11/21/20: Two Terrific Character Actors

By Fred Muenz

Born in Cleveland, Ohio in February, 1901, Waldo Brian Donleavy, aka Brian Donleavy, was the son of a supervisor in a nearby woolen mill. In 1916, when a local Army National Guard unit was activated, young Brian, who was not much of a student, dropped out of high school and lied about his age (he was 15) to join the army. He soon become part of Gen John J. Pershing’s expedition into Mexico in pursuit of a band of outlaws led by Pancho Villa. Discharged when his true age was learned, he re-enlisted the following year, when the United States entered World War I. This time, to become a pilot as a member of the American Lafayette Flying Corps, which included the famous Lafayette Escadrille. By war’s end, he had been wounded twice and was an accomplished pilot. After his discharge from the Army, he applied for entrance to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, MD. After appearing in a number of student theatrical productions over the next two years, he discovered that he loved performing, gave up his dream of a military career and left the Academy to pursue a career on the stage. For the next few years, he honed his acting skills with small Broadway parts, locally produced silent films and even appeared as the illustrated Arrow Collar Man in magazine ads. In 1926, he left for Hollywood where he found supporting roles in several films. In 1929, he was cast in a small role in GENTLEMEN OF THE PRESS (1929), his first sound film.  His big break finally came in 1935, when he was given a major supporting role in BARBARY COAST (1935), which earned him rave reviews from the critics. More important roles followed, including that of the ruthless sergeant in BEAU GESTE (1939), which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Although he always appeared in serious roles, he never took himself seriously. He once said that the usual morning routine of an actor was: “1) insert dentures; 2) don hairpiece; 3) strap on corset; 4) lace up elevator shoes”. After an active life and a long career in films, radio and television, Brian Donleavy retired to Palm Springs, where he wrote poetry and lived off the proceeds of a California tungsten mine, which he owned. Suffering from throat cancer, he died in April, 1972, at age 71.

Although he possessed a stereotypical “Brooklyn accent”, William Bendix was born in January, 1906, in a flat in Manhattan, near the long-gone Third Avenue El. He made his first film debut in 1911, at age 5, when his father got him a small part in a film being produced at the Vitagraph Studios, where the elder Bendix was working as a handyman (his next film “debut” would be 31 years later). A descendant of composer Felix Mendelssohn and a nephew of Max Bendix, concertmaster, and conductor of both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the New York Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, young William lacked both musical talent and an interest in schoolwork. He finally dropped out of high school at age 15, to become batboy of the New York Yankees. Witness to over 100 Babe Ruth home runs, he served as Ruth’s “gopher”, bringing the Babe whatever he requested. He finally lost his job when he brought Ruth a large order of hot dogs and soda which resulted in Ruth getting sick, and not being able to play that day. Years later he would portray Ruth in THE BABE RUTH STORY (1948). After his time with the Yankees, he took a job at a grocery store and would eventually manage his own store. In 1936, with his business failing due to the Great Depression, he began taking acting lessons with the New Jersey Federal Theater Project. In 1942, after some success in small Broadway roles, he moved to Hollywood and made his second film debut. He played supporting roles in dozens of films, usually as a warm-hearted gangster, a detective or serviceman. In 1942, he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, for his role in WAKE ISLAND (1942), co-starring Brian Donleavy. His appearance in the film THE McGUERINS FROM BROOKLYN (1942), however, in which he played a blue-collar worker, would lead to his most famous role. Radio producer Irving Brecher, saw Bendix in the film and decided that he would be perfect for the role of Chester A. Riley in his radio sitcom, The Life of Riley. The show debuted in 1944 and was an immediate hit. His catchphrase, “what a revoltin’ development this is” soon became part of 1940’s American lexicon. Because of film commitments in his contract, Bendix wasn’t able to play Riley when the show first came to television in 1949. The role was taken over by Jackie Gleason, but the show was cancelled after one season because the part was so closely identified with Bendix. In 1953, Riley returned to television, this time with Bendix, and was a hit. After the show left the air in 1958, Bendix became a regular in several other TV series, and a frequent guest star on many of the most popular shows of the time. William Bendix died in Los Angeles in December, 1964, the result of a chronic stomach ailment and pneumonia. He was 58.

LOOK FOR ANOTHER SILVER SCREEN MEMORY NEXT WEEK.

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