We are in the middle of our “What A Character” blog series. No overview of television character actors during the golden age would be complete without Bernard Fox.
Fox was meant to be an actor. He was born to Queenie and Gerald Lawson in Glamorgan, Wales. Both his parents were actors. Fox had his first film role at the age of 18 months. By 14 he was an apprentice assistant manager of a theater.
Bernard served with the Royal Navy during WWII as a minesweeper and then in the Korean War. From 1956-2004 he made more than 30 films. Ironically, he was in two different Titanic movies. In 1958 at the beginning of his career, he was in A Night to Remember and in 1997, at the end of his career, he was in the Oscar-nominated Titanic. He liked to say that he was the only person to survive the Titanic twice.
He began his television career in 1955 when he received a recurring role on the United Kingdom show Sixpenny Corner as Tom Norton. The show was centered around Bill and Sally Norton, a young married couple who ran a garage together. Fox played Bill’s youngest brother.
Eventually, he made his way to the United States. His first US show was in Wire Service in 1957, a show filmed at the Desilu studio. His next seven shows were filmed in the United Kingdom.
Fox mentioned that being a character actor was a mental strain. Early in his career, he had to worry about when the next job would be coming. He did post office work, logging, and other interesting jobs to get by. Once he got to America, he was able to rely on his acting career and didn’t have to moonlight anymore.
In 1962, he married his wife Jacqueline. They had two daughters. The same year he was back on US television with a regular role on The Danny Thomas Show. He played Danny’s English friend, Alfie Wingate. In 1963 he appeared on Ensign O’Toole, The Great Adventure, and General Hospital. The mid-sixties showed him in a variety of shows including McHale’s Navy, Perry Mason, The Dick Van Dyke Show, F-Troop, I Spy, I Dream of Jeannie, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and The Farmer’s Daughter.
He had another recurring role during this era on The Andy Griffith Show as Andy’s friend/valet Malcolm Merriweather. Fox appeared on the show in season three. We see him pedaling his bike next to Andy’s squad car at Andy’s house and says, “Excuse me, Constable.” When Andy understands what he is saying, he explains that he is the sheriff. With all the quirky characters in Mayberry, Malcolm fit right in and it’s a charming scene.
He continued receiving regular work in the late sixties for The Monkees; The Wild, Wild West; Here Come the Brides; and Daniel Boone.
Bernard did not enjoy his time on The Monkees set. He called them “an amateur bunch of rabble rousers . . . a bunch of unprofessional idiots.” He said that “they’d have cans of chocolates or something in the cupboards and in between shots, they’d be cramming chocolates in their mouths.” Fox was amazed, he said he got used to it but “professionally speaking, I expected a bit more.”
It was in the late sixties that he received the role he may be best known for: Dr. Bombay on Bewitched.
In an interview on bewitched.net, Fox was asked about his popular character, Dr. Bombay. He said that the spin he put on the doctor made him more interesting, saying, “If I’d just gone for an ordinary doctor, you wouldn’t have heard any more about it. But because I made him such a colorful character, that’s why they wanted him back.” He said the character was “easy to write for” and the writers had him being summoned from all over the world. He showed up in a variety of costumes including a wet suit, a football uniform, a toga, a towel, and a matador costume among others.
Bernard discussed the stars on Bewitched. He said Marion Lorne was a “dear lady.” When asked about Agnes Moorhead, he said she was a “thoroughly professional lady” and that praise from her was a thrilling thing to get. He said that he “liked Dick very much, a fine actor. He was a darling man.” And about Elizabeth, he said, “she was always very sweet and knew her lines.” She liked to bet on horses and whenever she won, she treated the cast to a party on the set. He also said once she found out he had a vegetable garden, she got him a subscription to Gourmet Magazine which she renewed every year.
He fondly recalled one episode where he was supposed to be squeezing a lemon into clam dip. When he squeezed it, it went in Elizabeth’s eye. The director yelled, “cut” and re-filmed it, but it happened again. The director said, “Bet you can’t do it a third time,” but he did, so they left it in the show.
His career did not slow down in the seventies where you could watch him on The Partridge Family, Night Gallery, Love American Style, Columbo, Cannon, Soap, and MASH. When asked about his appearance on The Partridge Family, Fox said, “Oh, I loved Shirley, she’s a doll, she’s a really nice lady.”
Following the pattern, he also had a recurring role in this decade as Colonel Crittendon on Hogan’s Heroes. As Crittendon, he was incompetent and dense and drove Colonel Hogan crazy with his ineptness.
In his bewitched.net interview, Fox also discussed his role on Hogan’s Heroes a bit. He said that in one episode he had hidden some maps in a corn bin. When he lifted the lid, it came down on his head. He just put the lid up and carried on with the script. When the director asked about reshooting, Fox said it was fine, and they left it in the film. He did say when he was playing a role on Hogan’s Heroes and Bewitched at the same time, it could get a bit confusing. They typically worked it out. For example, he said one time the studios agreed that Fox would be on the Bewitched set Tuesday and Wednesday and on Hogan’s Heroes Thursday and Friday.
Offers did slow down a bit in the eighties and nineties, and he ventured into animation work during those two decades. However, he still accepted offers for Fantasy Island, Lou Grant, The Love Boat, Hart to Hart, The Jeffersons, Simon and Simon, and Murder She Wrote among others.
His last acting credit occurred in 2001 for Dharma and Greg.
Not only was Fox an actor but he was an expert in history of the theater. For fun, he enjoyed gardening, painting landscapes, and performing magic.
In 2016, Fox died from heart failure.
I’m so glad he was able to find a successful career on television in the United States. After learning in a previous blog what a legend Marion Lorne was in England where she lived much of her life, I like to think about Aunt Clara and Dr. Bombay sharing some time talking about the delightful English ways that they missed. Hopefully they served tea on the set once in a while.
4 thoughts on “Bernard Fox: What a Character – Calling Dr. Bombay”
That’s a funny quote about the Titanic. I always wonder why I wasn’t in a film by the age of 18 months. I would think bouncing back and forth between characters the same week could get tricky. I don’t remember seeing him in Bewitched but it sounds like a long and successful career!
His Dr. Bombay character was a good one. It’s not too late to get into film now you know.
When I was a kid he was in just about everything I watched, from the Monkees, and the Munsters to Columbo, and the Disney films. I always enjoyed that moment of recognition when he came on the screen, though I had no idea who he was.
I was surprised how much he disliked being on The Monkees set. They had so many celebrities and I never heard anyone else complain.
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