Known primarily for his role as Renfield in Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) and as Fritz, Dr. Frankenstein’s deformed assistant in Frankenstein (1931), Frye is one of the most memorable character actors of the ‘30s, though he was sadly type cast and never rose to fame. I am writing about him now because he deserves to be remembered, partly for his Renfield performance, which has been often aped but never topped, and his sheer persistence to rise to stardom both on Broadway and in Hollywood in the face of a hidden heart condition and almost constant frustration from the film industry, who refused to recognize his talents until it was too late.
Frye did garner some fame and critical praise for his theatrical and Broadway career in the ‘20s, which he began immediately out of high school, when he got his start as a young lead in a touring theatrical company. He had some memorable roles in comedies, musicals, and plays like Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, which gave him a big break, The Plot Thickens, Rita Coventry, Ropes End (the inspiration for Hitchcock’s Rope), and The Devil and the Cheese alongside Bela Lugosi.
His most memorable, captivating role is obviously Renfield in Dracula, but Frye went on to appear in a number of other horror and suspense films throughout the ‘30s, often in side roles, in uncredited bit parts, or as extras, making him a common fixture of the Universal horror catalogue. He had a somewhat major role as the assistant Fritz in Frankenstein (not Ygor, this was a role developed by Bela Lugosi for Son of Frankenstein) and Frye went on to perform in nearly every single Frankenstein film. He was Karl, the grave digger and Dr. Pretorius’s demented assistant in Bride of Frankenstein (1935). He had a bit part as a villager in Son of Frankenstein (1939), and though this footage was unfortunately cut from the final film, stills of it remain. He was an uncredited, though instantly recognizable villager in the fourth sequel, The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), and also appeared in monster-mash up film Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). Frye also had a notable role in The Invisible Man (1933) as a reporter, though he was not featured in the credits.
Frye acted with Bela Lugosi again in The Black Camel (1931), a Charlie Chan film. He appeared in the original production of The Maltese Falcon (1931, not the more famous remake with Humphrey Bogart), in old dark house mystery A Strange Adventure (1932), and as a suspect in the horror film The Vampire Bat (1933) alongside Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. He had small roles in a wide range of films throughout the ‘30s, namely adventures and mysteries such as The Circus Queen Murder (1933), Alibi for Murder (1936), as well as The Shadow (1937) and Who Killed Gail Preston? (1938), both with Rita Hayworth. Primarily Frye was cast as mentally unstable characters, assistants, and red herrings, though he appeared in a somewhat heroic role alongside the great actor and director Erich von Stroheim in The Crime of Doctor Crespi (1935). The film was unfortunately a flop and one of the least favorite on von Stroheim's career.
Frye was very active in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s and appeared in small roles in a number of films like James Whale’s The Man in the Iron Mask (1939), Drums of Fu Manchu (1940), naval/aquatic crime/adventure films Phantom Raiders (1940), Mystery Ship (1941), The Devil Pays Off (1941), and The Blonde from Singapore (1941). He appeared as another insane hunchback in early Satanic horror film Dead Men Walk (1943) and in a small role as a patriot in the Fritz Lang directed, Bertolt Brecht written war film Hangmen Also Die! (1943).
During WWII he was unable to enlist because of his heart condition, so he worked night shifts between film roles and theatrical productions with Lockheed Aircraft as a tool maker. Due to a physical resemblance, he was hired to co-star in Wilson (1944), in what would be a major role as Wilson’s Secretary of War, but died of a heart attack before filming could begin. Though Frye is only really remembered by die-hard Universal horror fans, Alice Cooper wrote a song for him in 1971, “The Ballad of Dwight Fry” for his album Love It to Death. Fry is actually the original spelling of his name; he allegedly added the “e” because he thought it looked more theatrical.
If you want to know more about Frye, watch his films and check out his official biography, Dwight Frye’s Last Laugh, written by Greogry W. Mank, James T. Coughlin and Frye’s son Dwight D. Frye. He deserves to be remembered for a small number of fantastic performances and the sheer will to be part of something great: the burgeoning film world.