During World War II, Tobey joined the United States Army Air Forces, serving in the Pacific as a rear gunner aboard a B-25 bomber.
Throughout the 1940s, with the exception of his time in military service, Tobey acted on Broadway and in summer stock. After appearing in a 1943 film short, The Man of the Ferry, he made his Hollywood film debut in the 1947 Hopalong Cassidy western Dangerous Venture. He then went on to appear in scores of features and on numerous television series. In the 1949 film Twelve O’ Clock High, he is the negligent airbase sentry who is dressed down by General Frank Savage (played by Gregory Peck). That same year Tobey performed in a brief comedy bit in another film, I Was a Male War Bride.
In 1951, Tobey was cast in Howard Hawks’ production The Thing from Another World. In this classic sci-fi film he portrays Captain Patrick Hendry, a United States Air Force pilot. Tobey’s performance in Hawks’ film garnered the actor other parts in science fiction movies in the 1950s, usually reprising his role as a military officer, such as in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and It Came from Beneath the Sea (1956).
Tobey appeared in the 1952 episode “Counterfeit Plates” on the 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 series Frontier. His Frontier roles were as Wade Trippe in “In Nebraska” (1955) and then 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, with Fess Parker in the title role. After Bowie’s death in the series at the Battle of the Alamo, Tobey played a second character, Jocko, in the two final episodes of Davy Crockett.
Tobey then, in 1957, appeared in the syndicated religion anthology series Crossroads in the role of Mr. Alston in the episode “Call for Help” and as Jim Callahan in “Bandit Chief” in the syndicated western series The Sheriff of Cochise. Later that same year, Tobey starred in the television series The Whirlybirds, a successful CBS and then-syndicated adventure produced by Desilu Studios. In it he played the co-owner of a helicopter charter service, along with fellow actor Craig Hill. The Whirlybirds was a major hit in the United States and abroad, with 111 episodes filmed through 1960. It remained in syndication worldwide for many years.
In 1958, Tobey also 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 performed as well 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 Jack Alvin, a deputy district attorney. On the long-running western series Gunsmoke, he portrayed a cruel, knife-wielding buffalo hunter, Ben Spadden, in the 1960 episode titled “The Worm”. Tobey in 1962 also guest-starred on another western series, Lawman, playing the character Duncan Clooney.
Tobey guest-starred as well in Jack Lord’s 1962-1963 ABC adventure series about a rodeo circuit rider, Stoney Burke. In 1967 he performed on the series Lassie, in the episode “Lure of the Wild”, playing a retired forest ranger who tames a local coyote. He also appeared as a slave owner named Taggart in “The Wolf Man”, a 1967 episode of Daniel Boone, starring Fess Parker. A few of the many other series in which Tobey later performed include Adam-12 (1969), Gibbsville (1976), MV Klickitat (1978), Emergency! (1975), and Night Court (1985).
He became a semi-regular on the NBC series I Spy as the field boss of agents Robinson and Scott. Christian Nyby, director of The Thing From Another World, often directed those episodes. Tobey also portrayed a ship’s captain on the Rockford Files, in an episode titled “There’s One in Every Port”.
In 1957, Tobey portrayed a sheriff in The Vampire . That year he also appeared in a more prestigious film, serving as a featured supporting character with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, the co-stars of John Ford’s The Wings of Eagles.
Tobey’s work over the next several decades was increasingly involved in television productions. He did, though, continue to perform in a range of feature films, such as Stark Fear, Marlowe, Billy Jack, Walking Tall, The Howling, the war movie MacArthur (in which he portrays Admiral “Bull” Halsey), Airplane!, Gremlins, Big Top Pee-wee, and Gremlins 2: The New Batch.
As his long career drew to a close, Tobey still received acting jobs from people who had grown up watching his performances in sci-fi films of the 1950s, particularly Joe Dante, who included the veteran actor in his stock company of reliable players. Two appearances on the sitcom Night Court came the same way, through fans of his work.
Tobey starred in a spoof originally titled Attack Of The B Movie Monster. In 2005, Anthem Pictures released the completed feature version of this spoof on DVD under the new title The Naked Monster. Tobey’s scenes in that release were actually shot in 1985, so The Naked Monster is technically his final film credit, being released three years after his death. He had, however, continued to act throughout most of the 1990s. One of those notable roles is his performance in the 1994 Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Shadowplay” as Rurigan, an alien who recreates his dead friends as holograms. Among other examples of Tobey’s final decade of work are his two appearances as Judge Kent Watson on the series L.A. Law.
In 2002, Tobey died of natural causes at age 85 in Rancho Mirage, California.
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