The ‘What a Character’ Blogathon: Barton MacLane

Perhaps best known to modern audiences as the blustering General Peterson on the hit television comedy I Dream of Jeannie, Barton MacLane was better recognized in his heyday as one of the screen’s most enduring heavies. In a film career that spanned decades, MacLane was seen alongside such cinematic legends as Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Errol Flynn, and Paul Muni, and was featured in a number of classic screen gems, including The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). As adept at comedy as he was at heavy drama, the versatile character actor also appeared in four films noirs: High Sierra (1941), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Red Light (1949), and Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950).

MacLane was born in Columbia, South Carolina, on Christmas Day, 1902, the son of the superintendent of a Columbia mental hospital. When MacLane was seven, his family – which included four siblings – moved to Cromwell, Connecticut, where he attended elementary and secondary school. After high school, MacLane enrolled as an English major at Wesleyan University in Middleton, Connecticut, where he was captain of the basketball team and a star of the football team. MacLane’s athleticism provide to serve as his introduction to the world of the cinema when, in a football game against Massachusetts State University during his senior year, he returned a kickoff for 100 yards, a touchdown, a season record – and nationwide attention.

“It was good for a bit of publicity,” MacLane modestly recalled years later.

Barton overseeing Bogie and Edward G. Robinson in Bullets or Ballots.

Among those who took note of MacLane’s feat was actor Richard Dix, who was in nearby Long Island, New York, preparing for a new film, The Quarterback. After seeing a newspaper article on MacLane, Dix sent for him, casting the young man in a bit part as a football player. The exposure to the celluloid world of the movies was all it took to change MacLane’s career direction from writing to performing.

After graduating from Wesleyan, MacLane studied for a year at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and began appearing with a stock company in Brooklyn. He made his Broadway debut in the late 1920s with a walk-on in The Trial of Mary Dugan, and later appeared in such productions as the long-running Subway Express, Yellow Jack, and Hangman’s Whip. During his appearance in the latter play, MacLane was spotted by a talent scout from Paramount Studios, signed to a standard contract, and began appearing in minor roles in films including the Marx Brothers feature The Cocoanuts (1929); His Woman (1931), starring Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert; and Tillie and Gus (1933), a W.C. Fields vehicle.

In the summer of 1932, MacLane wrote his own play, Rendezvous, which he sold to producer Arthur Hopkins, obtaining a contract to play the lead. The production earned favorable notices, including one from New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson, who wrote that MacLane “has written [Rendezvous] in a glow of youthful exaltation. Although it is realistic in form and told in the resilient argot of the streets, it is ore properly a fantasy of what might happen if a courageous bruiser set about reforming the world at the point of a pistol.”

He was a good guy in the Torchy Blane series.

When his contract with Paramount expired, MacLane was picked up by Warner Bros., where he earned a reputation for portraying gangsters, convicts, or desperadoes in such films as ‘G’ Men (1935), Black Fury (1935), and Bullets and Ballots (1936). But MacLane wasn’t always a villain – in a rare departure from his “heavy” mantle, he played an animal tamer in The Bengal Tiger (1936) and was lauded by one of the film’s professional animal handlers for his “utter confidence and courage.” He also turned in a top-notch performance as a prizefighter in The Kid Comes Back (1938); in a typical notice, New York Times reviewer Frank S. Nugent wrote: “[MacLane], who has been in so many Warner Class B’s that he has begun to buzz when he talks, has found a solid role at last. His Gunner Malone is the stout fighting heart of [the movie] . . . keeping the prize-ring melodrama on its cinematic feet long after the scriptwriters have grown too weary to punch out another line or jab a new situation. Also during this period, MacLane appeared on the right side of the laws as Lt. Steve McBride in the Torchy Blane series, opposite Glenda Farrell.

With his film career in full gear, MacLane also found time for romance. In the early 1930s, he married a non-professional named Martha Stewart, with whom he had two children, William and Marlane. (His daughter would make headlines in 1953 after revealing that she had worked for the FBI as an undercover agent in the Communist Party.) Before the end of the decade, however, the union was over, and in 1939 MacLane married actress Charlotte Wynters, an actress who would be seen in bit roles in classics like The Women (1939), The Great Lie (1941), and Now, Voyager (1942). The couple would remain married until the actor’s death three decades later.

But he was back to playing the villain in High Sierra.

Career-wise, MacLane made his first film noir appearances in 1941, with featured roles in two of the finest examples of the era, High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon. The first, High Sierra, starred Humphrey Bogart as Roy “Mad Dog” Earle, a veteran criminal who emerges from an eight-year prison stretch to plan the heist of a resort hotel. As Jake Kranmer, MacLane played a double-crossing hood who plans to steal Roy’s take from the heist. Next, in The Maltese Falcon, MacLane was on the right side of the law, portraying Lt. Detective Dundy, a tough, uncompromising cop who suspects private eye Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) of murder.

Never at a loss for film assignments, MacLane was seen throughout the 1940s in a wide variety of features, including horror films, westerns, war-themed movies, prison pictures, and even two entries in the TarIzan series – Tarzan and the Amazons (1945) and Tarzan and the Huntress (1947). Also during this period, MacLane was seen in the well-received Humphrey Bogart starrer, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948); wrote his second play, Black John, which was produced in Dallas and Los Angeles; and appeared in two more films noirs, Red Light (1948) and Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950).

