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John Qualen, 87; Character Actor in Films, TV

September 16, 1987|JACK JONES | Times Staff Writer

Services were held Tuesday for veteran actor John Qualen, whose face became familiar in more than 150 film and television roles--including that of the overwhelmed father of the Dionne Quintuplets in three movies. He was 87.

Qualen died at Torrance Memorial Hospital on Saturday when his heart failed.

Besides his portrayal in the 1930s films he made with the famed quints, Qualen drew attention for his performances as Muley Graves in "The Grapes of Wrath," as the convicted killer in "His Girl Friday" and as sailor Axel Larson in "The Long Voyage Home," all in 1940.

Played Accent Roles

Of Norwegian descent, he often played accent roles and frequently was cast as a well-meaning victim.

Qualen was born John Oleson on Dec. 8, 1899, in Vancouver, Canada, the son of a minister. He studied declamation, piano, flute and saxophone. On the strength of a gold medal he won in a Northwestern University oratory contest, he managed to talk himself onto a Chautauqua tent show stage one night in Wisconsin when the scheduled lecturer failed to appear.

He then organized his own show, but it did not do well, and he later became a salesman of aluminum pots and pans in Kansas City. Eventually, he took his oratory medal to New York, where he experienced a disheartening series of rejections by producers and booking agents.

It was not until he told one producer that he could play Norwegian character parts that he found success. The producer had been looking for someone to play a Norwegian janitor in Elmer Rice's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Street Scene."

Qualen played the part on Broadway for three years, then did it in the film version. The same thing happened in the play "Councilor at Law," in which he appeared with star Paul Muni.

Then came the part of the quints' harried father, named Asa Wyatt in the films "Country Doctor," "Reunion" and "Five of a Kind."

He was so well-known in that role that when he was cast in "The Road to Glory" as a soldier going mad in the trenches in World War I, a preview audience began to laugh at his big dramatic scene. The studio was forced to reshoot, cutting down the part, changing his makeup to disguise him and having him speak in French.

There was a pause before he returned to the screen as Earl Williams, the insane little man sentenced to death in "His Girl Friday," a remake of "The Front Page" with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.

His numerous other films included "Seventh Heaven" (1937), "Knute Rockne, All-American" (1940), "Angels Over Broadway" (1940), "Casablanca" (1943), "Captain Kidd" (1945), "The High and the Mighty," (1954), "The Searchers" (1956), "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959), "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962), "Cheyenne Autumn" (1964) and "Frasier the Sensuous Lion" (1973).

On television, he appeared in episodes of such series as "Mr. Ed," "The Andy Griffith Show," "Hazel," "The Danny Thomas Show" and "The Partridge Family."

Inactive as an actor since 1975, Qualen lived for the last 12 years in Torrance, moving there from Westwood.

He is survived by his wife, Pearle, whom he married in 1924. He also leaves their three daughters, Meredith Kilpatrick, Kathleen Roberts and Tina Bacon, as well as 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

The family asked that in lieu of flowers, contributions be made to the American Heart Assn.

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