Born in Oakland, California, Tobey was headed for a law career when he first dabbled in acting at the University of California Little Theater. That experience led to a year-and-a-half of study at New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse, where his classmates included fellow University of California at Berkeley alumnus Gregory Peck, Eli Wallach, and Tony Randall. Throughout the 1940s, Tobey acted on Broadway and in stock; he made his film debut in a 1943 short, The Man of the Ferry. He made his Hollywood film debut in a Hopalong Cassidy western, and went on to appear in scores of features and on numerous television series. He was a sentry guard who was dressed down by General Savage (played by Gregory Peck) in Twelve O’ Clock High. A brief comedy bit in I Was a Male War Bride caught the attention of director Howard Hawks, who promised to use Tobey in something more substantial. In 1951, Tobey was cast in Hawks’ production The Thing from Another World, playing Captain Patrick Hendry, a United States Air Force pilot and leader of the arctic polar station’s dogged defense against the movie’s title character, portrayed by James Arness. That role led to other science fiction film roles in the 1950s, usually cast in the role of a military man, particularly The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), and It Came from Beneath the Sea (1956). He played the sheriff in The Vampire (1957).
Tobey appeared in the episode “Counterfeit Plates” of the 1952-1953 CBS series Biff Baker, U.S.A. an espionage drama starring Alan Hale, Jr. He was cast too in the 1954-1955 CBS legal drama, The Public Defender, starring Reed Hadley. He guest starred in three episodes of NBC’s western anthology television series, Frontier. His Frontier roles were Wade Trippe in “In Nebraska” (1955) and as Gabe Sharp in “Out from Texas” and “The Hostage” (1956). In 1955, he also portrayed legendary frontiersman Jim Bowie on ABC’s Davy Crockett, a Walt Disney Production starring Fess Parker in the title role. After Bowie’s death at the Battle of the Alamo, Tobey played a second character, Jocko, in the two final Crockett episodes. Thereafter, he appeared in the syndicated religion anthology series, Crossroads in the role of Mr. Alston in the 1957 episode “Call for Help”. He appeared with John Bromfield in the syndicated Sheriff of Cochise. Furthermore in 1957, Tobey launched his own television series The Whirlybirds, a successful CBS and then syndicated adventure produced by Desilu Studios, in which he played the co-owner of a helicopter charter service along with fellow actor Craig Hill. In the series Tobey and Hill did not themselves fly the helicopters, but stunt men handled that task. The Whirlybirds was a major hit in the U.S. and abroad, with 111 episodes filmed through 1959. It remained in syndication worldwide for many years.
In 1958, Tobey appeared as John Wallach in the episode “$50 for a Dead Man” in Jeff Richards’s NBC western series, Jefferson Drum. In 1960, he guest starred in the episode “West of Boston” of another NBC western series, Overland Trail starring William Bendix and Doug McClure. He also appeared in the ABC western series, The Rebel, starring Nick Adams. Tobey made three guest appearances on Perry Mason, twice in 1960 and once in 1962, as Deputy D.A. Jack Alvin. Tobey would guest star on The Thing from Another World’s co-star James Arness’ long running western series Gunsmoke. He was cast as the villainous buffalo hunter Ben Spadden in the 1960 episode “The Worm”. Between 1960-1962, Tobey made three guest appearances on Perry Mason as Deputy D.A. Jack Alvin. On December 31, 1961, Tobey guest-starred on the ABC-Warner Brothers western series, Lawman as the engineer Duncan Clooney, who seeks to move a shipment of nitroglycerin through Laramie, Wyoming. When the town is evacuated to allow passage of the explosives, two of Clooney’s employees decide they will take advantage of the situation to rob the bank. Tobey also guest-starred in Jack Lord’s 1962-1963 ABC adventure series about a rodeo circuit rider, Stoney Burke. He appeared in a 1969 episode of Adam-12 as the lieutenant in charge of the helicopter division, in a 1976 episode of Gibbsville and in 1978 as Captain Gordon Trigg, captain of the Washington State ferry MV Klickitat, in NBC’s two-hour Emergency! episode “The Most Deadly Passage”. In 1985, he appeared as Judge Kemp on the comedy series Night Court’.
In 1964, he began a long run on Broadway opposite Sammy Davis, Jr. in the musical version of Clifford Odets’ play Golden Boy. He became a semi-regular on the NBC series I Spy as the field boss of agents Robinson and Scott. Chris Nyby, director of The Thing, was often director of these episodes. Tobey continued to work in features and television through the 1970s and 1980s, appearing in such movies as Billy Jack, Walking Tall, and Airplane!. In 1957, he co-starred with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in John Ford’s The Wings of Eagles. Tobey also was featured in the horror film The Howling, the war movie MacArthur where he portrayed Admiral Halsey, and the comedies Gremlins, Big Top Pee-wee, and Gremlins 2: The New Batch. In his retirement years, he frequently received acting jobs from people who had grown up on his 50s sci-fi films, particularly Joe Dante, who considered Tobey a good-luck charm. Two appearances on the sit-com Night Court came the same way, through fans of his work. Along with other character actors who had been in 1950s sci-fi and horror movies (John Agar, Robert O. Cornthwaite, Gloria Talbott, etc.), Tobey starred in a spoof originally titled Attack Of The B Movie Monster. In 2005, Anthem Pictures released the completed feature version on DVD under the new title, The Naked Monster. Tobey’s scenes were actually shot in 1985, but this posthumously became his final released film credit. Tobey made a memorable appearance in the 1994 Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Shadowplay” as Rurigan, an alien who recreated his dead friends as holograms, and frequent appearances on L.A. Law as a judge. Tobey died of natural causes in 2002 in Rancho Mirage, California at age 85.
- March, 23, 1917
- Oakland, California
- December, 22, 2002
- Rancho Mirage, California
Cause of Death
- natural causes