“The only good human, is a dead human!”
That proclamation from gorilla General Ursus in the second film of the original Apes cycle, 1970’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes, remains one of the most memorable of all nine films, a fact that’s unlikely to change with 2024’s Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes. And the man who made that proclamation is James Gregory, who, as an actor, did quite a bit outside of that particular role.
Born December 23, 1911 in New York City, he made his Broadway debut (as “The Ticket Seller”) in 1929’s Rain or Shine. A decade later he had a starring role in a 1939 production of Key Largo. This was followed by Journey to Jerusalem (1940), Glamour Preferred (1940), The Man with Blond Hair (1941), In Time to Come (1941), Autumn Hill (1942), Dream Girl (1945), All My Sons (1947), Death of a Salesman (1949), Dinosaur Wharf (1951), Collector’s Item (1952), Dead Pigeon (1953), Fragile Fox (1954) and The Desperate Hours (1955).
During his run in Death of a Salesman, where he worked as an assistant stage manager and was a replacement for the character of Biff, The Daily Times offered up a 1950 profile of him, noting of Gregory, “The antithesis of an egoistic Broadway success, he has only a vague interest in promoting himself, but a tremendous enthusiasm for the cause of the SPEBSQSA. For the uninitiated, this formidable combination of letters symbolizes the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartets Singing in America.
“A graduate of New Rochelle High School,” the profile continued, “he had minor roles in its first Tower plays production … This early interest was sidetracked for five years when he worked on Wall Street, but was revived by an appearance in a Summer stock production in New Rochelle. That second sampling of the theater was all he needed and his career has been constantly on the upgrade ever since, despite the serious interruption of three and one-half years’ Pacific duty in the Navy … He credits his present singing studies under the G.I. Bill as strengthening both vocal chores and physique and so enabling him to meet the role’s strenuous demands in both areas. He has no expectations of ever singing as a career, but there is always the aforementioned SPEBSQSA in whose future his wife shares an equal concern.”
Of appearing in Death of a Salesman, he told the reporter that he felt the play was a combination of humor and featured a penetration into human experience. “People keep thinking it’s a gloomy play. it isn’t gloomy, it’s full of laughs and everyone admits that once they’ve seen it.”
Speaking of his background, Gregory reflected to The Wichita Eagle in 1970, “I lived in Westchester when I was a kid and I got a job as a runner (messenger) on Wall Street. I spent four years there, hating every minute of it, but I worked myself up the ladder until I got to be a secretary. Then I started hating myself as much as I hated the job. One day I had it and I just told them what to do with their job and I walked out. I had it in my mind that if I had to work at something I hated doing, then it wasn’t worth it no matter what.
“I used to get bit parts in stock companies that worked the mountains and other resorts,” he continued. “When I lost a part, I’d go back to New York and work at anything — a clerk, counterman, anything to tide me over to the next part. I did that for four years until I hit Broadway. I’ve been working happily ever after. After a while when you know you don’t have to worry about getting work, it’s nice to relax a bit. Right now I’m waiting for the release of two movies I’ve just made. I’m also on call almost every week for a guest role on TV, and I’ve got those beautiful commercials. They’re so pretty I can make $50,000 a year on one alone.”
His roles would expand to television and film. Of the former, a 1962 edition of The Salina Journal noted, “In the embryonic days of live television in New York, Gregory appeared in five different TV shows in a period of 10 days. ‘I don’t think anyone will ever top that,’ said Gregory. Continuing on the subject of his career, Gregory revealed that he did 104 live TV shows in three years.
“And then, in May 1953, set the record. In ten days I appeared on Kraft Theatre, Robert Montgomery Presents, Suspense, Eyewitness and Danger. And I’m not kidding when I say I enjoyed every minute of them.”
The actor estimated that he had appeared on more than 750 TV shows, on top of 25 Broadway plays and 20 feature films. This included a 1959 to 1961 starring role in the series The Lawless Years, in which he played NYPD Detective Barney Ruditsky. “I enjoyed doing the series,” Gregory explained. “Most actors say they will never get tied down to a series after doing one, but I don’t feel that way. If the right one comes along, I’d do it. I’m not afraid of work. What the heck — reading scripts is easier on the eyes than the financial pages.”
Flash forward to 1968, and in a conversation with The Indianapolis Star, he expressed his regrets over the demise of live TV. “It was the most stimulating and demanding of all media,” he said. “When that hand of the clock went around to air time, there you were. You had to know your stuff. There was no time for retakes. They were wonderful years. Unhappily, they are gone forever.”
For POTA fans, The Evening Sun of Baltimore, Maryland had this news item in its May 27, 1969 edition: “Noted character actor James Gregory has been signed for the role of Ursus, gorilla general and dictator of a simian military government in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, currently filming. Gregory will be seen in gorilla makeup throughout the entire film, in which he leads an army of apes invading a subterranean civilization inhabited by human mutants on the site of what was New York City before its destruction by atomic bombardment.”
He said of Beneath in the pages of the currently-being-revised book Planet of the Apes Revisited, “One nice thing is that I got to know Maurice Evans pretty well. We’d both meet in the same makeup room, just the two of us at about 3:30 in the morning. We had to get ready for an eight o’clock shooting, So it made quite a long day, but we got to chit chatting with each other. He’s a very nice man and I always enjoyed that. Then they’d take a break around 5:00 or 5:30 and send out for scrambled eggs for us. Things like that, something soft that we could eat easily through the mask. Through the ‘appliance,’ they called it. It had to be augmented with layering on the hair, about eight or ten strands at a time to make it look authentic. I think that paid off, because a lot of the other apes just had rubber masks. But you only saw them in the background, you never had a close focus on them. That’s why ours had to be pretty authentic.”
Lovers of Classic TV undoubtedly know Gregory for his portrayal of Inspector Frank Luger in the 1975 to 1982 police sitcom, Barney Miller. Besides numerous television guest appearances, his film roles include The Manchurian Candidate (1962), PT 109 (1963), as Dean Martin’s boss, MacDonald, in the four Matt Helm films throughout the 1960s; and Barbra Streisand’s The Main Event (1979). His last appearance was a guest star in a 1986 episode of Mr. Belvedere. After that, he retired from acting, passing away on September 16, 2002 at the age of 90. He was married to Ann Miltner from 1944 until the time of his death.
We can’t agree with Ursus’ claim that the only good human is a dead human. To us, James Gregory was a very fine human who left his mark on anyone who viewed one of his performances. He lived by the words he liked to proclaim: “I am an actor!”