Unsung Heroes: Ray Teal 1902-1976

It’s almost certain that Ray Teal gained his widest visibility as the gruff, avuncular Sheriff Roy Coffee on Bonanza, an unchallenging, largely expository role that must’ve offered little satisfaction beyond a steady paycheck. The well-meaning but party-killing sheriff, with his familiar moustache and round-brimmed hat, usually appeared whenever one of Ben Cartwright’s boys had been caught playing with matches again (he never seemed to bring good news to the Ponderosa), and Teal’s cookie-cutter contributions so resembled each other from one week to the next that even after 400 some-odd episodes of the series it was impossible to imagine Roy Coffee having a life beyond the TV screen.

But when he was given half a chance, Ray Teal had some game in himfor starters, he walked away with his single scene in William Wyler’s Carrie despite the singular disadvantage of having to play it against Laurence Olivier. He appears halfway through the movie as the slimy corporate detective Mr. Allen, who’s been pursuing the $10,000 which Olivier’s George Hurstwood, in a moment of love-addled folly, embezzled to finance his ménage with Jennifer Jones. When the detective materializes in the couple’s swanky hotel room just as Hurstwood is bestowing a closetful of dresses on his mistress, the mortified, frightened embezzler does his best to stammer his way out of the mess, but Mr. Allen, who knows better than Hurstwood himself which games he’s going to run, demolishes each gambit with lascivious relish before they can even get off the ground. It’s the palpable, lip-smacking pleasure that Mr. Allen takes from his work, and the distress it produces in others, which makes him so repellentafter emasculating Hurstwood in front of his lover, he chuckles and offers the man a cigar. Only a talented actor could believably reduce Laurence Olivier to jelly in a few minutes’ time, but Teal sails through the task, even while maintaining the guise of a New Yorker from some number of generations past: it’s easy to imagine Mr. Allen’s grandsons debating the relative merits of Mantle, Snider and Mays.

Teal also shows up in Phil Karlson’s forgotten classic Gunman’s Walk, playing a horsetrader and perjurer who casually shakes down Van Heflin for a string of ponies, and in Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives he’s the original black helicopter wingnut who buttonholes Harold Russell at a drugstore lunch-counter. (His voice dripping with condescension, he hectors the maimed veteran to “Just look at the facts!” while brandishing what’s either a rolled-up newspaper or a FOIA request for Harry Truman’s birth certificate.) Teal was pushing 50 when he appeared in the earliest of these movies, so he may have been a late bloomer after a long run of uncredited performances. Whatever the case, it’s simply bass-ackwards that people remember him today, when they remember him at all, as frumpy Roy Coffee. This man was born to play shit-heels of the first order.

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