Jan Merlin, Actor and Emmy-Winning Writer, Dies at 94

NBC/Photofest
From left: Jan Merlin, Al Markim and Frankie Thomas, stars of 'Tom Corbett, Space Cadet'

His toughest gig may have come on 'The List of Adrian Messenger,' for which he received no screen credit.

Jan Merlin, who played villains in dozens of films and TV shows and good guys on Tom Corbett, Space Cadet and The Rough Riders, died Friday in Los Angeles, his family announced. He was 94.

In a painful year in England and Ireland in which he served as a "movable prop" and received no screen credit, Merlin donned masks and heavy makeup to portray several characters and substitute for Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Frank Sinatra and others in John Huston's The List of Adrian Messenger (1963). He then wrote a 2001 novel, Shooting Montezuma, based on that experience. 

Merlin wrote several other books, many in collaboration with William Russo, who wrote Saturday in a blog post: "Most of our Hollywood history tales were based on his insider knowledge of how a set works, from knowing nearly every star of the 1950s and 1960s. [Merlin] laughed they were all 'six feet tall,' no matter what the truth might be."

Merlin also spent about five years as a writer on the NBC soap Another World, winning a Daytime Emmy in 1975 and receiving another nomination two years later.

Born on April 3, 1925, Merlin was a torpedo man aboard U.S. Navy destroyers during World War II. He studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York and appeared in the ensemble in the original 1948 Broadway production of Mister Roberts, starring Henry Fonda.

From 1950-54, Merlin starred as Roger Manning on the kids TV program Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, based on a comic strip.

He moved to Hollywood for a role in Six Bridges to Cross (1955), starring Curtis, then appeared with Mamie Van Doren in Running Wild (1955), with Dale Robertson in A Day of Fury (1956), with Tom Tryon in Screaming Eagles (1956) and with Ann Sheridan in Woman and the Hunter (1957).

In 1958-59, Merlin portrayed Lt. Colin Kirby on The Rough Riders, an ABC series set in the aftermath of the Civil War.

His credits also included the films Guns of Diablo (1964), The Oscar (1966), The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (1967), Take the Money and Run (1969) and The Hindenburg (1975) and such TV shows as LaramieThe VirginianVoyage to the Bottom of the SeaMannixMission: Impossible and Little House on the Prairie.

Merlin had no problem playing the heavy, he told Boyd Magers in an interview for the Western Clippings website.

"The 'heavy' is the engine who actually runs the film … he's the reason for stirring up all the action and leads the rest of the cast on a merry chase until the end, when he generally gets his just desserts," he said.

"It's always the most interesting role in the film, and it's a challenge to find different ways to die. The 'good guy' gets top billing and the girl, but he's only reacting to whatever the 'bad guy' has done."