1/27/2012 11:22:00 AM Area man has led a 'charmed' Hollywood life
By JIM HERRING For the Daily News
Most people do not live fairy-tale lives, but one voice more than 60 years ago did bring kindness, love and understanding to millions, if not in real life, then in fantasy. The voice crackles now due in part to physical age, years of smoking and a non-cancerous tumor on his vocal chords which made him turn away from cigarettes and tobacco.
The voice that brought kindness and love in the 1950 Walt Disney movie adaptation of Cinderella as "Prince Charming" will be 90 years old on Feb. 4.
His name is William E. "Bill" Phipps, an accomplished Hollywood actor who for more than five and a half decades appeared in hundreds of films, television programs and TV commercials. While his name may not be as legendary as some stars of his era, he earned the respect of his peers such as Cary Grant, Robert Mitchum, Marlon Brando and many more, and he has been seen by millions of people around the world in both leading and supporting roles. In addition, he worked behind the camera as a producer.
Phipps, who is in good health today, grew up along the Wabash River in St. Francisville. In early life, the Wabash was his world, his flight into fantasy against odds he felt were against him at home. He learned to swim in the river, along with his war hero brother, Jack. The Wabash was a focal part of their boyhood lives in summer and in winter.
To most, Bill Phipps has lived a fantasy life, a life that allowed him to meet and be with some of the most popular movie stars of his generation. He never thought, as he swam across the Wabash as a young teen, that he would reach such heights that many young people even today dream about.
Phipps landed in Hollywood in 1941, but his career was interrupted by World War II. He appeared in several movies before the Prince Charming role came along. His first movie role was in Crossfire in 1947 which starred Robert Mitchum, Robert Young, Robert Ryan and Gloria Grahame. The movie received five Academy Award nominations. It was the first "B" movie to receive a nomination for best picture.
Today, Phipps lives at his home in Malibu, Calif., and walks his dog on the beach three times a day, every day. He officially retired in 2000 but would take on another role should he be interested and should one come along. He can regularly be seen at Lily's Café in Malibu usually scouring over three newspapers.
Phipps has often repeated the story how he was awarded the role of Prince Charming because that is the role he is most asked about despite his other 300 television and movie appearances.
In 1949, the year before the movie was released, Phipps made an audition recording and didn't think much more about it until he received a phone call from the Walt Disney Studio. He was living in his $7 a week apartment in a rooming house at the time. "I lived in the basement with the hot water heater and the cobwebs," he said.
Phipps was asked to return to the studio and Walt Disney in person told him, "You're Prince Charming."
To promote the movie, the studio held a national contest to find the girl most like Cinderella and the winner was to receive a trip to Hollywood and a date with Prince Charming with the couple to be introduced on stage at the Pantages Theater by TV personality Art Linkletter.
"Disney footed the bill for the date. The studio rented a limo and sent me to a tuxedo rental place where I got a white tie, tails and a top hat," Phipps recalled. He was given $100 and driven to the theater to meet the Cinderella contest winner. After the theater introduction, they went out on the date.
"I was Prince Charming that night living in a Cinderella-like situation, sort of going from rags to riches myself because at midnight the evening ended," Phipps said. The contest winner was driven to her hotel and he was driven home to his basement apartment. "I ceased to be Prince Charming."
Phipps was born in Vincennes and lived there until he was about six years old when his mother divorced his father and moved her family, consisting of Bill and Jack to St. Francisville, which he claims as his home town.
He is a graduate of St. Francisville High School and was president of his senior class. Early on, he showed an interest in acting in both grade school and high school appearing in plays. After high school, Phipps attended what is now known as Eastern Illinois University for two years majoring in accounting. Since then, EIU has featured several of his films in a Bill Phipps film festival.
The last time he recalls being in St. Francisville was about 15 years ago, yet he retains many vivid childhood memories.
"I am St. Francisville. St. Francisville is me," Phipps wrote in a recent letter. "The wonderful people there raised me.... I was a river rat and I still reference myself as a river rat."
