Obituary: C. M. (Chris) Gampel (1921-2008)

May 14, 2008

The veteran stage and TV actor C. M. Gampel died last week. Gampel had at least eight Broadway credits between 1950-1969 and played small roles in movies including Death Wish, Annie Hall, and Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man. And, like almost every young actor living in New York at the time, he was a fixture in live television during the fifties. A check of the reference books and databases puts Gampel in all the big ones: Philco Television Playhouse, Studio One, U. S. Steel Hour, Playwrights 56, Armstrong Circle Theatre, Hallmark Hall of Fame. And since Gampel was a small-part actor, the few credits you’ll find sprinkled around on-line probably just scratch the surface; I’ll bet he was in dozens more live TV segments where he didn’t even make it into the end credit roll, much less the limited range of data that’s been scooped up by the internet.

But I think of Gampel in a slightly different context, as one of the pool of small-part actors that was a key ingredient in the rich stew of dramas filmed in (or cast out of) New York a little later: Decoy, Brenner, The Defenders, The Nurses, Naked City, Route 66, Hawk. Gampel (who was credited with about equal frequency as both “C. M. Gampel” and “Chris Gampel”) appeared in episodes of all those series. He’s in “Prime of Life,” a grim Naked City about capital punishment, as the warden of the prison where an execution is to take place. On Brenner he was a police lieutenant, on The Defenders a divorce lawyer. For a Route 66 episode filmed in Florida, Gampel – a slim, bald man with a rich baritone and a resemblance to Werner “Colonel Klink” Klemperer – played against type as a southern sheriff, and managed a creditable accent. On Hawk, he was a mob lawyer who, along with a thug played by a young Ron Leibman, blackmails a sweaty Lonny Chapman into signing a false charge against the police. I’m a big fan of Leibman and of Lonny, but Gampel underplays the scene and steals it from them both.

Among the reporters to whom Gampel spells out the prison rules in his big scene in that Naked City are Barnard Hughes and Gene Hackman, both then as unknown as Gampel was – and remained. One of the joys of watching the New York-lensed TV shows of the sixties (which also includes a few sitcoms, like The Patty Duke Show, on which Gampel was a guest star, and Car 54, Where Are You?) is the exposure one gets to that group of underexposed Gotham actors. In his book Making Movies, the director Sidney Lumet rhapsodizes about shooting on location in New York because of the quality of the extras. Lumet felt that they had more authentic faces than their counterparts in Los Angeles, who had learned to mug for the camera and were, in their way, just as polished and unreal as the stars and starlets they surrounded. The same thing can be said of the actors one finds in these New York TV shows, too: they’re used to the stage and less comfortable with the camera, less photogenic and more ethnically diverse than their west coast counterparts.

I can run down a list of the actors I’m thinking of, but I guarantee you’ll recognize few if any of their names; that’s the point. There were Cliff Pellow, Peter Turgeon, Bibi Osterwald, the pock-marked Fred J. Scollay, and the pop-eyed, very Italian Louis Guss. Or Tom Pedi, Salem Ludwig, Frank Campanella (forever typecast as a tough cop), William Duell (one of the oddballs in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and Allan Rich (latterly memorable as NBC president Robert Kintner in Quiz Show). Or Albert Henderson, Doris Belack, Richard Ward, Florence Anglin, Robert Dryden, Jane Rose, Louis Criscuolo, Maxwell Glanville, Joe Silver, Charles Randall, Joseph Julian, Lester Rawlins, Sudie Bond, Lou Gilbert, and John McGovern (a great New England type). Or the tiny, sickly-looking Leonardo Cimino, perfect as a junkie or a hood – and just the kind of actor, so strange in appearance and so scary in affect, who doesn’t get imported for long-term duty in Hollywood.

A few of the performers in that group, like Dolph Sweet or Doris Roberts or Sorrell Booke (The Dukes of Hazzard‘s Boss Hogg), moved to L.A. late in their lives and became familiar faces in the movies. But most of them remained on the East Coast for their entire careers, and even for those film buffs who double as connoisseurs of character actors – those of us who can pick, say, Don Keefer or Katherine Squire or Sandy Kenyon out of a Twilight Zone or Perry Mason still – they’re largely an unknown quantity, unless you happen to have programmed an East Side / West Side or NYPD marathon for yourself lately. There just weren’t as many opportunities to appear in front of the camera for actors who chose not to follow the general shift of the TV industry toward the West Coast. One assumes that a love of either the theatre or a distaste for Los Angeles led them to forego the opportunity for greater fame. Instead they spent the bulk of their careers doing off-Broadway and local theatre, logging a smattering of recorded appearances in-between: an arc traversing live dramatic anthologies in the early fifties through Law & Order episodes in the nineties or 2000s, with running jobs on soap operas or bit parts in a Woody Allen film or two in between.

C. M. Gampel’s career followed that path, concluding, in fact, with a Law & Order: Criminal Intent in 2003. The New York Times death notice included a handful of other details about his life: he was Canadian, and his real name was Morison Gampel (and he worked under that moniker as well). Here’s a shot of him from Naked City (“Prime of Life,” 1963).


6 Responses to “Obituary: C. M. (Chris) Gampel (1921-2008)”

  1. Abigail Gampel Says:

    I stumbled on your piece and was at first startled. Grappling with the strange reality of being an actor and yet unknown while known. On second reading I really appreciate it- and appreciate even more your taking the time to document my father’s television career, and the why of it.

    His birth name was actually Moses. From one of the only Jewish families in Niagara Falls, Canada- parents walked across Russia separately for freedom. The youngest of four boys- he fled at 17 for New York to become an actor- he was always a seeker and a complex individual- and an actor. The wearer of how we humans function. And he loved the spirit and wildness of people, and people loved him. He was a gregarious soul with interest in and for everyone he met.

    Keep up with your passion-
    All the best-
    Abigail Gampel

  2. […] did anybody notice Chris Gampel, the late actor who played “Dr. Flicker” in the classic scene in Annie Hall where young […]

  3. I have had the pleasure, honor and education of traveling and working with Chris and am truly sorry to hear of his passing.

    Chris and I traveled through Europe together while doing a bus and truck tour of West Side Story (I was the percussionist/drummer) in 1981. He I and and two other performers shared a car (instead of being on the crowded bus) through the French portion of the tour.

    He left a great impression on me and taught me much about life, acting and acting like a man–something I greatly needed at the age of 21.

    If wasn’t for him I would have never pursued acting and performing… and although I though of him often, my only regret is not staying in touch with him.

    RIP Chris.


  4. ALLAN RICH Says:

    Chris was a dear friend through the late forties and fifties. He was a gentle man,very knowledgeable and easy and fun to be with.Although we lost touch when we moved to La,La Land both my wife Elaine and yours truly will often talk and think well of such a gifted and fine person like Chris. Allan Rich .

  5. J. Peter Happel Says:

    Chris was on the very first show I photographed and was
    a friend though we rarely saw each other. The show was
    Danger directed by Yul Brynner and Sid Lumet as co- producer and Yul helped me get started in photography.
    Chris found my picture credit on a post card in N.Hamp-
    shire by pure coincidence. He sent it to me and I still
    have it.- He used my professional portraits for quite a while.- I’m sorry he’s gone. I liked him.

  6. Miriam Gampel Says:

    Uncle Moe did go to New York at 17, but he came back to Canada to serve with the Picton Highlanders Regiment, training soldiers in New Brunswick and even on a stage, entertaining the troops in shows on the base. He returned to New York after the war, and had an interesting and varied career. We are all immensely proud of him. Miriam Gampel

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