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1941 Actors You May Not Know Passed Away

"1941" could easily be referred to as the Steven Spielberg movie you've probably never seen. While audiences fondly remember his greatest hits like "Jaws," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," and "Jurassic Park," his 1979 wacky World War II comedy doesn't readily jump to mind when reminiscing on the filmmaker's best works. It's a zany screwball comedy featuring a massive cast, staggering set pieces, and a relentless pace that inspired film critic Roger Ebert to write, "It's an attempt at that most tricky of genres, the blockbuster comedy, and it tries so hard to dazzle us that we want a break."

Given the strain it puts on audience members, it's no wonder the film is rarely mentioned in general movie conversation. One thing that cannot be denied, however, is the film's incredible cast. From comedy titans of the time like John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd to cinema legends like Christopher Lee and Toshirô Mifune, the film is stuffed with performers at the top of their game.

To honor the many talents in front of the screen, let's take a look at some of the cast members you may not know passed away, while discussing their roles in the film and careers as a whole.

Robert Stack

For anyone who grew up seeing Robert Stack as the incredibly serious and ominous host of television's spookiest series, "Unsolved Mysteries," it may be difficult to see him in a comedic role. However, not only is he superbly deadpan in his "1941" role as the Disney-loving Major General Joseph W. Stilwell, but he was hysterical in the Zucker Brothers disaster movie spoof "Airplane" a year later as the no-nonsense Captain Rex Kramer.

Of course, long before being cast in any of the titles mentioned above, he had a varied career in film and television stretching all the way back to 1939, according to IMDb. Other than "Unsolved Mysteries," the television role he was probably best known for, however, was from 1959 to 1963 where he starred as real-life Special Agent Eliot Ness in the series "The Untouchables."

Stack continued working through the '80s and '90s, even providing voices for "The Transformers: The Movie," and "Beavis and Butt-Head Do America." In May of 2003, the actor died of heart failure at the age of 84. According to his wife, he had been undergoing treatment for prostate cancer, but his heart simply gave out. He lived a long life with a great career that people will be familiar with for generations to come.

Frank McRae

If you weren't familiar with Frank McRae's time in the NFL on both the Chicago Bears and the Los Angeles Rams, you probably remember him from movies like "*batteries not included," where he played the quiet but tough Harry Noble, or "Last Action Hero," where he played Dekker, the perfect parody of the overworked, underpaid lieutenant who is always furious with his subordinates. 

In "1941," he played Pvt. Ogden Johnson Jones, a man of few words, but big facial expressions and high intensity. One of the first times he's seen on screen is rising from a tank and yelling at the top of his lungs during a riot outside of a USO event in the middle of Los Angeles. Without hesitation, he slaps on a catcher's mask and clocks some guy trying to scale the armored vehicle. It's a visual gag that works really well.

It was his second film with actor Warren Oates. Although they don't share the screen in Spielberg's comedy, the two did work opposite one another in the 1973 film "Dillinger." As reported by Variety, the actor passed away from a heart attack on April 30th, 2021.

Warren Oates

Despite passing away at the relatively young age of 53, Warren Oates amassed an impressive resume of 129 roles over a 29-year-long career, according to IMDb. A veteran of TV Westerns, Oates appeared on classics like "The Rifleman," "Rawhide," "The Virginian," and "Gunsmoke," playing a variety of characters in each series. He was also no stranger to science fiction, showing up in the original "The Outer Limits," "Lost in Space," and two episodes of the seminal anthology series "The Twilight Zone."

On the feature film front, Sam Peckinpah (who also directed episodes of "Gunsmoke" and "The Rifleman") cast him as Lyle Gorch in his 1969 Western outlaw film "The Wild Bunch." He also co-starred with Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in director Terrence Malik's feature directorial debut, "Badlands," in 1973. Two years later, he and Peter Fonda worked together on the cult classic horror film "Race with the Devil."

