For a guy who was only about five foot two, Percy Helton was the biggest creep in film noir. He has one of those indispensible faces that is as essential to the genre as cigarette smoke and low key lighting. He’s in a million noirs, almost always playing the same guy: the creep. Sometimes he’s the creepy bartender, sometimes the creepy boxing promoter. When people say “They don’t make movies like they used to” what they mean, in effect, is that they don’t make movies with weird character actors like Percy Helton anymore. Short, perpetually old, with a body shaped like a garbage bag and a voice that was the mixture of a fifteen year-old girl and a petulant child molester, Helton somehow added authenticity and eccentricity to every movie he appeared in.
Born in 1894, he came from a vaudeville family and grew up on the stage, working for a time with the great George M. Cohan. He performed on stages large and small (including Broadway), and he began doing occasional film work as early as 1915. He finally committed himself to movies in 1947 when he played a drunk Santa Claus in Miracle On 34th Street—the same film, incidentally, that marked the film career debut of Helton’s fellow Goon Squad member Thelma Ritter. Helton, not unlike Ritter, was marked by this late arrival into films. Sure, you can comb back through some old silents to find glimpses of the young Percy Helton, but for most moviegoers he seemed to have be born 53 years old.