Dabbs Greer

d. April 28, 2007

Dabbs Greer, character actor who became one of the most familiar faces in the first four decades of television, died April 28 from kidney and heart problems at a hospital in Pasadena, Calif. He was 90.

He was born Robert William Greer in Fairview, Mo. (Dabbs was his mother's maiden name), and started acting at age eight in children's theater. He made his unofficial film debut in 1938 as an extra in "Jesse James," the Tyrone Power-Henry Fonda western that was filmed in nearby Pineville, Mo. "They were paying $5 a day — a day! — to local people for being extras," he told the Associated Press. "That was really good money in those days, more money than we had seen in a long time."

Greer attended Drury College in Springfield, Mo., and headed the school's drama department after graduation, then ran a local theater group until 1943 when he moved to Pasadena. He worked there as an actor and instructor at the famed Pasadena Playhouse until 1950.

His real film debut came with a bit part in 1949's "Reign of Terror" starring Bob Cummings and Arlene Dahl. Greer appeared in some 100 movies over the years, the last with his role in 1999's "The Green Mile" in which he played Tom Hanks' prison guard character in old age. But it was television that made his face if not his name familiar to millions of viewers. While appearing in 1950s pictures such as "Monkey Business," "House of Wax" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," he also broke into TV with supporting parts in the earliest filmed series, including Dick Tracy, The Lone Ranger, Space Patrol and Big Town. He played the man dangling from the mooring line of a runaway dirigible in the first episode of The Adventures of Superman (becoming the first person to be rescued by the man of steel's TV incarnation), and had another memorable Superman role as an innocent man convicted of murder and only hours away from execution.

Later in the decade, he turned up regularly in episodes of the period's many westerns, sitcoms and filmed anthologies, including Cheyenne, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Father Knows Best, Schlitz Playhouse, General Electric Theatre, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Science Fiction Theatre, Disneyland, How to Marry a Millionaire, Tombstone Territory, Trackdown, Bat Masterson, Wanted Dead or Alive, Shirley Temple's Storybook, The Loretta Young Show and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.

He was even busier in the 1960s, appearing in episodes of such popular series as Dr. Kildare, The Dick Powell Show, Lawman, Have Gun – Will Travel, Hawaiian Eye, The Untouchables, Checkmate, Surfside 6, The Twilight Zone (with Andy Devine in the comical "Hocus Pocus and Frisby" and in the hour-long episode, "Valley of the Shadow"), The Outer Limits, Petticoat Junction, The Rogues, The Andy Griffith Show, Perry Mason, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Fugitive, The Big Valley, The Virginian, Bonanza, The FBI, The Invaders, Judd for the Defense, Mannix and many more. He played the patriarch of a doomed family in "The Night of the Simian Terror," a creepily atmospheric 1968 episode of The Wild Wild West. In 1969, he was the minister who married Mike and Carol Brady in the first episode of The Brady Bunch.

Greer was never a true series regular, but he turned up in dozens of Gunsmoke episodes from the late 50s through the late 60s as Wilbur Jonas, proprietor of Dodge City's general store. He appeared more often during the nine-year run of Little House on the Prairie as Walnut Grove's parson, the Rev. Alden. He was a semi-regular in Hank, a 1965-66 NBC sitcom, playing a college athletic coach who continually and unsuccessfully tried to recruit the title character to the track team after seeing him racing between classes (the show's gimmick setup having impoverished Hank attend classes in disguise to get a free education). He was one of the townsfolk in half a dozen episodes of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir in 1968. And he had another recurring role as another minister in the quirky 1992-96 series Picket Fences.

In addition to his many Little House appearances, Greer had roles in such 1970s series as Cannon, Barnaby Jones, The Rockford Files, The Manhunter, The Mod Squad, Ironside, Adam-12, Emergency, The Streets of San Francisco, The Incredible Hulk and the Saturday-morning super-hero adventure Shazam. He worked less often after Little House ended in 1983, with appearances in episodes of The Greatest American Hero, Starman, Werewolf, In the Heat of the Night, L.A. Law, Roseanne, Spin City and Diagnosis Murder. He was still working during the 2001-2002 season with a small recurring role in the WB network sitcom Maybe It's Me with Julia Sweeney and Fred Willard.

His other movies — sometimes in parts so small they were uncredited — included "Father's Little Dividend," "We're Not Married," "Deadline U.S.A.," "Riot in Cell Block 11," "Million Dollar Mermaid," "The Seven Little Foys," "The Spirit of St. Louis," "I Want to Live," "It! The Terror from Beyond Space," "Palm Springs Weekend," "Roustabout," "The Cheyenne Social Club," "White Lightning," "Chu Chu and the Philly Flash" and 1997's Nicolas Cage starrer "Con Air."

Greer summed up his career as a supporting player in an Albany Times Union interview in 2000: "Every character actor, in their own little sphere, is the lead." Greer never married and left no survivors. He was buried near his Missouri home town.

Dabbs Greer behind the pulpit in “Little House on the Prairie.”

Greer as the innocent man facing the electric chair in “Five Minutes to Doom” episode of “The Adventures of Superman.”

Jim Backus and Paul Stewart look on as Dabbs Greer, in uncredited role as a reporter, backs up editor Humphrey Bogart in “Deadline U.S.A.”

(20th Century-Fox, 1952).