In "1941," he played the appropriately named Colonel "Mad Man" Maddox. A paranoid man with a love for battle and guns, his scene with John Belushi's Captain Wild Bill Kelso is one of the strangest in the film as he is delighted to see Kelso's guns at work. If nothing else, it's certainly a very memorable sequence.

When considering the massive amount of work he accomplished during his time on screen, one can only imagine the heights he might have soared to if he hadn't suffered a fatal heart attack in 1985.

Wendie Jo Sperber

The only way to describe Wendie Jo Sperber's Maxine Dexheimer in "1941" is "man-crazy." From the moment she appears on screen, the young woman is dancing and audibly fantasizing about all the men in uniform she and her friend Betty Douglas are going to meet and dance with at the USO event later that night. The minute she encounters Treat Williams' problematic Corporal Chuck "Stretch" Sitarski, she has to have him, despite his obsession with Betty. The majority of her storyline sees her chasing him in various ridiculous ways.

Sperber's first role was in the Robert Zemeckis-directed Beatlemania film "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." She must have made quite an impression on Zemeckis (who co-wrote "1941"), who went on to cast her in his films "Used Cars" and as Marty McFly's older sister Linda in "Back to the Future." In 1980, she played Amy Cassidy alongside Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari in the sitcom "Bosom Buddies." She would appear with Tom Hanks again in the raunchy 1984 comedy "Bachelor Party." Her comedic roles continued through the rest of her career, with Sperber showing up in "Babes," "Married...with Children," "Parker Lewis Can't Lose," "Home Improvement," and "8 Simple Rules."

According to Today, she founded the weSpark Cancer Support Center in 2001, four years after her 1997 breast cancer diagnosis. Although she unfortunately succumbed to the disease, her incredible career and activism has kept her alive in the hearts and minds of millions.

Toshirô Mifune

The plot of "1941" centers on a perceived impending attack by the Japanese military in the days following the assault on Pearl Harbor. It's believed that California would be a logical target and the residents and military stationed in the area are put on high alert. Of course, these events mirror actual events in history like The Bombardment of Ellwood, only they're played for laughs.

In the film, a Japanese submarine does indeed intend on attacking Hollywood as a way to top Pearl Harbor. That submarine is commanded by Commander Akiro Mitamura, played by legendary actor Toshirô Mifune. His collaborations with master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa alone read like a syllabus on the history of cinema, including titles such as "Yojimbo," "Seven Samurai," and "Hidden Fortress," to name only a few. He was also nominated for an Emmy for his work in the 1980 NBC miniseries "Shogun."

Mifune died of organ failure in 1997 and Variety honored him by detailing his outstanding life and career following the news. 

Murray Hamilton

Perhaps the outright silliest section of "1941" is dedicated to the characters Claude and Herbie, who are stationed at the top of a Ferris wheel to look for approaching enemy planes. The two men couldn't be more different: While Claude (played by Murray Hamilton) is a fairly average American man who happens to be terrified of heights, Herbie (played by Eddie Deezen) is a Jerry Lewis-type buffoon who is thrilled to be helping his country by sitting on a Ferris Wheel.

The dynamic is a traditional odd couple, with Claude wanting nothing more than to complete his task in peace while Herbie rocks their car, never shuts up, and is a general pain. Things take a strange turn when Herbie produces a ventriloquist dummy out of nowhere that seems to be able to operate independently of its owner. 

Most readers would recognize Murray Hamilton as the mayor who desperately wants to keep the summer dollars flowing in "Jaws," but he was also known for his role as Mr. Robinson in "The Graduate." Like Warren Oates, he had a fairly short, but impressive career from 1944 until his death in 1986. According to the Associated Press, Hamilton died of cancer at the too-young age of 63.

Christopher Lee

Summing up the stellar career of the iconic Christopher Lee in a few words is impossible. This titan of cinema has over 280 credits listed on IMDb, and that doesn't even mention his music career. Fans of Hammer horror know Lee well from his roles as the Creature in "The Curse of Frankenstein," the title monster in "The Mummy," and perhaps his most recognizable role, Count Dracula, which he played in eight different films.

