Kevin McCarthy, Star of 1956 Sci-Fi Classic `Body Snatchers,' Dies at 96

Kevin McCarthy, the actor best known as the star of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” the classic 1956 science-fiction film about humans taken over by giant seed pods from outer space, has died. He was 96.

He died yesterday at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis, Massachusetts, the Los Angeles Times reported.

A versatile character actor with the chiseled jaw and blue eyes of a leading man, McCarthy was adept on stage, in movies or on television shows. He acted in almost 100 films over seven decades and was a familiar presence on prime-time TV from the 1950s through the 1990s.

He was trained as a stage actor and made his Broadway debut in “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” in 1938. He later appeared in “Two for the Seesaw” (1959) and “Advise and Consent” (1960). He also toured the country for more than two decades in the one- man show about President Harry S. Truman, “Give ‘Em Hell Harry.”

“Kevin McCarthy is superb as my father,” Margaret Truman once said.

McCarthy was nominated for an Oscar in his first film role, as Willy Loman’s son Biff in “Death of a Salesman” (1951). He also played Marilyn Monroe’s husband in “The Misfits” (1961) and appeared in “Twilight Zone: The Movie” (1983).

He was the brother of the acclaimed writer and critic Mary McCarthy, author of the best-selling 1963 novel “The Group.” She died in 1989 at age 77.

Cult Status

McCarthy was known mainly for his role as Miles Bennell, the family doctor in Don Siegel’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Thanks in part to repeated showings on television in the 1960s, the film achieved cult status.

McCarthy took it all in stride. He was always gracious when answering questions about the movie from fans and journalists. He even spoofed himself in a cameo appearance at the beginning of the 1978 remake, banging on the windows of a car driven by Donald Sutherland’s character in an homage to the original.

Fans have argued for decades about the meaning of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Some saw it as an allegory about the perils of McCarthyism. Others viewed it as an attack on the conformity of Communism.

“There was no assignment of political points of view when we were making the film,” McCarthy told the Bangor (Maine) Daily News in 1997. “People began to think of McCarthyism later. I thought it was really about the onset of a kind of life where the corporate people are trying to tell you how to live, what to do, how to behave.”

‘You’re Next!’

Based on a magazine serial by Jack Finney, the movie takes place in the fictional town of Santa Mira, California, where Miles has just returned from a medical convention. He begins to learn from his patients that some of their relatives have changed. They act strange and show no emotion.

At first Miles attributes the changes to mass hysteria but soon discovers to his horror that their bodies have been duplicated by giant seed pods while they were sleeping. As Miles and his love interest, Becky, played by Dana Wynter, try to flee and stay awake, they are pursued by the alien impostors.

The original ending of the film had McCarthy on a highway banging on car windows and yelling: “Look, you fools. You’re in danger. Can’t you see? They’re after you. They’re after all of us. Our wives, our children, everyone.”

Then, looking into the camera in an extreme close-up, he shouts: “They’re already here. You’re next!”

The studio deemed that conclusion too grim and forced Siegel to “frame” the film as a flashback with a prologue and a happy epilogue that has the police finally believing Miles’s story and mobilizing the FBI.

Flu Epidemic

Kevin McCarthy was born on Feb. 15, 1914, in Seattle to Martha Therese Preston and Roy Winfield McCarthy.

When he was 4, his family moved to Minneapolis. Shortly after, both parents died in the worldwide flu epidemic. His grandparents told him they had gone away, without further explanation.

In an interview with the Irish Echo newspaper 87 years later, McCarthy said he remembered himself as “this little kid, who was standing in a pile of snow at 11 o’clock in the morning and wondering what happened to his parents, who had disappeared suddenly.’

McCarthy’s grandmother turned him and his three siblings over to her sister, whose husband physically abused them. Mary eventually moved back with relatives in Seattle while Kevin spent his youth shifting between homes of various relatives.

He graduated from Campion High School in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, in 1932 and briefly attended Georgetown University before dropping out.

Shakespeare Role

McCarthy later attended the University of Minnesota after persuading a guardian to give him the $26 admission to the state school. He joined the student theater group, which was casting for Shakespeare’s “Henry IV Part I.” He told a friend that he had trouble with Shakespeare’s English.

“You don’t have to make sense of it; just talk loud,” his friend told him. “So I talked loud,” McCarthy said. He got the part.

McCarthy frequently appeared on television. He co-starred with Lana Turner in the short-lived ABC series “The Survivors’ (1969-1970). He played a wealthy patriarch on the prime-time NBC soap opera “Flamingo Road” (1980-1982) and the romantic interest for Beatrice Arthur in ABC’s “Amanda’s” (1983).

He also was in the NBC miniseries “Poor Little Rich Girl” (1987) with Farrah Fawcett and the 1997 HBO film “The Second Civil War.”

McCarthy had two children with his second wife, Kate Crane McCarthy, and three children from his first marriage.

To contact the reporter on this story: Mark Schoifet in New York at mschoifet@bloomberg.net

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