April 28, 2021

The remarkable life of Harry Townes

You might not remember the name, but I'll bet you recognize the face. If you've spent any time in the classic TV world of the 1950s, the '60s, even the '70s and '80s, you've seen Harry Townes somewhere: Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, Thriller, The Fugitive, Bonanza, Star Trek, Mannix, The Incredible Hulk. During his long career as a character actor, he appeared on Broadway and in movies, and more than 200 television shows—he wasn't actually in everything; it just seems that way. 

He frequently played flawed individuals: decent men who were weak when it came to doing the right thing; vulnerable men who lacked the strength to stand up to evil; indecisive men without the killer instinct to carry the day; corrupt men who betrayed the public trust; men who could be craven when courage was called for, but who might at the last minute find the strength to sacrifice themselves for the hero. Because of this, he was effective playing both good guys and bad guys, and he could keep you guessing until the end, rarely telegraphing the role he'd assume in the night's story. He was never a big star, but he was never out of work either. As he once said, "I feel I was lucky to get the work that I did. You always feel thankful because there are so many actors for so few jobs that it seems God is being good to you when you get a job."

And yet, if you only knew Harry Townes as an actor, you didn't really know him at all, nor did you know the work of which he was most proud.

Townes had become an actor in 1936, with several roles on Broadway and in other New York theaters, before enlisting in the Army. After a stint in the Air Corps during the war, he moved to Hollywood and resumed his acting career. While he was in his thirties, his sister Jean was diagnosed with terminal cancer. “Jean was told by several doctors that she had a terminal illness,” he said, “and X-rays bore them out.” 

And then, one night, she had a vision. Townes didn’t go into the details of the vision, but "[T]he next morning when she awoke, she knew she was cured." Tests and X-rays followed, but her healing had been as complete as it was sudden; doctors found "not one trace" of cancer. "I knew then," he said, "that there was a power above man’s comprehension and that I was destined to enter the religious field."

    Fr. Townes and a parishioner, 1986
He began taking philosophy courses at UCLA, then, while continuing his acting career, he put himself through seminary at the Bishop Bloy School of Theology in Los Angeles. He was ordained as a transitional deacon in 1973 and then, at age 59 and after ten years of study, he became Father Harry Townes in a ceremony at St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral in Los Angeles on March 16, 1974. He was a nonstipendary priest, meaning he would continue to earn his living as an actor and would take no salary as a priest. There was, he felt, no conflict between acting and the priesthood; "The theater, too, is for goodness, truth and beauty." 

For his first assignment, Father Townes was sent to St. Stephen's in Hollywood, where he worked with "alcoholics, dope addicts, and prostitutes," as well as those in need of spiritual help. "This is not my permanent parish," he explained to a journalist. "I might be assigned to other parishes at any given moment. And this is the way I desire it. I still want to continue my life as an actor as well as serving my fellow man."

He continued to serve in various roles, including at St Mary of the Angels Church in Hollywood and the Church of the Bells in Palm Springs, before retiring from acting in the late 1980s and returning to his hometown in Huntsville, where he resided until his death on May 23, 2001 at age 86.

A reporter once described Harry Townes as "an uncommon man who has found satisfaction as an actor and inner peace as a priest." Of his career, Townes offered an assessment that could double for his life after acting. "I guess we're never entirely happy with what we do; we would like to do better," he said. "Of course, I would have loved to have done better, we all would. But we always think we can do it better in one more take. On the whole, I'm satisfied, though. As long as the audience was satisfied, then I'm satisfied." I'd like to think that his Producer was satisfied with his peformance as well. TV  


  1. I've seen Mr. Townes on MeTV quite a bit. He made at least 2 TWILIGHT ZONE appearances, 1st as the lead character who could change his face (played by 3 other actors) in "The Four of Us Are Dying" then later as the DA who's just a bit too late calling the governor in "Shadow Play". I've also seen him at least once in ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS as a particularly evil man who killed a leading gubernatorial candidate to make his brother a puppet governor for himself. I'm glad he answered his calling and eventually moved back to his native Alabama.

  2. I love Harry Townes as an actor and was interested to see he became a priest. You might enjoy these daily videos posted by the dean of Canterbury Cathedral: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SMC0p_TBA4s. My wife listens every day and, while we are Catholic, she loves Dean Robert's videos. We were fortunate to meet him and have tea with him when we visited several years ago.

  3. A fine actor. I was always amazed that he never appeared in more feature films with prominent roles ?????... hollywood!

  4. A somewhat little-known role he played was in the 1967 comedy "Fitzwilly," about a butler (Dick Van Dyke) who, along with the other servants, run a series of confidence schemes to keep their formerly wealthy employer able to live in the style to which she was accustomed -- until his employer takes on a new assistant (Barbara Feldon) who suspects that something is rotten in the mansion. (My personal nickname for the movie is "Rob Petrie Meets 99.") Townes played the father of Feldon's character, and seeing him turn up unexpectedly in the role was an additional pleasure, in a film that already had a memorable cast -- in addition to Van Dyke and Feldon, there was a young Sam Waterson, John McGiver, Edith Evans -- and Harry Townes.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!