If none of those ring a bell, you might remember him as Lord Summerisle in the original "The Wicker Man," or as the voice of King Haggard in "The Last Unicorn," or as Bond villain Scaramanga in "The Man with the Golden Gun." Of course, you might also know him as the treacherous Saruman the White in Peter Jackson's adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings." Similarly, "Star Wars" fans will always recall him as the equally two-faced Sith Lord, Count Dooku.

Unfortunately, he wasn't given much to do as Nazi Captain Wolfgang von Kleinschmidt in "1941," but this doesn't take away from his incredible screen presence. Plus the earlier titles we've mentioned barely scratch the surface of this man's amazing career. Lee died of heart failure in 2015 at the age of 93, but like the undead vampire he played so well for all those years, his legacy will continue on for decades to come.

Christian Brackett-Zika

As demonstrated in many of his films, most notably in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," Steven Spielberg is very good at directing child actors. While they can sometimes come off as stilted in various movies and TV shows, Spielberg has a knack for picking strong young actors and getting the very best out of them. This is certainly true in the case of "1941" with Steven Mond and Christian Brackett-Zika, who play brothers Gus and Stevie Douglas.

The two kids are rambunctious troublemakers who are always dressed like the Lost Boys (reminiscent of Spielberg's "Hook") and constantly getting underfoot of their parents. Brackett-Zika, who played Stevie Douglas, is a particular standout as he has one of the best-timed deliveries in the entire film. While his father (Ned Beatty's Ward Douglas) is firing a cannon in their home, little Stevie yells, "You're ruining Christmas!"

While Christian may only have 14 credits to his name on IMDb, he showed up on some legendary programs like "Fantasy Island," "CHIPs," "The Jeffersons," "Night Court," "Diff'rent Strokes," and "Silver Spoons." There isn't much information out there regarding his life after his acting career or his passing, but IMDb lists his date of death as February 18, 2019. 

Lucille Benson

John Belushi (whose passing was fairly high profile at the time, thus his exclusion from this list) plays Captain Wild Bill Kelso in "1941." His character's introduction is very dramatic and tells you everything you need to know: He lands a plane on a country road in California and pulls up to a gas station. A woman credited as Gas Mama sees this and, squinting against the wind and dust, exclaims "Oh no!" Yeah, this guy means trouble.

That woman was played by character actor Lucille Benson. She previously worked with Spielberg on his excellent TV movie "Duel," based on the Richard Matheson story. In 1981, she played Mrs. Elrod, the woman making a sandwich for her sleeping husband in the original "Halloween II" as Michael Myers evades the police. Like her "1941" costar Wendie Jo Sperber, she also appeared in the sitcom "Bosom Buddies."

These credits are just a few in her massive body of work. She appeared in a ton of TV shows like "The Waltons," "Wonder Woman," "Eight Is Enough," "The Love Boat," and "Alice." In 1984, The New York Times reported that the actress, who was only 69 at the time, died of cancer. Benson stands as another example of a great actor who had already accomplished so much, with the potential to achieve even more. 

Elisha Cook Jr.

During Captain Wild Bill Kelso's introductory scene, he rambles about the dangers of impending war, while snagging things off the shelf of the convenience store. While he monologues, two men are seen having a meal. One of them has a stained shirt and pasta hanging from his fork. The nervous expression on his face while telling Kelso he's wrong, plus the sight of that dangling pasta, is one of the funnier images in the entire film. All the guy wanted was to finish his food and this bull of man stampedes in and starts shooting a gun.

That man was Elisha Cook Jr. and he's got a mountain of credits that almost rivals Christopher Lee. Many of them come from TV appearances like "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "Wagon Train," "Star Trek," "Magnum P.I.," and the mini-series "Salem's Lot." However, he's also got some great films on that list as well like the Humphrey Bogart classics "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Big Sleep," as well as horror titles such as "House on Haunted Hill" and "Rosemary's Baby."

