Jack Webb turned Barney Phillips into one of classic TV's most memorable faces
The Dragnet creator's innovative use of extreme closeups led to Barney's "startling" overnight success.
Fans of the classic crime drama Dragnet know actor Barney Phillips best as Sergeant Ed Jacobs, a character introduced after original cast member Bart Yarborough suddenly passed away.
For Phillips, Dragnet became "a wonderful showcase" for his talents as an actor after spending years trying to make it in Hollywood, mainly because he said Webb’s innovative use of the closeup transformed Phillips into a "face actor" overnight.
Where celebrities like Jack Webb and Harry Morgan become "name actors," Phillips became the kind of face that TV audiences came to know and love.
"Jack Webb did many things in Dragnet that were innovations, and daring ones, by the standards of television in the early 1950s," Phillips told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1964. "One was the super closeup, a screen full of nothing except the actor’s face, being expressive. I knew the camera was close when a shot was being made for one of the first shows, but I didn’t realize just how close it was until I saw my face on the screen, 17 inches square. Startling."
Phillips appeared across 11 episodes of Dragnet, and after that, he never had to use that distinctive mug to look for work ever again. The roles instead started coming to him.
"It was as though a big curtain went up," Phillips told The Post-Dispatch in 1952. "I’d been in motion pictures only once or twice and then only for a day’s work at a time. Now it became apparent I photographed without two heads, and overnight the picture offers were for leading roles. It’s a little ridiculous because I’m the same person I’ve always been, neither a better nor worse actor, just a little more experienced."
Through the Fifites, Phillips appeared on hit family shows like I Love Lucy and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, but mainly he got typecast as a detective on crime dramas and Westerns.
Then in 1960, Rod Serling pulled him into his Twilight Zone for several episodes, including most notably as the titular alien in the fan favorite episode "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?" This classic episode ends with another closeup of Phillips, this time memorably with a third eye sunk into his forehead.
The same year we saw Phillips portray the Martian on The Twilight Zone, he also showed up in Mayberry as an escaped felon in The Andy Griffith Show episode "Barney Gets His Man."
By 1964, Phillips had turned from doing bit roles that were fewer and further between to finding a very profitable place for himself as a character actor in TV and movies.
He continued acting until he died of cancer in 1982.
It was a fine career for the face actor who was so desperate for his very first onscreen role in 1937 that he committed an acting faux pas.
"I got my first part through a breach of form," Phillips said. "Remember the cowboy actor Buck Jones? I stopped him one day and asked if he could find a part for me in his next picture. That wasn’t done, but I didn’t know the etiquette. He was surprised, but he said, 'Uh, sure, kid,' and he got a part for me."
When his first movie Black Aces was screened in 1937, Phillips was so excited, he gathered his mom, dad and cousins and packed the theater full of his biggest supporters. He expected them to cheer when he appeared, but a kid in the back row beat his family to the punch by delightfully screeching the second the "face actor" Phillips appeared, "Look at that funny-looking man."
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But yes, I do remember that episode of The Twilight Zone. That eye though... kind of blows the illusion by how fake it looks.
I just love watching old shows and spotting all the great character actors. Barney was certainly one of those.