William Phipps, the prolific character actor who starred in sci-fi movies of the 1950s and provided the voice of Prince Charming in the Disney classic Cinderella, has died. He was 96.
Phipps died Friday night at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica after a battle with lung cancer, his friend, noted showbiz author Tom Weaver, announced.
A contract player at RKO Radio Pictures, Phipps made his big-screen debut in the Oscar best picture nominee Crossfire (1947), Edward Dmytryk’s film noir classic that revolves around an investigation into the hate-crime murder of a Jewish man.
Weaver pointed out that as Hollywood began to pump out science-fiction films in the 1950s, Phipps became one of the genre’s first regulars.
He starred as a young poet, one of the five people on Earth to survive a nuclear explosion, in Five (1951), then fought martians in The War of the Worlds (1953) and Invaders From Mars (1953), a giant spider in Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) and the Abominable Snowman in The Snow Creature (1954).
Walt Disney himself heard Phipps’ audition tape and hired him to play Prince Charming opposite Ilene Woods in Cinderella (1950). The actor said he was paid about $100 for two hours’ work on an afternoon in January 1949.
Later, when Disney promoted the animated movie with a nationwide contest for young women — the winner would be brought to Hollywood for a date with the voice of Prince Charming — Phipps, in white tie and tails and top hat, and the lucky lady met in front of a live audience on the stage of the Pantages during a coast-to-coast radio broadcast of Art Linkletter’s show.
According to Phipps, “They gave me (I think) $100 pocket money and a limousine and a driver so we could go anywhere we wanted. We went to Ciro’s and the Mocambo, which were the two most famous places on the Sunset Strip at the time, and we went to the Trocadero, too.
“At the end of the night, around midnight, the limousine driver and I took her back to the Roosevelt Hotel, where she was staying. And then the chauffeur took me back home — a rooming house we called the House of the Seven Garbos, a home for fledgling actresses, where I lived in a room in the basement for seven dollars a week! The next day I went to the tuxedo rental place and turned in my stuff.”
Phipps was born on Feb. 4, 1922, in Vincennes, Indiana. He and his older brother, Jack, were raised in farm country in nearby St. Francisville, Illinois, and learned to swim in the Wabash River.
Phipps performed in plays in high school and at Eastern Illinois University, where he studied to become an accountant. He then decided to pursue acting, heading to California in 1941.
After his brother was killed in World War II when his plane was shot down in the South Pacific, Phipps enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served as a radioman.
He returned to Hollywood following his discharge in 1945 and and used the G.I. Bill to enroll at the Actors Lab. To make ends meet, he drove a three-wheeled motorcycle as the delivery boy for Schwab’s Pharmacy, the famed hangout on Sunset Boulevard for young actors and movie execs.
Phipps starred in an Actors Lab production of Men in White, and in the audience were actor Charles Laughton and Helene Weigel, wife of playwright Bertolt Brecht, who were casting a Little Theater production of Brecht’s Galileo.
Phipps appeared in the Laughton-directed Galileo as well as other Laughton stage productions, remaining friends with the actor and his wife, Elsa Lanchester, until their deaths. (Weaver noted that it was Phipps who convinced Laughton to cast Robert Mitchum as the homicidal Southern preacher Harry Powell in the only credited movie he would direct, 1955’s The Night of the Hunter.)
After working with Mitchum, Robert Young and Robert Ryan in Crossfire (he played the quiet soldier from Tennessee), Phipps became a regular in low-budget Westerns at RKO, among them The Arizona Ranger and Desperadoes of Dodge City, both released in 1948.
Phipps left the business in the late 1960s to live in Maui but returned to portray Theodore Roosevelt in the 1976 ABC miniseries Eleanor and Franklin, winner of 11 Emmy Awards. He then reprised the role in a commercial for Maxwell House coffee.
Phipps portrayed a servant to Marlon Brando’s Antony in Julius Caesar (1954), was the French Impressionist painter Emile Bernard in Kirk Douglas’ Lust for Life (1956) and portrayed the old man Quentin in Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993).
He had a recurring role as Curly Bill Brocius on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and showed up on other TV shows like The Twilight Zone (the 1960 episode “The Purple Testament”), Perry Mason, Rawhide, 77 Sunset Strip, Gunsmoke, F Troop, Batman, The Virginian and Mannix. IMDb lists him with 226 acting credits.
Phipps’ first wife died in an automobile accident, and his second marriage ended in divorce. He spent his final years living in Malibu.