The New York Times reports the death of William Duell, the slight, impish character actor who played slight, impish types throughout dozens of films, television, and Broadway shows over nearly half a century of acting. Duell died of respiratory failure at the age of 88.
At just over five and a half feet tall and with a thin, puckered face that curled into the hint of an underbite, Duell was often called upon to play quirky attendants and meek small-town folk who don’t understand the strange ways of city people and don’t much care to, even though they prove to be plenty strange themselves, not least because they look and sound like William Duell. He carried even these sorts of bit roles off with wry aplomb in movies like Funny Farm, Elvira: The Mistress Of The Dark, and The Happy Hooker—in the latter two, even starring as “Mr. Meeker” and “Meek Man,” respectively.
In One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Duell played Jim Sefelt, an epileptic who refused to take his medication and who’s constantly plagued by dental problems. It was a small role, and Sefelt by his nature is a follower, but Duell still stood out thanks to the inherent, puckish glee he would bring to his lines. Witness the below scene where Duell torments William Redfield’s Harding with just variations on the word “peculiar.”
On television, Duell was part of one of the best running gags of the short-lived spoof series Police Squad!. Duell played Johnny the snitch, a shoeshine boy with his ear to the ground and information on a wide variety of topics—everything from happenings in the criminal underworld to questions of deep philosophical import, all available for a price.
Duell’s many other roles included playing Liberty Bell-ringer Andrew McNair in both the original Broadway and film versions of 1776, the toll booth operator whom Eric Roberts takes pity on in The Pope Of Greenwich Village, a man ravaged by tuberculosis in the Jack Nicholson-Meryl Streep movie Ironweed, an unhelpful lost baggage clerk in the Steve Martin-Goldie Hawn version of The Out-Of-Towners, the town mailman in the Kevin Kline comedy In & Out, a butler in Cradle Will Rock, and in his last onscreen appearance, a concession worker in How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days. Wherever a little bit of oddity is needed to spice up an otherwise thankless part, Duell will be missed.