It never fails to amaze me, how Simon can slip so seemingly effortlessly into whatever character he portrays, both good guys and bad. I wonder exactly how he prepared for a role and how he determined the way he wanted to approach it.
I have divided his years of acting into several eras. In his early years on television and in the movies he played an incredible variety of characters, from innocents on the run to careworn policemen to military officials to horrid villains. Later on he took on many paternal and protective roles, mixed in with other villains.
A lot, but not all, of his younger characters have a certain impulsive nature about them. Even someone such as the cynical and bitter Lieutenant Schrank comes across as being younger than, say, Tony Vincenzo or General Moore. Schrank also seems younger in comparison with Lieutenant Tobin from Murder, Inc., whom Simon portrayed a year earlier.
That speech pattern likely has a lot to do with it. Schrank appears to be uncultured and blunt; he uses slang frequently and sometimes has terrible grammar. And there’s a definite sense that he couldn’t care less, even if he realizes he isn’t speaking proper English.
His frustration over the street gangs is another indication of some level of immaturity. Completely at his wit’s end after dealing with the gangs for so many years, and unable to stop their feuding, he blurts out whatever comes to him, including taunts and racial jeers. (Whether or not he is truly racist is a topic for another time, but I am still torn on it because of canon evidence that he is simply speaking in utter despair instead.) I suspect that at least part of the reason he repeatedly resorts to this behavior is because it’s the only way the gangs pay him any heed at all. It’s his method of fighting back when they completely disregard all of his warnings (since of course, despite his threats, he wouldn’t really beat up on teenage kids). Naturally, it only makes everything worse.
When he is able to control these outbursts he comes across, by contrast, as much more mature. The scene where he questions Maria is quite surprising in comparison to the confrontations with the Jets and the Sharks. He mutters a slightly odd (and amusing) rhetorical question when he comments, “Don’t you people keep aspirin around here?” But that is the strangest remark in the scene. Otherwise he displays a very levelheaded “just the facts” attitude. But, human as always, he says in response to Anita’s news that Maria isn’t feeling well, “Who is?” The inability to prevent more gang-related deaths has drained him.
Two years later Simon played Captain Beechum on The Twilight Zone, in a highly eerie and unsettling episode called The Thirty-Fathom Grave. Beechum particularly struck me in contrast to Lieutenant Schrank, due to the close chronological proximity in which Simon brought them each to life. He has a well-educated command of the English language and clearly shows his maturity and wisdom from his many years in the U.S. Navy. Of course, he is also not jaded, as poor Lieutenant Schrank is.
Beechum is stern, not wanting any foolish nonsense or lying down on the job taking place on his ship. But the instant he understands that the reason his chief boson is suddenly doing a terrible job is because of feeling unwell, his entire attitude changes. He shows sincere concern and wants to make sure that the man is receiving the proper care. Later, when it looks as though the boson is completely losing his mind, Beechum tries desperately to bring him back down to Earth.
He is bewildered by the odd hammering sound everyone on ship suddenly starts hearing and does all that he can to get to the bottom of the mystery. When it looks as though someone is alive in the submarine below, and has been for twenty years, he throws himself into the effort to try to rescue the poor soul. Eventually it becomes apparent that the truth is something more supernatural. Instead of dismissing that as utter nonsense, he instead tells the diver that he can tell that part of the story to his grandkids and pretend he made it up.
Like Schrank, Beechum has a store of sarcasm. We only see a small bit of it, but it’s gold. Upon first determining that what’s below them is likely a submarine, Beechum doesn’t feel that the information is good enough to explain the hammering. “Does it have two arms and a fist?” he exclaims.
He is deeply affected by the tragedies that unfold over the course of the episode. By the final scene he is standing alone, looking out at the ocean where Chief Bell ultimately jumped after Beechum failed to make him listen to reason. Beechum bids the tortured man to rest in peace, that it took him years to die after the horrors he suffered during World War II and that he deserves a peaceful end now.
I love both characters dearly. Lieutenant Schrank is one whom I’ve often written about and tried to show in a kind light. I’ve never written for Beechum, but he is outstanding as well. They have core differences in their personalities and their approaches, yet they do have something in common. At heart they’re both good men. And Simon played them both expertly, allowing the viewer to become lost in their adventures and see them as real.