Ned Sparks — The Man from Dead Pan Alley (1935) 🇺🇸

Ned Sparks |

January 11, 2022

Meet the screen’s highest paid character actor, Ned Sparks.

Ned Sparks, professional grouch, tells on himself.

by Kay Osborn

Meeting the world’s greatest grouch at the day’s grouchiest hour — nine o’clock in the morning, to be exact — appealed to me not in the least. In fact, I must admit that I was a bit nervous about it. I could laugh at Ned Sparks on the screen and really feel quite chummy toward him as long as there were several theatre rows between us. But face to face with him for the first time, in his own apartment... I wondered!

I knocked very boldly and loudly to hide my stage fright. Then I heard the friendly, familiar sound of a typewriter, and my heart leapt. A typewriter, bless its heart, would make me feel right at home. Furthermore, I write on a typewriter... Mr. Sparks writes on a typewriter... that would be at least one bond between us.

Yes, the voice was gruff, all right, when it said, “Come in!” but I had little chance to examine the face, for as I opened the door I was practically knocked over by the friendly onslaught of a little bull terrier as she leapt into my arms.

Such an enthusiastic greeting bowled me over mentally as well as physically. I could only sit down and take the dog oh my lap. “That’s Betsy Ann,” said Mr. Sparks.

“How do you do, Betsy Ann?” and with this little encouragement the dog brought a rubber ball to throw for her.

“Isn’t she cute?” I said, and I really meant it.

“She’s the light of my life, the apple of my eye, and the center of my universe,” he said in that hard nasal tone of his, and only then was I able to look at him. I found him looking at Betsy Ann with that fixed, unblinking stare. What I used to think was a glassy look in his eyes I now saw was only a moist mirror of affection.

What did you think of my angle for a story on you?” I asked him. “I wrote in my letter how one night years ago, when you were on the stage, you had indigestion, and looked so pained and sour and sad that, the moment the audience saw you, they literally rolled in the aisles. And so you have been purposely looking as though you had indigestion ever since, and have been cashing in on it?”

“Where’d you hear that?” He was looking right through me as he said it. But I was beyond quivering. Betsy Ann had shown me the light.

“I read it in a newspaper.”

“That’s trash,” he said, and just to prove that that’s what he thought of it, he handed me back my letter, and I saw that he had scrawled the word, “trash,” in no uncertain manner right across the page. (It happens to be one of his favorite words, I soon discovered.)

“You want to tell people that the Ned Sparks they see on the screen is the result of a physical ailment, when Ned Sparks is really a mental creation that I’ve worked over for twenty years! Oh, come now, have a heart. There’s a well-thought-out reason for Ned Sparks. I met him first years ago in the character of a night clerk at a small mid-western hotel, one of the grouchiest, grumpiest, most inhospitable persons that I have ever seen, inside or outside a hotel. He stared at me belligerently when I went up to the desk to register. I said ‘How do you do?’ and instead of answering he came out from behind the desk and peered at my luggage critically. Then he went back again, and as I was about to reach for the register, he took it away from me, looked at it himself for a while, and when he thought that he had annoyed me sufficiently he returned it to me. But he didn’t annoy me, he amused me. Everything he did, or didn’t do, was like that. I later put his character into a show on Broadway called ‘Little Miss Brown.’ Madge Kennedy was in it, too. Believe it or not, the newspapers actually wrote editorials about my night clerk. The theatre had never seen a character like that before — gruff, grim, and belligerent, but funny. I’ve met Ned Sparks a hundred times since... a backwoods fisherman who’d rather die than tell you where was the best place to fish... an undertaker who’d growl at you even while he was burying you... a Puritan farmer who thought it was a sin to smile... Everyone knows a Ned Sparks. There’s one in every town and often in every family.”

Yes, I’ve got an uncle like that,” I said.

“And you like him, don’t you? I mean he’s not terribly pleasant to have around, but you tolerate him, even think he’s funny sometimes, don’t you?”

I agreed.

“Well, then please don’t print any trash about me. Tell ‘em the truth. Ned Sparks is my own conscious creation. I created him because he is a character that everyone knows, but doesn’t understand, until I showed him up as somebody to be laughed at. Most of the stories that get around about me are ridiculous. About my chauffeur, for example. I am supposed to have a chauffeur just so I can be irritated at him and thus keep myself in an irritable frame of mind. Trash, plain trash. I have a chauffeur because I need someone to drive my car. What else would anybody have a chauffeur for?”

“Well, isn’t it true that you have a clause in your contract that the studio can’t make you laugh, or even smile in a picture, unless you agree to it?”

He gave me that dead pan again and he didn’t even have to say it to let me know what he was thinking. Trash, rubbish, and nonsense. “It’s true, though, that I do have a clause in my contract which permits me to write or re-write my dialogue, and to originate my own lines. So I suppose it amounts to about the same thing. I’ve always written my own lines, _ even years ago on the stage, like the time I wrote in the part of the night clerk for myself.”

“Haven’t you ever wanted to go back to the stage?”

“What should I want to go back to the stage for? This movie work suits me fine.”

I gasped. For once an actor hadn’t gone off into a discussion of his first and last love, the theatre, at the drop of a hat.

