1934 saw the Chattanooga Boys break-up and Lee went back to Tennessee while Austin stayed in New York City, where Tom's dad supported the family working as a steelworker in the daytime and a singing waiter at night. Tom later held the expected assortment of odd jobs (Automat busboy, usher, etc.) in New York, and (starting at 17) served two tours of duty in the Marine Corps.
Later, Tom did impressions of singers on the road in various clubs and studied theatre on his GI Bill in New York after he got out of the Marines in ‘51. This was in the American Theater Wing and spent 15 years on the road working nightclubs (emceeing, doing stand-up, etc.). He studied with Lee Strasberg, did some work off-Broadway and in local TV shows and made his film bow in John Cassavetes' New York-made Shadows (1959). Cassavetes also had Reese fly out to Hollywood to play a part in an episode of his detective series Johnny Staccato (1959), Reese's Hollywood debut. He was ready to return to New York after doing the show but an agent signed him and he has been in California ever since. His first major film was Flaming Star (1960), an Elvis Presley western and the start of Reese's long career in big- and small-screen oaters.
He broke into films in the early 1960's, getting parts like security guards, cops on the beat, and body guard-types. His Tom Reese as Sgt. Velie large frame and serious face made him a natural for such roles, but kept his options narrow and his celebrity low key. In 1967, he won a number of roles that earned him praise including the original Lonesome Gun (aka Stranger on the Run) and the television adaptation of Dick Tracy. However, his roles as small-time guest star on TV shows - mostly westerns - dominated his resume. He played seven different characters on 8 different episodes of TV's Gunsmoke (1955) as well as multiple appearances on Bonanza (1959), Rawhide (1959), The Untouchables (1960-63), The Virginian (1962), Branded (1965), Laredo (1965-66), and The High Chaparral (1968).
Tom Reese was a masterful villain, but he'll always be best remembered for his good guy role, Sgt. Velie, a cigar chomping, bull-in-a-china shop cop on the TV show Ellery Queen. While the character of Sergeant Velie as the good Inspector's "right-hand man" is a necessary device, he makes it much more than that. He rarely smiles, gives us very few glimpses into the home-life of Velie, but yet still manages to make us feel he's part of our family (sort of the stern big brother type.) The main trait he conveys is that you know you can count on Velie. If the Inspector gives him a task, he'll be there to do it.
His relationship with Ellery is a different matter. He never says so
directly, but it's quite obvious he's fond of him and even looks up to
him. He refers to Ellery as "Maestro", showing he sees him as a leader
in his milleu. And you get the feeling that while Velie plays the
obedient son to Richard Queen, it's Ellery he'd prefer to be off
sleuthing with. No episode showed his willingness to "play the game"
better than in 'The Mad Tea Party'.
While Tom Reese's career ended in the late early 90s he had one role in 2009 as Inspector Riley in the film Dark and Stormy Night.
Until 2010 Tom was known to still attend conventions and film festivals.
Page first published on November 23. 2016
Latest update November 23, 2016
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