William Bendix (January 14, 1906 – December 14, 1964) was an American film, radio, and television actor, who typically played rough, blue-collarcharacters. 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 forWake 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 said he saw Babe Ruth hit more than a hundred home runs at Yankee Stadium. 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 Theater 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 films 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 (1948) 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 1948 film version of William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life 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). In 1946, he was cast in The Blue Dahlia, for the second time alongside Alan Ladd and Veronica 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 Theater. He made Riley's frequent exclamation, "What a revoltin' development this is," into a national catchphrase.
Bendix as Riley with
Sterling Holloway, 1957.
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.
On the 1952 television program This Is Your Life, hosted by Ralph Edwards, Bendix was declared a descendant of the 19th-century composer Felix Mendelssohn.
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.
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 Trampass 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.
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 asGovernor 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 themaster 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, Eddy 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. Bendix was survived by his wife Theresa (1906-1983) and two children (Lorraine and Stephanie) from their thirty-seven years of marriage.