It’s hard to recall Lyle Talbot’s face. Reading his daughter Margaret’s story-packed book, The Entertainer: Movies, Magic and My Father’s Twentieth Century, my mental picture of him kept fading despite the photos: the itinerant thespian in the 1920s, the screen actor scowling at Spencer Tracy, the jovial regular on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.
His attractively bland features meant he never became a star. He also, Margaret Talbot writes, lacked “a large and distinctive personality that surrounded him like an aura from role to role.” But his deficiencies became the makings of a fascinating tale. The author—a New Yorker writer who lives in Washington—is guided by curiosity about the past of a parent who was nearly 60 at her birth and by a writer’s eye for detail.
Lyle Talbot, born in Nebraska in 1902, was drawn into the carnival circuit as a teen, eventually finding work in stock theater. Here an 18-year-old Lyle waits to go onstage in Iowa: “There were lots of kids in the audience, and he thought he could hear them wriggling around on their squeaking chairs, pick out the patent-leather protest of their new Buster Browns. . . . He could hear the summer night sounds outside the tent—crescendos of cicadas, a lazy wind plucking at the tent flaps.”
The Entertainer, as much astute cultural history as biography, explores not only the passion to entertain but also our changing relationship with entertainment itself, from small-town magic acts to gangster films to such 1950s cheese as Plan 9 From Outer Space to TV sitcoms. There’s a lot to learn here about 20th-century America, showmanship, fan culture—plus a luxury train’s worth of personalities.
Through it all, Lyle Talbot remained a grateful working actor. “As long as they keep on giving me nice meaty parts—even though they don’t carry the whole picture—I’m satisfied,” he said in 1935, his hopes already downsized. Thanks to this wonderful book, it turns out Lyle Talbot is indelible, not in pictures but in words.
This article appears in the December 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.