Bendix in 1960.
January 14, 1906|
Manhattan, New York City, U.S.
|Died||December 14, 1964
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Cause of death||pneumonia|
|Resting place||San Fernando Mission Cemetery, Mission Hills, Los Angeles|
|Occupation||Film, radio, television actor|
|Spouse(s)||Theresa Stefanotti (1927–1964 (his death))|
|Children||Lorraine Bendix (b. 1929)
William Bendix (January 14, 1906 – December 14, 1964) was an American film, radio, and television actor, who typically played rough, blue-collar characters. He is best remembered in movies for the title role in The Babe Ruth Story. He also memorably portrayed the clumsily earnest aircraft plant worker Chester A. Riley in radio and television's The Life of Riley. He received an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor for Wake Island (1942).
Bendix, named William after his paternal grandfather, was born in Manhattan, the only son of Oscar Bendix and Hilda (née Carnell) Bendix. As a youth in the early 1920s, Bendix was a batboy for the New York Yankees and stated that he saw Babe Ruth hit more than a hundred home runs at Yankee Stadium. However, he was fired after fulfilling Ruth's request for a large order of hot dogs and soda before a game, which resulted in The Babe's inability to play that day. In 1927, he married Theresa Stefanotti. Bendix worked as a grocer until the Great Depression.
Bendix began his acting career at the age of thirty by way of the New Jersey Federal Theatre Project, and made his film debut in 1942. He played in supporting roles in dozens of Hollywood films, usually as a warm-hearted Marine, gangster, or detective. He started with appearances in film noir movies including a performance in The Glass Key (1942), which also featured Brian Donlevy, Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. He soon gained more attention after appearing in Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944) as Gus, a wounded and dying American sailor.
Bendix's other well-known movie roles include his portrayal of Babe Ruth in The Babe Ruth Story in (1948 – a film roundly considered one of the worst sports biopics in film history) and Sir Sagramore opposite Bing Crosby in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1949), in which he took part in the trio, "Busy Doing Nothing". He played Nick the bartender in the film version of William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life (1948) starring James Cagney. Bendix had appeared in the stage version, but in the role of Officer Krupp (a role played on film by Broderick Crawford). He was also cast in The Blue Dahlia (1946), starring for the second time alongside Ladd and Lake.
In 1949, Bendix starred in a film adaptation of his radio program The Life of Riley.
Radio and television
It was Bendix's appearance in The McGuerins of Brooklyn, playing a rugged blue-collar man, that led to his most famous role. Producer and creator Irving Brecher saw Bendix as the perfect personification of Chester A. Riley, giving a second chance to a show whose audition failed when the sponsor spurned Groucho Marx for the lead. With Bendix stumbling, bumbling, and skating almost perpetually on thin ice, stretching the patience of his otherwise loving wife and children, The Life of Riley was a radio hit from 1944 through 1951, and Bendix brought an adaptation of the film version to Lux Radio Theatre. He made Riley's frequent exclamation, "What a revoltin' development this is," into a national catchphrase.
Bendix was not able to play the role on television at first because of a contracted film commitment. The role went instead to Jackie Gleason and the show aired a single season beginning in October 1949. Despite winning an Emmy award, the show ended, in part because Gleason was less than acceptable as Riley, and Bendix had been so identified with the role on radio. In 1953, Bendix became available for a new television version, and this time the show clicked. The second television version of The Life of Riley ran from 1953 to 1958, long enough for Riley to become a grandfather.
In 1958, Bendix played the lead in Rod Serling's The Time Element, a time-travel adventure about a man who travels back to 1941 Honolulu and tries to warn everyone about the impending attack on Pearl Harbor.
In 1958, Bendix appeared on NBC's The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford. He returned for a second appearance on October 1, 1959, the fourth season premiere of the series in which he and his friend, Tennessee Ernie Ford, perform a comedy skit about a safari.
Also in 1958, on the episode "Around the Horn" of NBC's Wagon Train (Season 2, Episode 1), Bendix played the captain of a sailing cargo ship who shanghaied Major Adams (Ward Bond), Bill Hawks (Terry Wilson) and Charlie Wooster (Frank McGrath), forcing them to work on his ship.
On November 16, 1959, Bendix appeared on NBC's color broadcast of The Steve Allen Plymouth Show along with Jack Kerouac. A color videotape of the broadcast survives.
In 1960, Bendix starred in all seventeen episodes of the NBC western series Overland Trail in the role of Frederick Thomas "Fred" Kelly, the crusty superintendent of the Overland Stage Company. Doug McClure, later Trampas on NBC's The Virginian, co-starred as his young understudy, Frank "Flip" Flippen. The program was similar to another offering on ABC the following season, Stagecoach West.
