Franklin Pangborn was born in Newark, New Jersey. In the early 1930s, he worked in short subjects for Mack Sennett, Hal Roach, Universal Pictures, Columbia Pictures, and Pathé Exchange, almost always in support of the leading players. (He played a befuddled photographer opposite "Spanky" McFarland in the Our Gang short subject Wild Poses, for example.) He also appeared in dozens upon dozens of feature films in small roles, cameos, and in recurring gags of various types.
One of those character actors who always played essentially the same character no matter the situation, Pangborn portrayed a fussy type of person, polite, elegant, and highly energetic, often officious, fastidious, somewhat nervous, prone to becoming flustered but essentially upbeat, and with an immediately recognizable high-speed patter-type speech pattern. He typically played an officious desk clerk in a hotel, a self-important musician, a fastidious headwaiter, an enthusiastic birdwatcher, and the like, and was usually put in a situation of frustration or was comedically flustered by someone else's topsy-turvy antics.
Pangborn's screen character, which might be described at times as prissy or flighty, was often considered a gay stereotype, although such a topic was too sensitive in his day to be discussed overtly in the dialogue. A rare exception occurred in International House, which was filmed before the Hays Office fully censored filmmaking, and was notable for several risqué references (by 1933 standards). In this scene, Fields has just arrived by autogyro at the titular hotel in the Chinese city of Wuhu, but he does not know for sure where he is. Pangborn is the hotel manager:
- Fields: Where am I?
- Pangborn: Wu-hu!
- Fields (giving him a sharp look and removing a flower from his lapel): Don't let the posy fool you!
Pangborn was an effective foil for many major comedians, including Fields, Harold Lloyd, Olsen and Johnson, and The Ritz Brothers. He appeared regularly in comedies (including several directed by Preston Sturges) and musicals of the 1940s. When movie roles became scarce, he worked in television, including The Red Skelton Show (in which he played a murderous bandit!) and a This Is Your Life tribute to his old boss, Mack Sennett. Pangborn was very briefly the announcer on Jack Paar's The Tonight Show, but was fired after the first few weeks for a lack of "spontaneous enthusiasm" and replaced by Hugh Downs. The first episode is practically the only one that survives completely intact since the others were wiped by the network to save money (except for select clips), the network's policy through the early 1970s, and the show begins with Pangborn enthusiastically reading the introduction with the coda "...and it's all live!"
According to IMDB, Pangborn's final public performance came as a supporting player in The Red Skelton Show episode for April 22, 1958.
- Watch Franklin Pangborn's last performance from The Red Skelton Show April 22 1958
Pangborn lived in Laguna Beach, California in a house with his mother and his "occasional boyfriend", according to William Mann in Behind the Screen. He died on July 20, 1958 following cancer surgery. He is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park. The 1940 census lists his age as 40, ten years younger than records show. His address is 1269 - 301 Flores Street in Beverly Hills, CA.