plus increased production values made this a standout for its day.
Finding the new locations to do a lot for the films, Monogram decided to shoot the next series in England, utilizing unusual backgrounds for the stories.They went about setting this up, while Roland realized that doing additional productions might preclude his playing the variety of roles he was capable of, once the series finished.Quite by accident his contract had stated that no films were to be made outside of the U.S., which released him from the series.As fitting another actor into the role at this stage of the game was near impossible, they dropped the entire project.
After this, Roland Winters has continued on bigger than never.Some of his screen credits include: KIDNAPPED (1948 – his favorite film) MALAYA (1949), CONVICTED (1950), FOLLOW THE SUN (1951), SIERRA PASSAGE (1951), SO BIG (1953), CASH McCALL (1959) and BLUE HAWAII (1961).He’s shared scenes with everyone from John Wayne and James Cagney to Elvis Presley, proving quite versatile in numerous parts.Roland even played Chan again in 1960 in an Arrow Shirt commercial run on SURFSIDE SIX and ADVENTURES IN PARADISE – however at the time he had lost general identity with the role!
With a new co-starring TV series in preparation, Roland Winters continues on as one of the entertainment industry’s most interesting individuals.He has earned his place in the screen hall of fame.