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A Classic Player: Roland Winters, 1904-1989

Updated: Dec 24, 2020

Roland Winters alongside Mildred Natwick in 1961 episode "Take and Put" from the series "Naked City." A decade later, Miss Natwick and Helen Hayes starred as The Snoop Sisters, amateur detectives living on Gramercy Park.


Roland Winters starred in only the last six of the more than forty Charlie Chan movies made in Hollywood (the earlier ones featured Warner Oland and Sidney Toler, another Player), but his prominence as a Player was unquestionable. He served as president of the Club from 1978 to 1983, after terms as second and first vice president. He told friends he could have played Hamlet, but was resigned to being known as Charlie Chan.

Born in 1904 in Boston, he was the son of Felix Winternitz, a noted Austrian violinist and composer who relocated there in 1889.

Roland was in his early forties when he made the first of his Charlie Chan movies, The Chinese Ring; he was criticized as being too young and too obviously not Chinese to play an ancient Chinese sage and detective. Much later, he made radio ads for the House of Chan, a Chinese restaurant supposedly owned by Charlie Chan's cousin, urging listeners to "Tell them Charlie sent you."

His best performances may have come in the many supporting roles he played over his long career. His first Broadway acting credit came in 1924, in a small role in the comedy The Firebrand, and his last performance was in 1982, in the TV move A Conflict Of Interest. He was also a radio announcer from 1931 to 1947, doing the play-by play for Boston baseball teams at one point.

His first movie role, uncredited, was as an unnamed reporter in Citizen Kane, in 1941. From the 1950s through the 1970s, he worked almost constantly in film and TV, including a part in a 1961 Naked City episode with Mildred Natwick, above. He also made a handful of further Broadway appearances, for example playing the impresario E.F. Albee in Minnie's Boys in 1970. His usual persona was a distinguished older gentleman; he was typecast as a judge, general, governor or executive, and even Elvis Presley's father in Blue Hawaii.

Winters's well-used pool cue is displayed in the Grill near those of the actor Frank Morgan and Mark Twain.

He died of a stroke in 1989 at the Actors Fund Home in Englewood, N.J. He was married to Ada C. Howe until her death in 1959.

A fine portrait of Winters by Everett Raymond Kinstler hangs in the raised alcove off the Kinstler Room, where he can look down on the antics below. In a Founders' Night speech in 1971, he noted that the club had once been described "as an asylum run by the inmates." He continued "Well, there are all sorts of things you can call the Club, but one thing you can't call it -- you can't call it dull."

C. Claiborne Ray retired in 2008 as deputy obituary editor at The New York Times and still writes the Science Q&A column for Science Times. She has used the Players as her drawing room since 2014. 

1 Comment

Matthew Baker
Matthew Baker
Jun 13, 2019

I have always loved the story of the poster from one of Winters' Charlie Chan films that used to hang over one of the stalls in the men's room (I remember it well). Apparently, it was hung there when Winters was still around. The first time he saw it there, he quipped "Symbolic of my career - moving closer and closer to the crapper."

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