Suffolk on the small screen

Published 8:56 pm Wednesday, February 26, 2014

By Frank Roberts

He was a vicious Beltway sniper, and he was a crime victim. He was an FBI agent; he was a judge; he was a bartender and a church official.

His story sounds like a grade-B movie plot. John S. Howell Sr. He was pursuing a career as a homebuilder and real estate developer in Virginia Beach.


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One fine day, while en route to his job, he stopped at a gas station. Nothing unusual until a gent approached him and asked him if he ever thought of being an actor.

The nice stranger was a casting director from New Dominion Pictures in Howell’s hometown.

The young man was no stranger to performing. He had played with area bands in such prestigious locales as the Virginia Beach amphitheater, Scope and Chrysler Hall. Music had been his passion since high school. Acting? Probably never gave it a thought.

New Dominion, respected on the national scene, was filming a successful series, “The New Detectives.” The new actor appeared in various roles in four different stories.

He appeared in other series and in documentaries, often playing a good lawman. Behind the cameras, he worked as a set decorator for the movie, “Blues In the Night.”

This versatile chap even designed snowboards.

There have been a few other Suffolkians who made a living in front of the camera. The most notable was James Avery, best known as Will Smith’s uncle, Judge Philip Banks in “The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air.” His princely days were not over. He also appeared in “The Prince Of Egypt” and “Fletch” and in about 200 other flicks, according to his filmography.

He died Dec. 31.

Another Suffolkian, James Harbor Bell, a Virginia Tech grad, was no small potatoes. He was an acting favorite from the ‘30s to the ‘60s, playing on Broadway and in Hollywood. His filmography lists about 150 big-screen movies and small-screen TV shows.

He appeared in “Texas Lady,” which co-starred Claudette Colbert, and a close friend of mine, Gregory Walcott.

He did four “Perry Mason” shows, three “Wagon Train” shows, four “Ford Television Theater” programs, and two turns each on “Whirlybirds” and “The Millionaire.”

Suffolk’s strangest contribution to the showbiz world was Phyllis Gordon, born in our fair city in 1889.

She made only four movies, three of them in 1913. Her most prestigious film was 1939’s “Another Thin Man.” She was married to one of the great character actors, Eugene Pallete.

Miss Gordon’s chief claim to fame was not from a moving picture, but from a still picture. She was photographed in 1939 looking at a window display while holding her pet cheetah on a leash.

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at