Sebastian Cabot was one of the most recognizable acting talents ever to come out of England, a familiar and popular supporting player in movies and a star of American television for much of the last two decades of his life. For an actor who specialized in elegant and upper-class, educated roles, he was, ironically, a Cockney, born Charles Sebastian Thomas Cabot in London in July 1918, within the sound of the bells of St. Mary Le Bow Church. What's more, he came to an acting career fairly late -- and by sheer chance.
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When his father's business failed, Cabot left school at the age of 14 and began working as a garage helper, the first of many menial jobs. (Well into his fifties, his first love was cars and tinkering with them and their engines.) Cabot never had another day of formal education, and later worked as a chef -- which help precipitate his growth to 260 pounds -- and spent three years as a professional wrestler in London before World War II, an activity ended by an injury. It was while working as a driver for actor Frank Pettingell that Cabot first thought of acting as a career. Later, he bluffed his way into acting jobs by claiming that he'd performed in various roles that he'd heard discussed by his former boss and others while driving them around. He'd also picked up enough of the jargon of experienced actors and enough knowledge to bluff his way through small roles that he didn't keep for long. Along the way, however, he picked up more of what he needed, and bigger parts and longer professional relationships followed.
Cabot got some extra work in films, started doing a lot of radio, and entertained the troops during World War II. When the war ended, he made his London debut in 1945, at age 27, in A Bell for Adano, and worked for the BBC as an expert in dialects. He was in John Gielgud's company when it brought Restoration comedy to the New York stage in 1947, and made his television debut on the same tour, playing a French schoolmaster in Topaz for CBS's Studio One, his first contact with the network that would make him a star more than a decade later. He first grew his familiar beard for a role in an Italian movie that was never produced, but the dignified, intense appearance that it gave him got Cabot the part of Lord Capulet in a mid-'50s film Romeo and Juliet and helped him secure the role of Porthos in the European-produced TV series The Three Musketeers, though to American filmgoers he was probably most familiar during those years for his appearances in such large-scale MGM productions as Richard Thorpe's Ivanhoe and Vincente Minnelli's Kismet, portraying the Grand Vizier in the latter.
It was on American television in the '60s that Cabot established the persona that would make him a star -- but also leave him typecast. In 1960, he became the star, alongside Anthony George and Doug McClure, of a very cerebral suspense program called Checkmate (created by renowned mystery author Eric Ambler), which was about a firm of private investigators who specialize in preventing crime. As Dr. Carl Hyatt, Cabot was the program's rotund, dignified, Oxford-educated criminologist; the series ran two seasons. Around this same time, the actor also had major starring and supporting roles in such movies as The Time Machine (1960) and Twice Told Tales (1962). By then, he'd given up the stage in favor of film and TV work, enjoying a wide diversity of roles. One of his more difficult parts during this period was his guest appearance on The Twilight Zone in the 1960 installment "A Nice Place to Visit." He played Mr. Pip, a kind of tour guide from beyond the mortal veil who proves to have some unexpected angles to his character. Dressed in white and sporting his hair (including his distinguished beard) dyed white, Cabot carried the whole episode in tandem with Larry Blyden as the object of his attentions, a lately deceased criminal. Unfortunately, the dye-job sidelined the actor from other work for months until his natural color returned, though he was able to further cement his familiarity by becoming a regular on the celebrity game show Stump the Stars.
In 1965, Cabot was approached with the script for the pilot of a proposed series called Family Affair. He didn't want to do it, and didn't care for the writing or his part -- a stereotypical, staid, dignified English butler -- but the money being offered for the pilot was better than decent, so he reluctantly agreed. The series sold, and for the next five seasons he endeared himself to a generation of viewers as the reserved, well-spoken Giles French (usually referred to as Mr. French), coping with the intrusion of three orphaned children on his employer's bachelor paradise. Although he did his best to bring a certain droll humor to the role, and the series did make him a star, Cabot became bored with the role and the show very early. In an interview done soon after it ended, he confided that both he and Brian Keith (the series' adult lead) were bored to the point of exhaustion for the last two seasons, though a new contract that he signed in the middle of the run also raised Cabot's pay to such a level that he was able to pick and choose his roles once the show had ended. He did talk shows and even a game show or two, but as an actor, in order to avoid being further typecast, he deliberately chose parts that were as different as possible from that of Mr. French. The best of those were his portrayal of the brutal spy master in a pair of made-for-TV movies directed by Roy Ward Baker and produced and written by Jimmy Sangster: The Spy Killer (1969) and Foreign Exchange (1970). He later became the host of the occult-thriller series Ghost Story, and from the late '60s through the mid-'70s, also did a large amount of voice-over work for Disney and other producers of animated features, including The Jungle Book in 1967 and several Winnie the Pooh films. Cabot died in August 1977 after suffering a stroke at his home in British Columbia. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi