Gone with the Wind
Sure, Louis Jean Heydt was in Gone with the Wind (39), but more importantly he was in Zombies on Broadway (45). In Gone with the Wind, Heydt shows up for only a moment, as a hungry and defeated Confederate soldier, his hair dyed as red as his phony-ass Dogpatch beard; you probably won’t spot him if you aren’t a hardcore fan.
In Zombies on Broadway, as a sort of lesser Walter Winchell, he radiates the Heydt his acolytes know and love: some light banter, some pallid sarcasm, never given much to do but obviously paying attention anyway, never overselling, always on time. He’s the one who looks like Joel McCrea’s blonder, lankier brother. He even sounds a bit like McCrea at times: sharp and nasal, relaxed but never laconic, usually smiling, occasionally gravelly but never really dark, and sometimes just a chump.
Zombies on Broadway
Hardcore fans? Acolytes? For Louis Jean Heydt? I’d answer to both of those names, but I don’t know many others who’d join me. Why would they? Heydt’s a solid piece of background scenery, rarely caught flubbing a line or missing a mark even in the cheapest productions, but to be honest, though I’ve seen a disproportionate number of the hundred-some features he appeared in (and sadly, only a handful of the myriad TV roles he played), I’d have to admit that the highs (and lows) are truly minimal. It’s mostly all plateau. Why do I care? Because in 1946, for 10 solid minutes, under the direction of Howard Hawks and in the company of (among others) Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Heydt beamed as bright as anyone or anything that ever graced the screen. The film is The Big Sleep, and Heydt doesn’t even show up till halfway through. That happened rather often with the police detectives he seemed made to play, only this time he’s not a cop, he’s a scumbag, though not a particularly offensive one. His name is Joe Brody and he’s blackmailing Bacall with some pictures of her sister because he’s already blackmailed her father, but now Bogart’s figured out his girlfriend’s phony bookstore game and… well, you know how screwy that film gets. Heydt keeps it simple, showing up at the 49-minute mark just to match Bogart’s sneer with a curdled smile for a couple of minutes before he dies.
Heydt is also great as failed bank clerk Tommy Thompson in the bookend narrative in Preston Sturges’s The Great McGinty (40), playing a part that would have been perfect for McCrea if it weren’t so small. Heydt’s own turn to acting has a Sturges-esque flavor of its own. Born in New Jersey in 1903, he studied journalism at Dartmouth and was working as a reporter when Broadway producers spotted him visiting a friend backstage at a rehearsal for The Trial of Mary Dugan in 1927; they cast him as a reporter in the show. Two years later he was playing the lead in Sturges’s second Broadway play, Strictly Dishonorable. His character was taken over by George Meeker for the 1931 film version, but after Sturges and Heydt both headed West, the director didn’t forget his former star. Heydt eventually shared a bit of screen time with McCrea in Sturges’s The Great Moment (44). He also worked for Leo McCarey (in Make Way for Tomorrow, 37), John Ford (They Were Expendable, 45), and many more.
The Big Sleep
Occasional returns to the stage aside, Heydt’s final years were spent mostly on television, where his facial features seemed to mash together and begin to bulge, as if made of restless clay, like an angry god in a Jack Kirby comic. He kept working until the very end, walking offstage after rehearsing a scene for a Boston preview production of There Was a Little Girl with Jane Fonda in 1960 and dropping dead of a heart attack before he reached his dressing room. He was 56. “What did it matter where you lay once you were dead?” asked Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. “You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.” Let’s rewrite those lines a little for Louis Jean Heydt, who didn’t die nasty and fell in just the right spot. He never became a star even as he spent his working weeks among them, year after year after year. He was an actor’s actor but he never tried to prove it; he was old-school, a rock. He never stopped acting. He still hasn’t. He’s waiting just offstage.