TR Profile: Marty Phillips


By Tom Sinclair

Huck Finn, Marty Phillips's most famous role.Huck Finn, Marty Phillips's most famous role.

Marty Phillips was a rarity among TR actors. A Tennessee-born southern gentleman (unlike his Northern doppelganger, Jack Rosen), he was known for his ultra-conservative views, in particular his then (as now) politically incorrect the-South-will-rise-again beliefs. As he once opined on THE EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS DISCUSSION HOUR: “The problem with the world is there aren’t enough Southerners in it.”

Phillips was also widely perceived to be a regular joe, an aw-shucks country boy with few, if any, pretensions. “You might like to know that Marty Phillips shops at Days,” Christian Doherty informed us in a commercial for the New England chain store and, to be sure, that was somehow a comforting factoid. Circa 1970-'71, Phillips was one of the busiest TR actors around, appearing in at least three major series--T.H.E. HICK, HUCK FINN, and TENNESSEE THEATER--and guest-starring in many others .

Of these, T.H.E. HICK was perhaps the most outrageous. Loosely modeled—or at least titled--after the short-lived television show T.H.E. CAT (about a cat burglar), the show featured Phillips as a small town bigot and racist. His raison d’etre was organizing mobs to lynch anyone who was different--on the grounds that they might be communists. “Let’s string ‘em up!” was his oft-repeated rallying cry, and that’s precisely what he did—in one episode lynching an elderly woman for the “crime” of speaking Greek in the local saloon.

T.H.E. HICK was, I believe, intended as satire—although all these years later, I sort of wonder…what with Phillips’ concurrent right-wing rhetoric and all. Give it a listen and tell us what you think.

HUCK FINN, of course, was the show that made Phillips a household name (at least in two or three Riverside Drive apartments). One might call it a Southern SEINFELD, because the show was certainly about nothing of any consequence. Consider these plot elements: Huck and Tom Sawyer meet a drunk and watch him vomit; Huck and Tom ponder the meaning of a piece of driftwood; Huck and Tom steal watermelons and get shot in the ass; Huck vomits and suggests to Tom that they "drink it up." Mark Twain would have been appalled, but the show still has staunch adherents in certain quarters. Or so I’m told.

TENNESSEE THEATER was built around the tall tales of an obscure writer named William O. Steele, who wrote at least one terrific book called THE SPOOKY THING. Phillips seemed to take particular pride in his role as host and narrator of this singular show, which was ostensibly taped on location in his native Tennessee. “Hi, this is Marty Phillips,” he would intone at the beginning of each episode, with a certain unmistakable gravitas. “You might know me from HUCK FINN. But, today, ah’m here to tell you a tale…” And what tales they were, ranking with the TR star’s best work.

Of course, the Phillips persona was channeled through the psyche and voice-box of Yours Truly--a native New Yorker who had never traveled further south than the South Ferry subway station. It seemed to have sprung, fully formed, from somewhere deep in my psyche. Years later, I still have no idea where it came from.

Hmmm…do you suppose I need to go into therapy?

Listen to:
Huck Finn
Episode 1. Taped: 1970
Marty Phillips stars as Mark Twain's wily hero in this BEC series. Tonight: Huck and his friend Tom Sawyer get into trouble. Tom: Tom Soter.

Tennessee Theater: Jaybird and the Stranger
Episode 2. Taped: 1970.
Marty Phillips narrates this Tennessee tall tale about Jaybird, who beheads a stranger in a knife fight - but can't seem to escape the man's corpse. Based on a story by William O. Steele.

T.H.E. Hick
Taped: 1970. Hick suspects that an old Greek woman is a Communist. Hick: Marty Phillips.