Mel Welles, the actor whose unforgettable performance as flower shop owner Gravis Mushnick was one of the funniest things about 1960’s black-comic cult classic THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, is dead at the age of 81.
The New York-born Welles worked as a clinical psychiatrist, writer and radio DJ before “going Hollywood” and making his film debut in the 1953 adventure APPOINTMENT IN HONDURAS. He excelled at the minor heavy roles he played in the 1950s, but he landed more challenging and unusual parts in the early Roger Corman movies ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS (as a scientist devoured by a giant crab), ROCK ALL NIGHT (as the hipster “Sir Bop”) and THE UNDEAD (as a simpleminded medieval gravedigger). In addition to playing the exasperated Gravis in LITTLE SHOP, Welles also produced (and his screenwriter friend Charles B. Griffith directed) exteriors for that movie, paying real-life Skid Row winos a dime a shot, and commandeering a funeral parlor hearse (with a stiff in the back!) for one sequence. He detailed many of his LITTLE SHOP experiences in a FANGORIA #58 interview.
“I was very sorry to hear about Mel’s passing,” LITTLE SHOP leading lady Jackie Joseph tells FANGORIA. “My first thought was, ‘He had a fantastic life.’ I met him on the set of LITTLE SHOP, and my first impression never faded: He was like a guru. A teacher. A seasoned player-person. I remember thinking of him then as ‘wise’ and ‘older’ when he must have been, what, in his 30s? Maybe it was because he was playing Mr. Mushnick, ‘the boss.’ We since saw each other at collectors’ shows, and he was always warm and kind. And a guru.”
In the 1960s, Welles moved to Europe, where in addition to acting he wrote and directed, including the horror/sci-fi flicks ISLAND OF THE DOOMED with Cameron Mitchell and LADY FRANKENSTEIN with Joseph Cotten. After his 1976 return to the U.S., more roles in exploitation films and much voice work came his way. “He was a fine actor and all that,” his frequent co-star Dick Miller tells Fango, “but what I’ll remember about him was that he was a funny, funny man.” LITTLE SHOP star Jonathan Haze agrees: “Mel and I were good friends for many, many, many years, and he was a very funny, very lovable guy. It’s sad that he’s gone, and he’ll be missed by a lot of us.”
Annie Welles, Mel’s widow, was asked by Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas if Mel had a favorite charity to which contributions could be made; she responded, “No…but you know what he would like? Tell people to be good—and to live their lives to the fullest. That’s what Mel would want. Don’t mourn, just follow your dreams.”