A hard-working character actor, Albert Dekker had few opportunities to play the lead in a career that spanned four decades and amassed over 70 motion pictures. After spending a decade on stage in New York, Dekker made his way to Hollywood where he landed supporting parts in "The Great Commandment" (1939), "The Man in the Iron Mask" (1939) and "Strange Cargo" (1940). But it was his turn as the mad scientist in the camp classic "Dr. Cyclops" (1940) that brought him wider recognition, leading to larger roles in "Once Upon a Honeymoon" (1942), "In Old California" (1942) and "Wake Island" (1942). Following a brief stint in politics where he represented the 57th district in the California State Assembly, Dekker delivered his most memorable character turns in "The Killers" (1946), "Gentleman's Agreement" (1947), "East of Eden" (1955) and "Kiss Me Deadly" (1955). By the end of the 1950s, his film career began to wane, leading to a necessary switch to the small screen. Dekker found new life as a guest star on shows like "Mission: Impossible" (CBS, 1966-1973), "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." (NBC, 1964-68) and "Bonanza" (NBC, 1959-1973). He returned to features with a small, but crucial supporting role in "The Wild Bunch" (1969), only to become the victim of a horrific accident when he was found in his bathtub following his death from autoerotic asphyxiation. His sordid death sparked rumors of foul play, though in the end it simply put an abrupt end to a productive but unremarkable career.
Born on Dec. 20, 1905 in Brooklyn, NY, Dekker attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, ME, and found his way to Cincinnati, OH, where he began acting in a stock company in 1927. Rather quickly, he made his Broadway debut in a production of Eugene O'Neill's "Marco Millions," which launched a decade-long career on the stage. In 1937, Dekker found his way to Hollywood and made his feature debut with a bit part in the 18th century-set romantic comedy "The Great Garrick" (1937), starring Brian Aherne and Olivia de Havilland. After playing the Comte de Provence in "Marie Antoinette" (1938), which featured Norma Shearer in the title role, Dekker stepped up to play more significant supporting roles in William Wellman's action epic "Beau Geste" (1939) and in the biblical drama "The Great Commandment" (1939), where he played Longinus, the Roman soldier who pierced Jesus with a lance as he hung on the cross. Following roles in James Whale's "The Man in the Iron Mask" (1939) and the rather tepid Bob Hope comedy "Never Say Die" (1939), Dekker was a prison convict who masterminds a breakout from a French penal colony in "Strange Cargo" (1940), starring Clark Gable and Joan Crawford.
Following a character turn opposite Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne in the romantic adventure, "Seven Sinners" (1940), Dekker was second billed alongside Fred MacMurray and Gilbert Roland in the Western "Rangers of Fortune" (1940), in which they played a trio of misfits who roam the West in search of adventure. He next found himself in a rare leading role in "Dr. Cyclops" (1940), a campy B-movie classic where he played a diabolical scientist who shrinks a group of humans down to miniature size in his jungle laboratory. He went on to play the lead again, this time as twin brothers in the suspense thriller "Among the Living" (1941), before joining Wayne in a supporting capacity for the Western "In Old California" (1942). After a turn in the Academy Award-nominated war drama "Wake Island" (1942), he delivered another finely turned character performance in the romantic comedy "Once Upon a Honeymoon" (1942), starring Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers, and rejoined Wayne for the glorified Western "In Old Oklahoma" (1943).
In 1944, Dekker indulged his political aspirations by winning a seat in the California State Assembly, representing the 57th Assembly District as a member of the Democratic Party for one term. Though his output slowed down, he continued making appearances in films like "Incendiary Blonde" (1945). Following his two years in Sacramento, Dekker returned to motion pictures full-time and delivered one of his most recognized performances, playing Big Jim Colfax in the classic film noir, "The Killers" (1946), starring Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner. In "Gentleman's Agreement" (1947), he was a magazine publisher who tasks a widowed journalist (Gregory Peck) to pose as a Jewish man to uncover anti-Semitism in an affluent community, which he followed with character turns in the B-pictures like "Fury at Furnace Creek" (1948) and "Tarzan's Magic Fountain" (1949). Returning to the stage, Dekker took over as Willy Loman from departing actor, Lee J. Cobb, during the original Broadway run of "Death of a Salesman" (1949), and segued into television for appearances on anthology series like "Pulitzer Prize Playhouse" (ABC, 1950-52) and "Studio One" (CBS, 1948-1958). Meanwhile, during the McCarthy Era, Dekker became an outspoken critic of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy and his unrelenting pursuit of alleged Communists in the federal government. Because of this, he spent a great part of his career at this point performing on stage in New York out of fear of being blacklisted.
But Dekker did continue to make movies, delivering brief turns in the religious epic "The Silver Chalice" (1954) and James Dean's first film, "East of Eden" (1955), before making his mark as a traitorous scientist in another classic film noir, "Kiss Me Deadly" (1955). After a return to television for the anthology series "Climax!" (CBS, 1954-58), Dekker had minor supporting roles in "Suddenly, Last Summer" (1959) and "These Thousand Hills" (1959), before focusing almost exclusively on the small screen. Dekker spent most of the 1960s on television, appearing on "Route 66" (CBS, 1960-64), "Mission: Impossible" (CBS, 1966-1973), "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." (NBC, 1964-68) and "Bonanza" (NBC, 1959-1973). He made a return to features as an unscrupulous railroad detective in Sam Peckinpah's revisionist Western, "The Wild Bunch" (1969). But before he was able to see the finished product, Dekker was found dead on May 5, 1968 in his Hollywood home after two days of numerous unanswered phone calls. He was found kneeling in his bathtub naked with a noose around his neck and looped over the shower curtain rod, hands cuffed, blindfolded and with explicit words written on his back in red lipstick. Though the corner ruled the death accidental by autoerotic asphyxiation, speculation persisted that there was foul play. He was 62 years old and ended his productive, but rather unremarkable career on a sordid note.
By Shawn Dwyer