Robert J. Wilke’s Unusual Charm

Robert J. Wilke’s name may not ring a bell, but chances are good you’ve enjoyed watching him get arrested, beaten up or worse. For 45 years Wilke, who would have turned 100 today, was Hollywood’s go-to guy for villains, thugs and generally unlikable men. Aside from his role as the sympathetic farm foreman in Days of Heaven, Wilke was almost always the antagonist, or the antagonist’s second-in-command, in classics such as 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, in which he played first mate to the pathological Captain Nemo, or television Westerns including The Rifleman, Have Gun—Will Travel, Maverick and many, many more. His characters in hundreds of films and television programs often lacked names or backstories, but Wilke excelled in bringing them to life and earning the audience’s disdain without chewing the scenery –– at least not too much.

In Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, Wilke appeared as a Roman soldier who condemns the slave Spartacus to death. Though Wilke was only on screen for a short time, he was able to make his nameless character instantly loathed.

Perhaps his most memorable performance was as the train yard bully Wallace in The Magnificent Seven. Though the role amounts to little more than a cameo, Wilke’s appearance is hard to forget. His physicality in the scene is menacing and relentless, with a strong current of insecurity and fear — the consummate bully.

Without a good villain, the hero’s journey is a dull, uninteresting affair. For 45 years Wilke did his worst to bring out the best in our heroes, and for that, we salute him.

Written by Seth Joseph

See more of our favorite movie bad guys and TV villains.