Sig Frohlich, R.I.P

Ken AshfordPopular CultureLeave a Comment

Sig Frohlich is dead.

Sig Frohlich, who has died aged 97, was a bit-part actor for much of his long career in Hollywood, playing messengers, waiters, callboys, clerks and soldiers, rarely earning even a flicker of recognition from viewers over 50 years.

In 1935 he was a mutineer in Mutiny on the Bounty, starring Clark Gable, and a gentleman in A Tale of Two Cities. He had his first screen credit in the crime drama Riffraff (1936), with Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy. The following year he was cast in Speed (with James Stewart) and Born to Dance (with Eleanor Powell); he was also a soldier of the evil Emperor Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon series.

In 1938 Frohlich signed a contract with MGM. This led to smaller parts, such as a man lighting a cigarette opposite Ava Gardner in the comedy romance This Time for Keeps (1942) and as Jean Rogers’s old flame in Sunday Brunch (1942). But he was so dazzled by the glamour of MGM that he turned down larger roles in two films produced by Monogram.

After Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army Air Force to become a B-24 gunner in action over the Pacific. On returning to MGM in 1946 he became Mickey Rooney’s stand-in on the set of such films as Killer McCoy (1947), Words and Music (1948), The Strip (1951), The Atomic Kid (1954) and A Nice Little Bank That Should Be Robbed (1958).

He played an air traffic controller in Stanley Kramer’s film It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World! (1963); appeared in Once is Not Enough (1975), with Kirk Douglas; and in First Monday in October (1981), with Walter Matthau and Jill Clayburgh. His role as a judge in Kevin Costner’s American Flyers (1985) and as Debbie Reynolds’s business partner in Jo Jo Dancer (1986) were two of his bigger parts.

But what role is he most famous for?  Why does he merit a mention on this blog?

Answer below the fold….

Flying_monkeyThis is a picture of Sig in his most famous role.

But he achieved some lasting celebrity as one of the winged monkeys in The Wizard of Oz (1939). This was despite the fact that he was completely disguised in a monkey costume and uttered no words on screen.

The 13 actors playing these unlovely animals, in the service of the Wicked Witch of the West, were originally promised $25 for each time they swooped down screaming from the sky on the heroine, Dorothy (Judy Garland). The director, Victor Fleming, protested that this sum was the usual fee for a whole day’s work. But it was agreed that Frohlich, who was an early member of the Screen Actors’ Guild, should receive an extra $5 a swoop since he was the one who snatched Dorothy’s dog, Toto; and he was paid more for his other scenes with Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch.

Frohlich, the last surviving monkey, found himself constantly questioned about the film, which enjoys such iconic status in the United States that flying monkeys are periodically referred to in The Simpsons. He was a favourite at the Wizard of Oz festival, which is held in the house where Judy Garland was born at Grand Rapids, Minnesota.

Frohlich believed that the great interest was due to the monkeys being the stuff of childhood nightmares. He would recall how the monkeys were trussed up like "Thanksgiving Day turkeys" with special belts around their midriffs; these were attached to wires which could carry them through the sky without being seen on screen.

Not only do the monkeys have the honour of being listed at 94 in the top 100 film monsters of all time, the slim steel tracks in the reinforced rafters of MGM Sound Stage 29 are still in place as a haunting reminder for visitors.