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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.

Lee Phelps

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:
  • He's a sheriff in Buck Jones' LEFT HANDED LAW (Universal, 1937) - see lobby card below.
  • In chapters 11 - 12 of SCOUTS TO THE RESCUE (Universal, 1939), Phelps wore a suit and hat in an unbilled part as a government agent.
  • He's an Arizona Ranger in the Hopalong Cassidy adventure HEART OF ARIZONA (Paramount, 1938).
  • In the Jones-McCoy-Hatton Rough Riders RIDERS OF THE WEST (Monogram, 1942), Phelps was a crooked lawman and killed off about a third of the way into the film.
  • In Jimmy Wakely's GUN LAW JUSTICE (Monogram, 1949), Lee does a nice job as a paroled ex-outlaw determined to go straight.
  • In the twelve chapter DESPERADOES OF THE WEST (Republic, 1950), Lee plays 'Rusty', the sidekick to hero Tom Keene (who was billed as 'Richard Powers').

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.

The Old Corral has a writeup on the Riding Actors Association of Hollywood, an early attempt to organize riders, wagon / stage drivers, and stunt men. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President of the United States in 1932. To overcome the effects of the Great Depression and kick-start the economy, Roosevelt established a program called the "New Deal". And integral to the New Deal was the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) which was signed into law in June, 1933. The National Recovery Administration (NRA) was an off-shoot of NIRA and was put in place by Executive order. All business and industry - including Hollywood - were urged to comply with the NRA and establish job descriptions, work rules, pay schedules, more.

Working under those new laws and guidelines, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) established their "Junior Screen Actors Guild" in late 1933 and that organization covered bit players and extras. Phelps must have been politically astute and / or respected by his colleagues, and in early 1934, he was elected as the first president of the Junior Screen Actors Guild. He served as president until mid 1935 and then became one of the group's directors. Trade publications reported on his election - from the February 24, 1934 Motion Picture Herald: "Lee Phelps has been elected president of the Junior Actors' Guild ... "

Fifty-nine year old Lee Phelps died March 19, 1953 at his Culver City, California home. Wife Marie passed on August 4, 1956.

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.
1931 1932 1933 1934 1935 1936 1937 1938 1939 1940 1941 1942 1943 1944 1945 1946 1947 1948 1949

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:
his wife Mary Warren:
daughter Marilee Phelps (Mary Lee Kukuck) did a few movie and TV shows in the 1950s:

The Internet Broadway Database has Lee Phelps in four musicals in New York City during the years 1914 - 1916:

Photo of bartender and speakeasy owner Lee Phelps vs. James Cagney in THE PUBLIC ENEMY (Warners, 1931) at the IMDb:

January 25, 1934 Los Angeles (California) Evening Citizen News has an article on Lee Phelps becoming president of the Junior Actors Guild:

Family Search (free), (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:

  • 1895 New Jersey census - living in Paterson, Passaic County, New Jersey were Robert and Mary Kukuck and three children: Robert, Eva and Napoleon, and all three kids are listed as "5 Years of age and under":
  • 1905 New Jersey census is a mess - living in Bergen, New Jersey were Napoleon B. Kukuck (born 1827) and various children and relatives including Napoleon B. (about 10 years old and born about 1895 in Pennsylvania):
  • December 19, 1916 marriage application notice in the Buffalo (New York) Evening news for Napoleon Kukuch [sic] and Marie Weirman in Buffalo, New York:
  • had a New York Marriage Index - they married on December 21, 1916 in Buffalo, New York.
  • World War I draft registration dated June 2, 1917 - 24 year old Napoleon Bonaparte Kukuck was born May 15, 1893 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was living in Brooklyn, New York; supports a wife and sister; occupation was "Theatrical Profession" and he worked for "Messrs Shubert":
  • 1920 census summary and census takers worksheet - owning their home at 7045 Jasmine Avenue, Venice Township, Los Angeles County were Napoleon B. Ku Kuck and his wife Marie. Also living there are 43 year old mother-in-law Marie Weisman [sic] and 16 year old brother-in-law Samuel Weisman [sic]. Occupations of Napoleon and Marie are "Actor - Motion Pictures" and "Actress - Motion Pictures":
  • August 19, 1926 birth certificate for Mary Lee Ku-Kuck in Los Angeles, California. Father was 33 year old Napoleon B. Ku-Kuck (born Philadelphia; occupation "Vaudeville Actor"); mother was 31 year old Marie Wierman (born Philadelphia). Home address was 7045 Jasmine Avenue, Palms, California:
  • June 28, 1929 birth certificate for Patricia Ku-Kuck in Santa Monica, Los Angeles County, California. Father was 36 year old Napoleon Bonaparte Ku-Kuck (born Philadelphia; occupation "Actor"); mother was 35 year old Marie Wierman (born Philadelphia). Home address was 3832 Jasmine Avenue, Culver City, California:
  • 1930 census summary and census takers worksheet - owning their home at 3832 Yasmine Avenue, Los Angeles were 36 year old Napoleaon B. Ku Kuck (born Pennsylvania), his 36 year old wife Marie W. (born Pennsylvania), 3 year old daughter Mary C. (born California), and newborn daughter Patricia M. His occupation was "Actor - Motion Pictures", and he was not a World War I veteran:
  • 1940 census summary and census takers worksheet - owning their home at 3832 Yasmine Avenue, Culver City, California were 46 year old Napolean Ku-Kuck (born Pennsylvania), his 47 year old wife Marie (born Pennsylvania), 10 year old daughter Patricia (born California) and 13 year old daughter Mai-Lee [sic] (born California). They also have a lodger living with them. His occupation was "Extra Actor - Motion Picture Studio", and in 1939, he worked 30 weeks and earned $3900.00:
  • California Death Index has dual records for Napoleon Bonaparte Kukuck and Lee Phelps. He was born May 15, 1893 in Pennsylvania; died March 19, 1953 in the Los Angeles area; father's surname was Kukuck and mother's maiden name was Phelps:
    Napoleon Bonaparte Kukuck:
    Lee Phelps:
  • Obituary in the March 25, 1953 issue of Variety: "Lee Phelps, 59, former vaudevillian and film-legit actor, died March 19 (1953) in Culver City, Cal. Phelps had been in films for about 35 years as character actor. Wife and two daughters survive."
  • Death notice for Phelps in the March 21, 1953 Los Angeles (California) Times mentions that he passed away at his Culver City, California home:
  • Death and funeral announcement for Marie Ku-Kuck in the August 7, 1956 Venice, California Evening Vanguard and mentions that she died at her home:
  • Find A Grave confirms that Lee Phelps and wife Mary are interred at Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City, Los Angeles County, California:
    Lee Phelps:
    Mary Warren / Marie Elizabeth Wierman Kukuck (1893 - 1956):

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