CULT HERO: Among the select band of intergalactic despots, Ming the Merciless was simply the best - the tyrant's tyrant. His technology may have been a bit tatty by today's standards (sputtering death rays and feebly fizzing rocket ships) and his evil henchmen risible (wrinkly tights, paunches, gladiators' helmets and mandatory late-1930s thin moustaches), but Ming rose magnificently above it all, writes Stephen Dixon
Seated on an ornate throne in his palace on the Planet Mongo, Ming toyed with Flash Gordon as a cat would play with a mouse. Flash always beat him at the end of each serial, of course, but Ming remained true to his stated ambition - to conquer the universe, starting by destroying the Earth with tidal waves, monsoons and something called "the purple death".
There were three serials - Flash Gordon (1936), Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940) - all based on Alex Raymond's newspaper cartoon strip and all starring Larry "Buster" Crabbe as Flash and Charles Middleton as his would-be nemesis. Half Cherokee, Middleton was born in Kentucky in 1874, and ran away from home at 12 to join the circus. He developed a rope- spinning routine in vaudeville and then turned actor, touring the States with stock companies.
He was 50 when he arrived in Hollywood, and because of his reptilian eyes and cruel mouth, he was swiftly typecast as a villain in Westerns. Middleton also terrorised Laurel and Hardy (he was the Foreign Legion commandant in Flying Deuces) and became very friendly with the comedians, who used him in several films. The actor dubbed "the meanest man on the screen" was a pussycat in real life, happily-married and a devoted father.
Middleton played Ming absolutely straight. There was no hint of campery, and he barked his absurd orders with scowling conviction ("place them in the chamber and turn on the death dust!"). The role represented the highlight of Middleton's career. His Ming lives on, in spite of indignities heaped on the character over the years (being played by Max von Sydow in a horrible 1980 remake; being parodied hoovering his flat in a Mathews and Linehan Big Train TV sketch) .
Middleton, who died in 1949, was a man of principle - if there was a situation on a set where Native American extras were treated badly, he refused to work until they got better conditions and pay. Sometimes he'd put on his Indian head-dress and do a rain dance - and occasionally the heavens would obligingly open.