|The 'brains' and 'action' heavies who had meaty roles and lots of dialog ... and the players who were fathers, ranch owners, lawmen, mayors, judges, lawyers, storekeepers, newspaper editors, wardens, etc.|
Real name variations:
Napoleon Bonaparte Kukuck
Napoleon Bonaparte Ku Kuck
Napoleon Bonaparte Ku-Kuck
1893 - 1953
appeared in 600+ silent and sound films during 1917 - 1953.
|I was viewing some Buck Jones oaters, and noticed a familiar face playing a lawman in Buck's LEFT HANDED LAW (Universal, 1937). After some initial research, I discovered that he did some B westerns and serials ... but was most often a detective or police officer in several hundred A and B grade films. An interesting man and life.
Napoleon Bonaparte Kukuck was born May 15, 1893 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Robert and Mary Kukuck.
His early career was vaudeville, and there's 1910 - 1917 trade and newspaper coverage of him using the stage name of "Lee Phelps". He chose 'Phelps' as that was his mother's maiden name. During his vaudeville period, he was a comedian, singer, musician, and performed solo or with a partner. And during the years 1914 - 1916, he's in four musicals produced by the Shuberts in New York City.
He and actress Mary Warren tied the knot in 1916. Her real name was Marie Weirman / Wierman.
Circa 1917, Lee and Mary re-located to California and began doing movies for the Triangle Film Corporation.
Daughter Mary Lee (Marilee) was born in 1926 and she did some films and TV shows in the 1950s - early 1960s. Daughter Patricia was born in 1929.
Phelps had a very busy Hollywood career and appeared in 600+ silent and sound films during the years 1917 - 1953. And the bulk of his film work was uncredited. Some folks compare his numbers to that of prolific character actor Tom London. But there's a major difference in Phelps vs. London.
London did 600+ silent and sound films and had significant screen time and dialog in many credited roles as a henchman, villain, father, old-timer, and occasional sidekick.
Not so with Phelps who was the proverbial "face in the crowd" ... basically, he's in a scene and gone ... and picks up a days pay. Plus Phelps did not specialize in B westerns and serials but shows up in mostly unbilled roles in A and B grade features. Big and tall, he often played a detective, police officer, or someone in the military. In westerns, he continued doing law enforcement duties as a sheriff, marshal, or ranger.
Looking over his filmography, he was in many detective / mystery yarns including Ellery Queen, Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, Crime Doctor, and Lone Wolf series. In westerns, he worked frequently with Buck Jones - he did eight with Buck as the solo hero as well as one of Monogram's Rough Riders adventures. And there were three Hopalong Cassidys and three with George O'Brien.
One of Phelp's many "face in the crowd" jobs occurs in GONE WITH THE WIND (MGM, 1939). Recall the hospital scene with all the wounded soldiers. And B western star Tom Tyler plays a Confederate officer leading the evacuation. And then comes the siege of Atlanta and we spot Lee Phelps as a bartender. At the bottom of this webpage is a link to another "Lee Phelps doing barkeep duty" and getting slapped around by James Cagney in THE PUBLIC ENEMY (Warners, 1931).
A few Lee Phelps highlights in B westerns and serials:
Lee and daughter Marilee appeared together in one film, WITHOUT WARNING! (United Artists, 1952). The lead was Adam Williams (Adam William Berg), a very busy actor in 1950s - 1960s TV. Williams was Marilee's first husband. In this film noir, Lee Phelps had an uncredited role as a coroner.
|In preparing this bio, I reviewed Lee Phelps' film work at the Internet Movie Database. As of June, 2022, the IMDb had him in about 670 movies, serials, shorts, and a few early 1950s TV shows. Rather than chart his numbers from 1917 - 1953, I chose to highlight his peak workaholic years which were 1931 - 1949.|
Total films in this chart = 567.
In the 1940 census, Phelps reported that he worked 30 weeks and earned $3900.00 in 1939. Pretty good money - adjusted for inflation, $3,900 in 1939 is equivalent to about $78,000 in 2022 dollars.
As to his film roles, he did 200+ as a sheriff, ranger, marshal, detective, cop, policeman, etc. And he was a bartender in about 30 films.
1936 organization chart for the Junior Screen Actors Guild from the 1936 Film Daily Yearbook (available at the Internet Archive). Past president Lee Phelps was one of the directors. And if you check the names, you may recognize some B western folks - including Buck Bucko, Bob Card, and Lee Powell (of 1938 Lone Ranger serial fame). In May, 1937, a new Screen Actors Guild (SAG) contract was finalized and approved, and in the late 1930s, the Junior Guild functionality and membership was absorbed into the SAG organization.
(Courtesy of Bruce Hickey)
L-to-R are Frank Lackteen, Lee Phelps and Buck Jones in a lobby card from LEFT HANDED LAW (Universal, 1937). Phelps had a credited role as the local sheriff. This was one of nine oaters that Phelps did with Buck Jones.
(From Old Corral collection)
Republic Pictures' wonderful bad guy Roy Barcroft has his six-gun on Lee Phelps in a lobby card from the twelve chapter DESPERADOES OF THE WEST (Republic, 1950). Phelps played 'Rusty', the sidekick to hero Tom Keene (who was billed as 'Richard Powers').
Photo ad of Lee Phelps from a 1938 Players Directory. He's wearing a badge in the left photo and a cowboy uniform and strummin' a guitar on the right.
Left is silent screen actress Mary Warren, wife of Lee Phelps. They married on December 21, 1916 in Buffalo, New York.
Her birth name was Marie Weirman / Wierman (1893 - 1956).
Photo from a September, 1918 issue of Photoplay magazine, available at the Internet Archive.
|Can't really compare Phelps' 600+ film quantity to Tom London's movie numbers.|
Right is prolific Tom London who also had a 600+ movie career ... but Tom was often credited ... had lots of screen time and dialog ... and appeared in many B westerns and serials.
(Courtesy of Jack Tillmany)
Internet Movie Database (IMDb) for:|
Lee Phelps: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0679814/
his wife Mary Warren: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0912951/
daughter Marilee Phelps (Mary Lee Kukuck) did a few movie and TV shows in the 1950s: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0679819/
The Internet Broadway Database has Lee Phelps in four musicals in New York City during the years 1914 - 1916: https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/lee-phelps-56076
Photo of bartender and speakeasy owner Lee Phelps vs. James Cagney in THE PUBLIC ENEMY (Warners, 1931) at the IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0022286/mediaviewer/rm408858624?
January 25, 1934 Los Angeles (California) Evening Citizen News has an article on Lee Phelps becoming president of the Junior Actors Guild: https://www.newspapers.com/clip/104305111/actor-lee-phelps-is-president-of-the/
Family Search (free), Ancestry.com (subscription), newspapers, and trade publications provide more on Lee Phelps and family. Note the several spelling variations on his surname: Kukuck, Ku Kuck, Ku-Kuck: