His most memorable regular role was as the TV father of another future SAG president — Patty Duke — on The Patty Duke Show. From 1985–1987 he served with his former “TV daughter” as the ninth vice president of the Guild. His character, Martin Lane, was named by TV Guide as No. 39 on the list of 50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time.
“Bill Schallert’s remarkable career put him in the rare position of being able to understand actors at all levels of the business,” said SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris. “He worked virtually every SAG contract, he enjoyed working with movie stars and background performers, he was a series regular and an uncredited bit player. He turned this knowledge and experience into service for his fellow actors. Despite leading the union during a very difficult time, Bill maintained his integrity and commitment, a commitment that extended into many more years of board service. I am especially pleased that Bill lived long enough to see the SAG-AFTRA merger become a reality as he was one of the pioneers of that effort.”
Schallert, a genial gentleman and character actor known to all as “Bill,” appeared in hundreds of film, television and theater productions for more than 65 years. He was recruited to run for the Screen Actors Guild board in 1974 by Guild co-founder and former president Leon Ames, and became one of the busiest members of the board. Elected to the Guild presidency in 1979, Schallert led the Guild through the difficult TV/Theatrical strike of July-October 1980, taking on the tough issues of home video and pay TV. After the strike, Schallert lost his 1981 bid for a second term to Ed Asner. Still, there was renewed impetus for merger with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and Schallert became chair of the first Joint SAG-AFTRA Merger Committee. More than 30 years later, an ecstatic Bill Schallert was present at the Guild’s national headquarters on that momentous afternoon of March 30, 2012, when merger with AFTRA became reality.
In addition to his Guild presidency, he also served as trustee of the Screen Actors Guild Foundation’s John L. Dales Scholarship Fund, Producer-Screen Actors Guild Pension and Health Plan, and the Motion Picture and Television Fund. From 1977–79, he was a governor of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and served on the Academy’s Actors’ Branch Executive Committee until June 1991. Schallert also served as 3rd vice president from 1982–83, 9th vice president from 1985–87 and national treasurer from 1989–91. He was chair of the Theatrical Wages and Working Conditions Committee in 1977 and the Commercial Contracts Wages and Working Conditions Committee in 2003, and continued to serve on the board until 2005. While president, he also became co-founder and first chair of the Committee for Performers with Disabilities.
In 1971, he won an Off-Broadway Distinguished Performances “Obie” award as the judge in The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (a role he reprised in the film version) and was nominated in 1973 for Distinguished Performance by the Los Angeles Drama Critics association for the comedy Mind with the Dirty Man. In 1980, he was nominated for a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Religious Programming for his appearance in The Stableboy’s Christmas episode of the longtime series This is the Life.
In an August 1985 Drama-Logue interview, he shared his basic belief about what it takes to succeed as an actor, besides talent: “I believe you shouldn’t become an actor unless you need to. Unless you have no choice about it. Liking — even loving — acting is not enough. You have to need to act. That’s not all, either. However much you believe in yourself, there’s the matter of feedback. If you keep failing you have, finally, to recognize the tradeoff between aspiration and achievement.”
On June 6, 1993, the Screen Actors Guild’s Hollywood Division presented Schallert with its Ralph Morgan Award, named for the Guild’s first president. Schallert accepted with self-deprecating good humor, stating: “There are three essential requirements for this award: You have to serve long enough to get noticed, you have to quit before they fire you and you have to stay alive until they decide to give it to you.”
Schallert was a renowned mentor to his fellow performers. He continued with essential advice for members who wished to be of service to their union and fellow members: “Board members assume a mantle of leadership. If they carry it properly, they will make difficult decisions for the rest of us. Eighty-eight thousand members cannot get together some place, debate the issues and make a decision … but there’s something else that every member of this union has to do every day. Go out for auditions, get the work and make sure you know your contract. Some producers will take everything that’s not nailed down. If you don’t know what the contract is all about, or if you’re too fearful to demand what’s in it, you are diminishing it for all of us. It takes a helluva lot of guts to stand up for your rights. But you are the eyes and ears and conscience of the Guild. You are unique and irreplaceable. Armed with that knowledge, you’ll have the basis for the courage to demand your rights and protect them for everyone else. God bless you for sticking to it.”
Born William Joseph Schallert on July 6, 1922, in Los Angeles, he was connected to the entertainment world from the time of his birth. His father, Edwin Schallert, was drama and film editor for the Los Angeles Times, and his mother, Elza Schallert, was a prominent magazine writer and radio host who had done publicity for Hollywood theater impresario Sid Grauman. Schallert, who originally hoped to become a music composer, was drawn to acting while a student at UCLA, where among many student activities, he served as an editor on the Daily Bruin.
In 1946, after his return to college following service in World War II, he appeared in stage plays at UCLA, composing music for some of the productions. At the end of 1946, he co-founded the Circle Players/Circle Theatre with fellow UCLA students, including future Screen Actors Guild Board member and officer Kathleen Freeman, and continued working with the group until 1950. In 1947, he appeared with the Circle Players as the title character in Ethan Frome, with Freeman playing his wife, and was hired shortly thereafter for small roles in the feature film The Foxes of Harrow for 20th Century Fox, starring Rex Harrison and Maureen O’Hara, and a short film, Dr. Jim, starring Stuart Erwin for film producer Jerry Fairbanks.
In 1949, he married actress Leah Waggner, a fellow member of the Circle Players, with whom he would have four sons.
He acted in a broad spectrum of productions, ranging from the low-budget sci-fi The Man from Planet X to the Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night, but his widest audience was television viewers. He co-starred and guest-starred in hundreds of TV shows, including The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Hawaii Five-O and The Twilight Zone, and contributed what may have been his most recognizable single appearance was as Nilz Baris in the iconic Star Trek episode The Trouble With Tribbles. In more recent years, he made appearances on How I Met Your Mother, Desperate Housewives, the vampire series True Blood and the horror miniseries Bag of Bones.
Schallert is survived by his four sons and seven grandchildren.
A three-and-a-half hour interview with Schallert, conducted at his home in February 2012 may be viewed on the Internet through the Television Academy Foundation’s Archive of American Television at http://www.emmytvlegends.org/interviews/people/william-schallert.