His cop in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye was on the wrong side of the law.

The first, a so-so offering with strong religious overtones, starred George Raft as a trucking magnate who is bent on avenging the shooting death of his chaplain brother. In a fairly good-sized role, MacLane portrayed a cop who investigates the murder, and was singled out by one critic for his “outstanding” performance. He also played a cop – this time a crooked one – in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, which starred James Cagney as a ruthless, sociopathic hood. For his portrayal of the conniving police officer, Barton was again praised by reviewers, including Edwin Schaller of the Los Angeles Times, who labeled him “tops.”

During the 1950s, MacLane played supporting roles in such box office successes as The Glenn Miller Story (1954), an entertaining biopic of the big band leader with James Stewart in the title role. But he was more often seen in a spate of westerns that included Best of the Badmen (1951), Foxfire (1955) – one of five films in which MacLane appeared with his wife – and Frontier Gun (1958). MacLane also busied himself during the period with guest spots on a variety of television series, including Cheyenne and Gunsmoke.

MacLane departed from his typical bad guy persona in 1960, when he took on the part of U.S. Marshal Frank Caine in the NBC-TV series The Outlaws. The change was a welcome one for the actor, who admitted that he felt uncomfortable playing the villain.

From The Outlaws.

“I’ve never liked playing heavies,” the actor told TV Guide in 1961. “In fact, I hated ‘em. But that’s what they wanted. And that’s what they got. Well, eventually old heavies mellow. TV is giving me something I have seldom had before – a chance to play the fine fellow. It’s a good feeling.”

After one season on the program, MacLane – along with most of the series’ regulars – was cut from the cast of The Outlaws, but the actor continued to stay busy both on the small screen and in feature films. His television work included appearances on Perry Mason and Laramie, and he was seen on the big screen in such films as Pocketful of Miracles (1961), Frank Capra’s final directing effort, and The Rounders (1965), an amusing comedy-western featuring Glenn Ford and Henry Fonda.

Also in the mid-1960s, MacLane landed a recurring role on the hit situation comedy series I Dream of Jeannie, portraying General Martin Peterson a no-nonsense Air Force official. During the course of the five-year series, MacLane took time out to return to feature films, playing a country doctor in Buckskin (1968) and a sheriff in Arizona Bushwackers (1968). But the latter would be his final screen appearance. Shortly after filming an episode for I Dream of Jeannie, MacLane was admitted to St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, California, suffer from double pneumonia. Two weeks later, on January 1, 1969, the 66-year-old actor succumbed to the illness.

Typically cast throughout his career in a series of roles calling for ruthless outlaws, hard-edge convicts, venal cops, or bullying gangsters, MacLane nonetheless managed to bring a special something to his performances, creating memorable portraits out of cardboard-cutout characters. With his trademark scowl and raspy voice, MacLane demonstrated that he was – as labeled by one writer – as fine a heavy . . . as ever shot his way down the movie pike.”


This post is part of the “What a Character!” Blogathon, hosted by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, Kellee at Outspoken and Freckled, and Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club. Visit these blogs to read a variety of posts on Hollywood’s greatest character actors!

You only owe it to yourself.

~ by shadowsandsatin on December 3, 2021.

12 Responses to “The ‘What a Character’ Blogathon: Barton MacLane”

  1. I learned so much about Barton MacLane. Thanks.

    I remember the first time I recognized General Peterson in a movie, he was the bad guy in Western Union. Oh, such a bad guy! From that time on (I was a tween), I looked forward to his appearances in The Late Show.

    • I think my first was The Maltese Falcon — what a thrill! It used to be such fun discovering that my favorite TV stars began their careers in the old movies that I love.

  2. […] at Shadows and Satin discusses the life and career of versatile, classic heavy, Barton MacLane who preferred to play fine fellows. MacLane is another familiar face who appeared in all manner of […]

  3. Fantastic post as usual. I loved reading about MacLane who, like so many other people, I grew up watching on TV. His face is one of those I always point to in the numerous classic movies you mention. Terrific choice. You always elevate this event with your talent, Karen. Thank you.


    • You are a sweetheart, Aurora — thank you for your very kind words! And for allowing my last-minute substitute! I enjoyed writing about MacLane — I’ve even identified some movies of his that are now on my must-see list!

  4. I’ve been binging on those Warner Brothers gangster films lately, so, boy, was I happy to see your choice for the blogathon. He really was a good baddie – I especially did like him in “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.” I knida felt like I needed a shower after that one, but sometimes you need that after spending so much time with a bunch of bad guys. Great post. And I’m glad to learn he really was quite a decent fellow after all.

    • Thank you so much! It was a pleasure to write about him — he really was very good at being bad! I had to laugh at your comment about Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye — you’re so right!!

  5. Love this guy! Such a solid, reliable type for loads of roles. It’s been lovely to see him more frequently lately because TCM has been plying all the Torchy flicks on Saturday mornings. As always, you write so well and give us all the lovely tidbits, too. Thanks so much for joining our blogathon, Karen!!

  6. Nice! I’ve only seen him on “I Dream of Jeannie,” so this is all very interesting.

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