Shep Houghton, an uncredited extra whose Zelig-like career spanned 50 years, has died.
His stepson Phil Gross, in an email to me, confirmed Mr Houghton passed away peacefully in his sleep on December 15th 2016 at the age of 102.
From von Sternberg silents to movie musicals, and Oscar winners- Shep Houghton hugged the sprocket holes of cinema’s most memorable films.
There he is downing a drink with friends, as Det. Mulligan (played by Pat O’Brien) enters a club in Some Like It Hot (1959), dancing the waltz as the opening credit ‘Directed By Alfred Hitchcock’ is superimposed over his face at the start of Shadow of a Doubt (1943), kicking back in the nightclub watching Elvis perform in Jailhouse Rock (1957), Listening intently with headphones behind Maximilian Schell in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961).
Shep family began living in Hollywood when he was 13, a stone’s throw from Paramount Studios. A two-reeler being filmed on the block caught his interest, and while watching the filming, was asked by a studio rep if he wanted some work.
By his own account he was a Russian in von Sternberg’s The Last Command (1928), a Roman in DeMille’s Cleopatra (1934), a Southerner at the Twelve Oaks barbecue in Gone With The Wind (1939), and part of the Emerald City townsfolk in Wizard of Oz (1939) (all of those appearances difficult to verify on viewing.)
Unfortunately, most of Shep is his hidden inside a piano during the elaborate dance number ‘The Words Are In My Heart’ in Gold Diggers of 1935.
He’s easier to identify in Topper (1937), because he actually speaks (his first words on screen). As the waiter in the nightclub preparing Constance Bennett’s table he welcomes her: ‘Good Evening , Mrs Kirby’ . Those few words got Shep an increase in salary to $25.
Shep talks in Back Street (1961), this time to an airline attendant “I have to be in Chicago by tomorrow’, and also in Send Me No Flowers (1964) where he back slaps Rock Hudson and Tony Randall on the back with a ‘Good morning Arnold, George’.
He claims to have taught Greta Garbo how to waltz, in preparation for her film Conquest (1937). “So I spent a couple of days with her, showing her how to make a pivot, putting her leg in back, and turning. “ he told the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2014. “She learned quite rapidly. She was kind of a standoffish person — but every time I saw her subsequently, she’d say, ‘Hi, Shep!’ I’d say, ‘Hi, Greta!’”
The spotlight ended for Shep in the mid 1970s. “The whole picture business was changing. The big moguls were gone, and so many second assistants and first assistants who had done the selecting [of extras] were retiring. After going in and out of the pearly gates for thirty years, the studio guards didn’t know your name, even. “
-By Rhett Bartlett.