In fall 1964, an American situation comedy starring Bendix and Martha Raye was scheduled to air on CBS, but due to Bendix's shaky health the network decided not to air the program. This action resulted in a lawsuit from Bendix for $2.658 million in May, with the actor stating that the decision hurt his career and that he was in excellent health and could perform all of the requirements of the agreement. The case was settled out of court. Bendix died on December 14, 1964 from pneumonia complications.
The show began as a proposed Groucho Marx radio series, The Flotsam Family, but the sponsor balked at what would have been essentially a straight head-of-household role for the comedian. (Marx went on to host Blue Ribbon Town from 1943 to 1944 and then You Bet Your Life from 1947 to 1961). Then creator and producer Irving Brecher saw Bendix as taxicab company owner Tim McGuerin in Hal Roach's The McGuerins from Brooklyn (1942). Brecher stated, "He was a Brooklyn guy and there was something about him. I thought, This guy could play it. He'd made a few films, like Lifeboat, but he was not a name. So I took The Flotsam Family script, revised it, made it a Brooklyn Family, took out the flippancies and made it more meat-and-potatoes, and thought of a new title, The Life of Riley. Bendix's delivery and the spin he put on his lines made it work." The reworked script cast Bendix as blundering Chester A. Riley, a wing riveter at the fictional Cunningham Aircraft plant in California. His frequent exclamation of indignation—"What a revoltin' development this is!"—became one of the most famous catchphrases of the 1940s. It was later reused by Benjamin J. Grimm of the Fantastic Four. The radio series also benefited from the immense popularity of a supporting character, Digby "Digger" O'Dell (John Brown), "the friendly undertaker". Brecher told Brown, "I want a very sepulchral voice, quavering, morbid, and he got it right away."
Bendix was a Republican. In 1944, for instance, he attended the massive rally organized by David O. Selznick in the Los Angeles Coliseum in support of the Dewey-Bricker ticket as well as Governor Earl Warren of California, who would become Dewey's running mate in 1948 and later the Chief Justice of the United States. The gathering drew 93,000, with Cecil B. DeMille as the master of ceremonies and with short speeches by Hedda Hopper and Walt Disney. Among the others in attendance were Ann Sothern, Ginger Rogers, Randolph Scott, Adolphe Menjou, Gary Cooper, Edward Arnold, Lionel Barrymore, Leo Carrillo, and Walter Pidgeon.
Bendix died in Los Angeles in 1964, the result of a chronic stomach ailment which brought on malnutrition and ultimately lobar pneumonia. He was interred at the San Fernando Mission Cemetery, in Mission Hills, Los Angeles. Bendix was survived by his wife Theresa (1906–1983) and two children (Lorraine and Stephanie) from their thirty-seven years of marriage.
Dramatic radio appearances
- "Worst Movie Biopics: Real-Life Catastrophes". Moviefone. November 5, 2009. Retrieved 30 November 2013.
- "The Babe Ruth Story (1948)". The New York Times. Retrieved 30 November 2013.
- Dan Shaughnessy (Apr 3, 1986). "Duke as Williams? A Prince of an Idea". Spokane Chronicle. Retrieved 30 November 2013.
- Lyrics Playground website. "Busy Doing Nothing", sung by Bing Crosby, William Bendix and Cedric Hardwicke
- IMDB.com "The Life of Riley", 1949
- "Ladies and Gentlemen, Tennessee Ernie Ford". ernieford.com. Retrieved November 21, 2010.
- John B. Manbeck; Robert Singer (eds.). The Brooklyn Film: Essays in the History of Filmmaking. p. 26.
- Nachman, Gerald (1998). Raised on Radio, p. 247. Pantheon Books, New York. ISBN 037540287x.
- David M. Jordan, FDR, Dewey, and the Election of 1944 (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2011), p. 231
- William Bendix at Find a Grave
- Kirby, Walter (March 16, 1952). "Better Radio Programs for the Week". The Decatur Daily Review. p. 44. Retrieved May 23, 2015 – via Newspapers.com.
- Smithsonian Collection: Old Time Radio All-Time Favourites, liner notes from audio cassette box set. Joe Bevilaqua. Radio Spirits: Schiller Park, 1994.
- John Dunning, On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.)
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to William Bendix.|
- William Bendix at the Internet Movie Database
- William Bendix at the Internet Broadway Database
- William Bendix at AllMovie
- William Bendix at Find a Grave
- Bendix on Television
- The short film William Bendix in Riley, Savings Bonds Salesman (c. 1943-44) is available for free download at the Internet Archive