Long before he was an actor, six-foot-five Glenn Strange was not only an honest-to-god cowboy (a rancher, rodeo performer, even a sheriff’s deputy)—he was an honest-to-god singing cowboy who, together with his cousin (the future Cactus Mac) toured the Southwest and performed on the radio. Then in 1930 (at age 31) he stepped before the cameras for the first time as an harmonica-playing extra in The Mounted Stranger.
In the four decades that followed he would appear in over 300 movies and television episodes, 95 percent of which were Westerns. Thanks to his imposing size and appearance he played any number of villains, including the Lone Ranger’s nemesis Butch Cavendish, but he also played his share of sheriffs and Indian chiefs. He ended his long career with a 12 year-stint as Sam the bartender on Gunsmoke. Along the way he also played the occasional pirate, hoodlum, and space jockey (including a stretch in the old Flash Gordon serials).
But he’s rarely remembered for any of that.
As the story goes, while making up Strange for yet another cowboy picture in 1944, Universal makeup legend Jack Pierce offered him a few bucks to stay late that night so Pierce could try an experiment. Strange agreed, and when Pierce finished working on him that night and he saw the results, his first response was “I look like Boris Karloff.”
After playing the monster three times (in Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and Son of Frankenstein) Karloff had had enough. Apart from the threat of typecasting, the makeup, costume, and stunts had already done some serious physical damage. Replacing such an iconic figure was a tricky business, but a necessary one given that the franchise still had legs and the producers weren’t about to let that go.
In 1942 they turned to Lon Chaney, Jr. to play the monster in Ghost of Frankenstein. It seemed a fine choice—Chaney was familiar to audiences, a box office draw, and a big, burly guy to boot. He did a fine job of clomping about, too, but the problem was they’d need him to reprise his own iconic role for ‘43’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. So the producers turned to their other reigning horror icon Bela Lugosi (whose feud with Karloff was well known around the lot). And well, Lugosi was, at best, an uncomfortable monster. It was a fine picture, but there was simply something wrong and off-putting about Lugosi. Maybe it was the sideburns.
So when it came to 1944’s House of Frankenstein, it was clear a new monster was again necessary. Chaney was needed to again play poor doomed Larry Talbot, Karloff was signed but as a mad scientist not the monster, and John Carradine was on board as Dracula in what promised to be a monster fiesta. When Pierce saw that Strange not only bore some vague resemblance to Karloff, but was also massive enough an hombre to reduce assorted costuming tricks, they had their man.
Strange agreed (though as a contract player he had little choice in the matter). And what the hell? He would make a total of fifteen pictures that year, thirteen of which were Westerns, so why not branch out a bit? Besides, earlier that year he’d already played a monster in a Frankenstein knockoff called The Monster Maker, so it wouldn’t be that big a deal.
He made the picture, which was a big hit and remains a great deal of fun today. Strange’s face was more square and doughy than Karloff’s, but the added scar tissue on the monster (the result of bad freezer burn) helped disguise the fact that it was yet another actor. Audiences, if they noticed at all, didn’t seem to mind much. At least he was better than Lugosi.
The following year Strange was brought back to play the monster again in House of Dracula, and again in 1948 for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
Even after those three appearances, Strange was apparently not bothered much by any worries about being typecast in monster roles. In 1954 he was approached to play the titular Creature from the Black Lagoon but turned it down—not out of professional pride, but simply because he wasn’t a very good swimmer. In between and after his turns as the Frankenstein monster, Strange continued to make Westerns as he would until his death in 1973.
Karloff, who also filled the role three times, was less fortunate. After establishing himself as a respectable carachter actor in a variety of roles (yes, most of them sinister in one way or another), once he donned the makeup he couldn’t get away from B horror.
Only long after the Frankenstein pictures had come and gone did a number of small ironies begin to reveal themselves.
Ask anyone but a horror movie geek who played Frankenstein’s monster and no one’s going to mention Chaney, Lugosi, or Strange—especially not Strange. But ask a movie geek who Glenn Strange was, and they’ll immediately bring up Frankenstein, completely unaware that being a singing cowboy was his bread and butter for over forty years. He may not have been typecast as a result of being in the Frankenstein pictures, but those are the roles for which he’s remembered.
Even more ironic, Universal’s marketing department’s official images of Frankenstein’s monster—the images that appear on coffee mugs, ashtrays, t-shirts, postcards and other assorted feck—are pictures of Glenn Strange’s incarnation, thus further confounding the popular public perception.
This confusion was taken to an unhappy extreme with the death of Boris Karloff in 1969. In newspapers across the country, the official obituary for this fine actor, cultured and educated man, and cinematic icon—and the man who would forever be remembered as Frankenstein’s monster—was accompanied by a photo of Glenn Strange in his monster makeup.