The Stories Behind the Stones

In a way, cemeteries are like libraries. They contain the final resting places of thousands of people, each with their own separate and unique story. Some of these people are famous, and their stories are well known. Most are not, but that doesn't make their life any less interesting or their stories any less worthy of being told and remembered.

Periodically, we'll spotlight a different Los Angeles-area grave. Every person has a story, and we will use this space to tell their story, through their final resting place.

Dwight Frye

(Feb. 22, 1899 - Nov. 7, 1943)

Aug. 15, 2010 -- Dwight Frye was a successful and popular New York stage actor, known for his intense performances in comedies, dramas and musicals. But today he is best known for one of his first film roles which established -- and essentially ruined -- his screen career.

Born in a small town in Kansas and raised in Colorado, Frye received training as a youngster in voice and piano. By his teens, he was a talented concert pianist, heading toward a career as a musician. But he was also drawn to the theater, and he began performing with small traveling theater companies.

Frye eventually reached Broadway, where he appeared in a wide range of plays, primarily comedies, including one titled "The Devil in the Cheese" in 1926, in which Frye co-starred with future film actors Fredric March and Bela Lugosi.

"The Devil in the Cheese" opened in December 1926, and closed after 14 weeks. After the play ended, Lugosi starred the following year in the title role of “Dracula” at the Fulton Theater (now the Helen Hayes Theater). "Dracula" ran for 33 weeks.

In 1928, Lugosi and “Dracula” came to the West Coast, performing at theaters in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland through 1929. In 1931, the film version of “Dracula” was made, and Lugosi and Frye were reunited.

While Lugosi perfected the role of the blood-thirsty count on stage, Frye was also busy. In 1928, he married stage actress Laura Mae Bullivant, who performed under the name Laura Lee. Frye made his film debut in a small role as a wedding guest in "The Night Bird" (1928), starring Reginald Denny. In early 1930, Frye and his wife moved to Los Angeles, where they moved in with his aunt and uncle. Later that year, Frye appeared in two crime dramas -- "The Doorway to Hell," starring Lew Ayres and James Cagney, and "Man to Man."

Frye also continued to work on the stage in Los Angeles, first appearing in "Rope’s End," a psychological thriller, at the Vine Street Theater. During the run of the play, in which Frye played a troubled, cowardly weakling, he was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times in 1930 for an article that appeared under the headline "Frye Will Not Be Typed." It detailed one of Frye's major concerns as an actor, and proved to be eerily prophetic.

"I am a character man," Frye said. "There seems to be an impression that I do one type of thing. I don't and I haven't. One of my first successes was in comedy. ... I don't like specialization. I have no interest in anything but character work, and I have made it a point to vary my roles as much as possible."

Less than a year later, Frye’s biggest fear came true.

Frye’s next film role was in "Dracula" (1931), playing Renfield, who visits the castle of Count Dracula, played by Lugosi, and becomes the vampire's first victim. Renfield is transformed from a calm, polite, well-mannered real estate agent into a wild-eyed, bug-eating lunatic, and Dracula's psychic slave. Frye's performance was so intensely memorable, he quickly became type-cast in roles as lunatics, psychopaths and mad doctors' evil assistants.

A few months after “Dracula” was released, Frye returned to the stage in Los Angeles, starring in the comedy “A Man’s Man” at the Figueroa Playhouse, in a role Frye played for eight months on Broadway. Frye, co-starring with Mae Busch and Patsy Ruth Miller, played a low-level clerk who dreams of becoming "a man's man." Even in a comedy role, the reviews of the play noted Frye’s "shaking intensity."

After "Dracula," Frye appeared in "The Maltese Falcon" (1931), the first filmed version of Dashiel Hammett's classic detective story, playing weasely gunman Wilmer Cook -- a role played by Elisha Cook Jr. in the 1941 version of the film, which starred Humphrey Bogart.

Frye then returned to horror films as Fritz, the demented, hunchbacked laboratory assistant in "Frankenstein" (1931). Frye played similar roles in "The Vampire Bat" (1933), "The Circus Queen Murder" (1933), "The Bride of Frankenstein" (1935), "The Great Impersonation" (1935), “The Crime of Dr. Crespi” (1935), "The Man Who Found Himself" (1937), "Son of Frankenstein" (1939), "The Ghost of Frankenstein" (1942), "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" (1943) and "Dead Men Walk" (1943).

Although Frye really didn’t like playing these roles, he kept getting the offers because he was so good at it. He had the rare ability to play intense and dangerously crazy without going over the top. And, at 5-foot-6, he was the right size to play the hunchbacked lab assistants and malevolent dwarfs.

Frye fought against the type-casting, and also played small roles in other films, including "The Western Code" (1932), "Attorney for the Defense" (1932), "Florida Special" (1936), "Something to Sing About" (1937), "Fast Company" (1938) and "The Son of Monte Cristo" (1940).

Frye regularly returned to the stage, often playing the troubled, cowardly weakling. In a 1932 review of "The Shining Blackness," Frye was described as “especially clever in the difficult characterization of stage cowards, and has enjoyed unqualified success as a weakling type."

In 1941, Frye revived the role of Renfield in a new stage version of "Dracula" at the Beaux Arts Theater, starring Frederick Lymm as the count.

In early 1943, with his opportunities in film dwindling, Frye went to work as a draftsman and tool designer at the Douglas Aircraft Co. in Los Angeles. A few months later, he was offered a significant role in a filmed biography of President Woodrow Wilson, playing Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, and it looked as if Frye's film career might be on the rebound.

Unfortunately, Frye suffered from heart problems and, because he was a devout Christian Scientist, he refused any medical help. On Nov. 7, 1943, three days before filming was scheduled to begin on "Wilson," Frye went with his wife and son to see a double feature at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. After leaving the theater, he boarded a bus at the intersection of Hollywood and Vine and collapsed in the aisle. He was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was prounced dead due to a heart attack. He was 44.

Frye was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park in Glendale, Calif.

Reginald Sheffield replaced Frye in "Wilson" (1944) and, although the film was a box-office flop, it was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director.

Dwight Frye has also received somewhat of a cult following, particularly in the music industry. Shock rocker Alice Cooper released a song called "The Ballad of Dwight Fry" (sic) on his 1971 album, "Love It to Death." And Wind-Up Entertainment has a division called Renfield Music Publishing, and another called Dwight Frye Music, which publishes artists such as Evanescence and Creed.

Despite Frye's professional concerns and objections, he created and perfected the film sterotype of the crazed lab assistant to the evil genius. And although the role has often been parodied (as by Marty Feldman in "Young Frankenstein"), no one every played it better and had more of an impact on the audience than Dwight Frye.

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