His mother, Virginia, forbade him to go near the river but he and his friends along with his brother, Jack, were in or near the Wabash nearly every day. Bill learned how to swim in the Wabash and today takes pride he was able to cross it several times. When his mother found out he had learned to swim in the river, she went into tears.
Phipps' mother died when he was 16 years old. Jack, who was 18 months older, became protective of his younger brother. His mother had remarried when the family moved to St. Francisville, but both boys, especially Bill, were unable to adjust to their new stepfather. "To say there was no love lost would be putting it mildly," Phipps said. "The kindness of many adults in St. Francisville saved me from emotional ruin."
In 1941, Jack joined the Army Air Force and became a pilot. Bill, without funds, hitchhiked to San Antonio, Texas, to watch his brother receive his Wings. Bill had completed his second year of college at Eastern and following Jack's graduation, "I kept on going...to California and never looked back," Phipps related.
Jack did return home to St. Francisville following his graduation to see his friends and enjoy their camaraderie. He found an old airplane and flew it low over the treetops above the community waiving to everyone he saw.
Jack died May 15, 1942, in the South Pacific.
Despite wanting to pursue an acting career, Bill enlisted in the Navy when he reached California. He was sent to the University of Idaho to become a student in the naval radio training school. He graduated second in his class with a 3.938 average out of a possible 4.0. He served as a radioman in the U.S. Navy from 1942-1945 aboard six ships and passed under the Golden Gate Bridge 16 times.
After the war, he enrolled in the Actor's Lab in California along with actor Russell Johnson, who is best remembered today as the "Professor" on Gilligan's Island. Phipps and Johnson were in a play together with Johnson performing the matinee and Phipps the evening show. Distinguished actor Charles Laughton attended the evening performance and was impressed by Bill's acting abilities. His career then began to take off.
Some of his favorite actors he worked with, in addition to Laughton, Mitchum and Grant, were Marlon Brando, William Holden and James Mason. "He (Grant) said our scene was the best in the movie (Kiss Them for Me). We had a great time," Phipps recollected. Some of his favorite actresses he worked with were Barbara Stanwyck, Virginia Mayo, and Angela Lansbury.
Phipps did have an agent, but often, he said, a producer or director would ask for him for a specific role. "When Westerns flooded television, I was in demand," he wrote.
Phipps said it would be hard for him to specify his most memorable role but his performance in Crossfire does stand out in part because it was his first. Another was his starring role in the 1951 movie Five, the first movie made about the aftermath of an atomic bomb explosion in which there were only five survivors. He is proud that he was the speaking voice of Prince Charming. He is especially proud of his TV work in Eleanor and Franklin when he portrayed President Theodore Roosevelt. "I was called in for an audition six times. It is a long story how I prepared and won the part," Bill said.
Young people might know him as the kindly mountain man who befriended the cat in the 1993 movie, Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. He acted under different names over the years, sometimes as Bill Phipps and other times as William Phipps or William Edward Phipps. He is known by "Bill" to all who know him. "To my southern friends I am known as Billy Ed and to my Hispanic friends I am known as Pancho Villa. I was called that once and the name stuck," Phipps said. To list all of his credits would prove to be too numerous.
From president of his 1939 high school class to playing a President of the United States, Phipps has only one void in his life, "I couldn't share my career with my mother, Virginia, and my brother, Jack."
Phipps still receives fan mail at PO Box 6036, Malibu, CA 90264-6036. Sometimes he replies with a hand-printed note on a piece of scrap paper or whatever is handy at the time. He no longer lives in the basement of a rooming house. He owns two apartment complexes, one in Hesperia and the other in Apple Valley, Calif.
Fans can still see his work on television reruns on such television programs as Dallas, Murder She Wrote, The Dukes of Hazzard, Little House on the Prairie, Gunsmoke, Twilight Zone, and many more, in addition to his numerous movie roles.