“There are only two things I want to do now,” he went on. “I want to make less pictures, so people won’t get fed up with my dead pan. I made eleven pictures last year and next year I’m only going to make four. Then in a couple of years I want to retire, and spend the rest of my life fishing and hunting. I like that better than anything in the world.”

I had already judged that was the case since there were several stacks of outdoor magazines piled around the room. That room, incidentally, was as cheery and cozy and friendly as Mr. Sparks isn’t on the screen. It was lined with books — not the kind that haven’t been off the shelf since a distant relative willed them to you — but the kind that are new and modern and show signs of having been read several times. There was a cheery little cuckoo clock ticking on the wall. A busy-looking desk in the corner, behind which Ned sat and looked as though he were quite used to sitting and working there. And there were at least half a dozen small rubber animals around which I guessed were Betsy Ann’s own personal possessions.

Incidentally, Betsy Ann’s bed is A an exact replica of Mr. Sparks, only miniature, of course. It has sheets and pillows just like a real person’s bed. “Why not?” said Mr. Sparks. “She is a real person to me, why shouldn’t I treat her as one. We have long talks together. She’s the best audience and the best company I’ve ever had. I used to think she was sort of a nuisance, till that time she saved my life. I’ve looked upon her with new respect ever since. We were walking in the mountains and I was day-dreaming, as usual, when Betsy Ann suddenly dashed in front of me, barking like a half dozen dogs rolled into one. I stopped and looked down, and there was a big diamond-back lying right in the middle of the path. I would certainly have stepped on it if it hadn’t been for Betsy Ann.

“When we got home I rewarded her with a bit of filet mignon, her favorite dish. Oh, yes, my dog has very highbrow tastes. The only thing that worries me is that she displays a deplorable tendency toward strong drink, and likes (and usually gets) a nip of sherry before dinner. Another thing which disturbs me, but which I tolerate, is that she snores most roisterously, and also has nightmares. She whines and carries on like a spoiled débutante till I have to get up and walk the floor with her. Perhaps I spoil her, I don’t know, but she did her best to make the world safe for comedy, so I really should return the favor.

“A funny thing,” he went on, “most people are usually afraid of me, the first time they meet me. I have many friends who admit they were once scared to death of me. Strange, isn’t it, because my fans, the people who write to me, seem to know more about me than the people I know personally. Look at this letter, for example.”

Dear Mr. Sparks:

I am in desperate circumstances and need your aid. I have been in a charity hospital for three months, laid up by an automobile accident. My wife and four children have had nothing to eat for two days now. I would go out and beg, borrow, or steal, if I were able. Won’t you please send them some money, so they can buy groceries? I am writing you because you look so mean and tough on the surface that you must have a heart of gold underneath. I have often been told that if you need anything to always go to the man who looks most as though he wouldn’t give you anything. I will pay you’ back when I am able to work again. I am so sure you will send it that I am enclosing my I. O. U. for $25. Thanks a lot.

“You see?” said Ned. “They’re on to me. I give away thousands of dollars every year. I haven’t got much of a family of my own, just me and Betsy Ann, and we’ve got everything we need, so why shouldn’t I be generous? It isn’t really generosity. It gives me a sort of selfish pleasure.”

I suspect that Ned has traveled many times with only a quarter or two in his pocket, and that is one of the reasons now why he so enjoys giving money away to poor unfortunates.

As a boy, Ned left his home in Ontario, Canada, and followed the gold rush to Alaska, but as a prospector, Ned was a good singer. Eventually he wandered from mining camp to mining camp, as a sort of a one-man show. He had a fine voice then, and still has, though Ned hasn’t yet had a chance to display it on the screen. He made his debut on the stage at Dawson City, in the Yukon Territory. Later he hopped a freighter and came down to Seattle.

Then he began his wandering theatrical career through the West and Middle West. From one little town to the next, sleeping in cheap hotels, dining regally on 15c a throw. They were hard days but at last, in 1913, he landed on Broadway in “Little Miss Brown” and from then on Ned was famous as “The Man Who Never Smiles.” After that he was a feature comedian with such stars as Madge Kennedy, Alice Brady. Effie Shannon and William Collier.

In 1919 he made a silent film in New York, with Constance Talmadge. Ned came to Hollywood eleven years ago with a contract to make forty pictures (in those days they turned out that many in a few months ). But he was in a bad accident, and laid up for so long that his contract was canceled and when at last he was well, it was just like starting all over again.

The story of his success may be summed up briefly by the fact that today Ned is one of the highest priced actors in the film colony. Few fans realize that many character actors receive more money than most of the stars. People like Ned Sparks are also able to hang on to their money more easily than the stars. They may live simply, entertain modestly, have only one car, without anyone thinking anything about it. If Clark Gable should live in a small two-room apartment and spend accordingly, the film colony would call him a miser, yet I doubt if Clark is a wealthier man today than Ned is. It’s just one of the many quirks in the Hollywood “system.”

The very “dead pan” Mr. Sparks in one of his glummer moments with Ann Dvorak in “Sweet Music.” 

Source: Modern Screen, May 1935