Ladies and gentlemen, may I present Jack Norton! He needs no introduction, of course. The Brooklyn-born actor appeared in a remarkable 184 films during his illustrious career, including Calling All Cars, Thanks for the Memory, and the Palm Beach Story. He was much beloved by fans throughout the 1930s and ‘40s. “All he has to do is weave through a swinging door and the audience grins with delight,” wrote a critic in 1944.
Except, of course, that Jack Norton now definitely needs an introduction. I’m pretty sure you’ve never heard of him. He was a character actor, and that character no matter the movie was almost always a drunk. He had numerous walk-on roles in films, often providing comic relief at one society affair or another, instantly identifiable by his pencil mustache and dapper tux. Preston Sturges, legendary director of screwball comedies, loved to toss him a few moments of screen time and a line or two, where he could serve as a sort of comic palate cleanser. Norton’s most notable role? The sodden film director gloriously named A. Pismo Clam, in the 1940 W.C. Fields film, The Bank Dick.
For about a half-century—from Repeal in 1933 until the 1980s—every generation had its own famous film or TV drunk. (Drunks had cameos in vaudeville shows, but they didn’t influence popular culture like later actors.) Walk-on drunks were the court jester, the one who made everyone laugh just by showing up.