Saturday, December 5, 2020

Joe Flynn - A Frustrated Fellow

Aurora, author of the blog Once Upon a Screen, is hosting the 9th annual What a Character! Blogathon this weekend along with Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled and Paula of Paula's Cinema Club. This event celebrates the many many great character actors that have appeared in films since movie-making began. 

It is usually a difficult choice for me to pick just one face to profile, but this time around the decision-making came quickly because Joe Flynn has been delighting me all year. 

This loveable bespeckacled character actor is best known for playing Captain Wallace B. Birmingham on the television sitcom McHale's Navy ( 1962-1966 ), but he also had supporting roles in a number of fun Walt Disney films from the 1960s-1970s and I'd like to put the spotlight on these. 

Joe Flynn was born in Youngstown, Ohio on November 8, 1924. After attending Northwestern University he played in local theater and on radio before joining the Special Services Branch of the Army and entertaining troops overseas during World War II. 

Like many character actors, Joe Flynn began his career in uncredited roles playing extras or characters like assistants or reporters. He started film work when he was only 24 years-old but he never looked very young so he was quickly put into roles that called for a more mature face. He had small parts in The Desperate Hours ( 1955 ), The Steel Jungle ( 1956 ), and Portland Expose ( 1957 ) while alternating between steady television work on shows such as The Thin Man, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, The Life of Riley and The Real McCoys

He tried his hand at playing in some western television shows but he fitted modern-day business suits and military outfits much better and in the 1960s he found his niche in comedy parts where he usually played a businessman or officer in a position of authority who is frustrated working with incompetent people. "I could just scream!" became his catchphrase on McHale's Navy. It seems like a difficult task to add humor to a character who chews other people's heads off, but Joe pulls it off with ease. 

On the opposite spectrum, he could also play characters who have to take the gruff from others. He was the lowly Private Drexler in The Last Time I Saw Archie ( 1961 ), the obedient office worker Hadley in Lover Come Back ( 1961 ), and Thorndyke's stooge Havershaw in The Love Bug ( 1968 ). 

In 1962, Joe began his long association with the Walt Disney Studios when he had a small uncredited part in Son of Flubber. After The Love Bug, he was cast as Dean Higgins of Medfield College in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes ( 1969 ). Dean Higgins was a man who had little faith in the intelligence of his students at Medfield, especially Dexter Riley ( Kurt Russell ) who was continually getting into mischief. In spite of his short temper, the college students always turned to him for advice even though it was they who usually ended up saving him from a financial scrape or personal embarrassment. 

In this clip from Now You See Him, Now You Don't, Dexter and his friends were unable to save Higgins from embarrassment and they can only watch as Higgins make a fool out of himself during a televisied golf tournament. Dean Higgins fancies himself a pro golfer after he had an amazing first game of golf but little did he realize that it was Dexter who, while invisible, was moving his ball around on the course. Since Dexter was unable to attend the tournament, Dean Higgins finds out just how hard a game of golf can be!

Joe Flynn was a natural-born scene-stealer and no matter who he was acting opposite, he managed to take the spotlight position away from them. It is hard not to like Joe, especially when he puts on his goofy expression of bewilderment. The Disney screenwriters saw what a ham he was and in the sequels to The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Dean Higgins' part was expanded on. 

He reprised the role of Dean Higgins in two more Dexter adventures - Now You See Him, Now You Don't ( 1972 ) and The Strongest Man in the World ( 1975 ) and also played opposite Kurt Russell in The Barefoot Executive ( 1971 ) where he got to mutter his frustration out on another wonderful character actor - Wally Cox. 

Joe Flynn was also a favorite among other comedians and one his friends was Tim Conway, with whom he starred with on The Tim Conway Show ( 1970 ). This short-lived series featured the two comics as pilots of a charter airline service. Conway was a good friend of Don Knotts and it may have been that connection that got Flynn a role in How to Frame a Figg ( 1971 ), a Universal Pictures comedy featuring Don Knotts. In this film, Flynn plays a corrupt member of city hall who is trying to finger the blame on Don Knotts. 

In real life, Flynn liked to fight for underdogs. Prior to coming to Hollywood, he had run for a  seat in the Ohio Senate as a Republican and, in the early 1970s, he launched a movement on behalf of the Screen Actors Guild for a more equitable distribution of TV residual payments. 

Throughout the 1970s, Flynn made guest appearences in a number of television sitcoms ( e.g. Family Affair, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, That Girl ), game shows ( It's Your Bet, The Match Game ) and was a very frequent guest star on The Merv Griffin Show, making no less than 52 appearences on that show! 

His final film was The Rescuers, where he voiced the character of Mr. Snoops. Flynn passed away in 1977 at the age of 49 from a heart attack while he was swimming at home. One can only wonder what great parts he may have had as an older character actor if his life had not been cut so short

Now, for a really "egg"-cellant treat, check out this fascinating story about Joe Flynn and his egg-farming hobby that turned into a business venture lasting ten years, thanks to the unwelcomed support of Marlon Brando. 

Thank you for stopping by! To read more posts about character actors, click on this link to be taken to the What a Character! Blogathon main page where you will find articles from other bloggers. Enjoy! 


  1. It was a pleasure to read about Joe Flynn. A fellow that never failed to delight me in so many roles. I find those friendships that last which begin at the workplace to be very touching.

  2. I didn't realize Joe Flynn died so young. No wonder he always seemed the same age. Once he made McHale's Navy I never watched him in anything else without thinking of the captain. He certainly made his mark in what turned out to be too few years.

  3. Joe Flynn died in 1974, not 1977, but he was only 49 years old at the time. I'm sure his voice was recorded long before "The Rescuers" was finished & released in 1977, as I think voice work is recorded before animation is completed. I'm glad you included his "egg business" hoax in here. It was very cleverly done.

  4. Joe Flynn got typecast in the same kinds of roles a lot, but he played them very well. He was always the consummate pro in every movie or TV series.

  5. Joe Flynn's McHale Navy character's last name was Binghamton, not Birmingham.

  6. Joe Flynn was the the pride and joy of Youngstown OH. He graduated from Rayen High School and got his start at the Youngstown Playhouse. When he made it big he often honored his hometown by mentioning the city by name in his McHale's Navy dialogue. He would come home and visit with family and friends frequently. He was the local boy who made it big. To this day he is very sadly missed.