Cook passed away in 1995 at the age of 91. The Washington Post stated that no cause of death was reported, but his entry on the Turner Classic Movies website, however, lists it as a stroke. At least he got to live a life almost as long and prosperous as his resume.

Slim Pickens

Of all the plotlines in "1941" (of which there are many), perhaps the funniest involves actor Slim Pickens as Hollis "Holly" P. Wood. The Japanese soldiers in the film are having trouble finding Hollywood, California because of their broken compass. When they spot Hollis' truck, sporting the words "Holly" and "Wood" on the side, they capture the man, assuming he will be able to take them to their destination.

However, Hollis realizes what their game is and refuses to tell them anything. The reason the scenes work between them is Slim Pickens' performance. He is so utterly committed to the character that he steals the show. Even when his story begins to slow as it focuses on the faking of a bowel movement, his enthusiasm still sells it. 

Pickens is best known as Major "King" Kong, the guy who rides the hydrogen bomb in Stanley Kubrick's own war comedy, "Dr. Strangelove." Another recognizable role for Pickens was as Taggart in the raucous Mel Brooks satire of the Western genre, "Blazing Saddles." As was reported at the time of his death in 1983, Pickens didn't only play cowboys in TV and movies, he was one in real life.

David L. Lander

One of the shortest appearances in the film is that of David L. Lander. Simply credited as Joe, he mans a great big gun alongside Willy, played by Michael McKean. As most folks reading this will know, this isn't the first time the two actors had been paired together. At the time of filming, they were already well-known for playing Lenny and Squiggy on the '70s sitcom "Laverne and Shirley."

While playing Andre "Squiggy" Squiggman might have been Lander's most recognizable role, it was one of many the actor took on. Over the course of his 47 years in show business, Lander popped up all over the place, especially as a voice actor. Those credits included lending his voice as Doc Boy Arbuckle in "A Garfield Christmas Special" and "The Garfield Show," in addition to Don Bluth's "Titan A.E." and animated series "The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy." 

After 37 years of dealing with the disease, Lander died from multiple sclerosis, as reported in The Los Angeles Times.

Lionel Stander

Despite all the chaos exploding all over the screen in "1941," some of its funniest moments are in its subtleties. As an example, in the climax of the film where Ned Beatty is really trying to sink a Japanese submarine, he believes he has it in his sights but doesn't notice his own house is right in the way. His neighbor Angelo Scioli looks at the cannon, then the house, and simply says, "I don't think you're gonna hit it." In the midst of so much madness, that flat, plain delivery is comedy gold.

Scioli is played by Lionel Stander, an actor known for his gravelly delivery. Like every good character actor, his long career is made up of roles in various genres. From undeniable classics like the original 1937 version of "A Star Is Born" and "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," to "The Transformers: The Movie" and the TV series "Hart to Hart," this actor's career runs the full storytelling gamut. 

In 1994, at the age of 86, Stander passed away from lung cancer. 

Ned Beatty

Even if you don't know his name (although you probably should), you know the work of actor Ned Beatty. This actor's career is so astonishing that his resume doesn't even begin with bit parts in tiny films or guest spots on barely-remembered TV shows; the very first film listed on his IMDb is John Boorman's intense, disturbing thriller "Deliverance.

By the time he was cast in "1941" as a man so determined to protect his family that he is willing (and able) to destroy his home in the process, he'd already been in the Robert Altman classic "Nashville," Sidney Lumet's "Network," and Richard Donner's seminal comic book epic "Superman." Intermingled with his movie work, the actor also appeared on shows like "M*A*S*H," "The Rockford Files," "Murder She Wrote," and "Roseanne."

While reporting on his death in 2021, The Guardian did an excellent job of summarizing the scope of this memorable actor's lengthy career.