Tom Reese, Burly Actor Famous for His Movie Fistfights, Dies at 89

Courtesy of Photofest
Tom Reese in the 1961 film 'Marines, Let's Go!'

He battled Elvis Presley in 'Flaming Star' and Dean Martin in 'Murderers' Row' and appeared on 'The Twilight Zone' and 'Ellery Queen.'

Tom Reese, a menacing-looking character actor who had his share of memorable onscreen fistfights and appeared in the noteworthy "The Midnight Sun" episode of The Twilight Zone, has died. He was 89.

Reese died Dec. 12 at a hospice facility in Studio City after a brief illness, his longtime friend Charles Leinenweber told The Hollywood Reporter.

A former U.S. Marine and military policeman who was a sturdy 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds in his prime, Reese played the cowpoke named Jute who has a knock-down, drag-out with Elvis Presley in Flaming Star (1960), directed by Don Siegel. Pacer Burton (Presley, who was taking karate lessons at the time and did his own stunts) throws Reese's character off a barn roof and beats his head against a wall.

Reese had no qualms about sticking his nose into fictional fights during his career, also battling Tony Curtis in 40 Pounds of Trouble (1962), Glenn Ford in The Money Trap (1965), Dean Martin in the Matt Helm movie Murderers' Row (1966) — playing a henchman named Ironhead in that one — and Mike Connors on TV's Mannix.

One would have thought that Reese would have had a somewhat easier time during a tussle with Woody Allen in Sleeper (1973). However, as Gene Freese noted in his 2017 book, Classic Movie Fight Scenes: 75 Years of Bare Knuckle Brawls, Reese was injured during a scene with Allen and received 12 weeks of workers' comp. It was a knee injury, Leinenweber said, and it plagued Reese for the rest of his life.

Freese wrote that when the actor "arrived in Hollywood, Reese felt obliged to do his own fights until he realized he was keeping stuntmen from their checks."

On the "Midnight Sun" episode of The Twilight Zone that premiered in November 1961, Reese played the intruder who bursts into the New York City apartment occupied by two women (Lois Nettleton and Betty Garde) as the planet is growing increasingly hotter.

Reese also was known for his portrayal of the cigar-loving Sgt. Thomas Velie on the single season of the 1975-76 NBC detective series Ellery Queen, starring Jim Hutton and David Wayne.

Tom Allen was born on Aug. 8, 1928, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His father and uncle had been country western singers in an act known as the Allen Brothers.

After five years of service with the U.S. Marine Corps, Reese took advantage of his G.I. Bill benefits to study acting with the American Theatre Wing in New York, then joined John Cassavetes' Actors Workshop.

He made his movie and TV debuts in 1959 when he appeared in the Cassavetes projects Shadows and the NBC detective series Johnny Staccato (on which he, naturally, got into a fight).

Reese drew upon his military experience to play a private in Raoul Walsh's Marines, Let's Go! (1961), portrayed the apostle Thomas in the George Stevens epic The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and was a sheriff in Richard C. Sarafian's Vanishing Point (1971).

Westerns were a specialty, and he appeared with Dan Duryea in Taggart (1964) and in Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969). On television, he also worked on Gunsmoke (as various characters in 15 episodes), Have Gun – Will Travel, Lawman, Bonanza, The Virginian, The Guns of Will Sonnett, Rawhide and Branded.

His movie résumé also included roles in The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (1967), The Outfit (1973), James Ivory's The Wild Party (1975) and Ted Kotcheff's North Dallas Forty (1979).

Survivors include his brother Louis Sr., sister Dorothy and nephew Louis Jr.