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Happy Birthday, Richard Denning!


If I stated up front that the man who’s in our birthday spotlight today transcended his meager beginnings as a mere thespian and eventually became the governor of a state…well, you’d probably assume I was talking about Ronald Reagan. So I’ll abandon that angle. Instead, join me for some cake and ice cream as we pay tribute to Louis Albert Heindrich Denninger, Jr.—born in Poughkeepsie, NY in 1914, and who would later find fame on stage, screen (big and small) and radio as handsome leading man Richard Denning.

denning13Before Denning decided on a show business career, however, he was a handsome leading man working for his father in the Los Angeles garment industry. Clothes may make the man, but in this instance they made Richard restless; besides, he was much more interested in appearing in plays presented by the city’s Little Theater groups. A Paramount Pictures scout spotted Denning in a production and offered him a contract…but first, Paramount’s Powers That Be demanded that he change his last name of “Denninger.” (It seems that there was a certain Public Enemy Number One with the same surname, and the executives didn’t want audiences wondering if there was a family connection once they saw Richard onscreen.)

denningankersThe lanky, square-jawed actor would soon become a casting favorite with the studio’s directors…though many of the films in which he appeared were of the B-variety. A few of the more recognizable features Richard Denning graced include The Buccaneer (1938), The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938), Her Jungle Love (1938), Union Pacific (1939), Some Like it Hot (1939), The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939), Million Dollar Legs (1939), North West Mounted Police (1940), Love Thy Neighbor (1940) and Adam Had Four Sons (1941). 1942 was a very good year for the ambitious Richard; he had one of his best remembered movie roles as the wastrel Taylor Henry in The Glass Key (1942), and he had fallen for the studio’s resident “Scream Queen,” Evelyn Ankers (The Wolf Man, Son of Dracula). The two of them would tie the knot before the year was out, and had one of Hollywood’s happiest marriages until Evelyn’s passing in 1985.

denning8Richard Denning’s movie career momentarily stalled once World War II was underway. He served in the South Pacific with the U.S. Navy, and upon his discharge appeared in Black Beauty (1946) with wife Ankers. But Richard soon found his niche in “science fiction” films: he appeared in such features as Unknown Island (1948), Target Earth (1954), Day the World Ended (1955), Creature with the Atom Brain (1955), and The Black Scorpion (1957). His best known work in sci-fi films is unquestionably Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), in which he played the arrogant boss of dedicated scientist Richard Carlson, and served as Carlson’s rival for the affections of swimsuit clad Julia Adams. (The two men had a little competition in that department, though, from the titular beast of the film.) Other films from Denning’s expansive resume include No Man of Her Own (1950), Hangman’s Knot (1952), The Glass Web (1953), An Affair to Remember (1957) and Twice-Told Tales (1963).

denning1While working to reestablish himself in motion pictures, Denning began the first of many forays in front of a radio microphone beginning in the late 1940s. On July 5, 1948, CBS Radio premiered “a special preview” of My Favorite Husband, a sitcom that was developed to capitalize on the long-underutilized comedic talents of glamour gal Lucille Ball. Based on Isabel Scott Rorick’s 1941 novel Mr. and Mrs. Cugat: The Record of a Happy Marriage, Husband cast Lucy in the role of socialite-turned-housewife Elizabeth (Liz) Cugat, and movie favorite Lee Bowman as her husband George, former-playboy-turned-bank-vice-president. The reception to the show was quite positive, and the network made plans for it to return two weeks later. But they would have to do without Bowman’s services (he had other commitments), and so Richard was tabbed to play opposite Lucy.

denning2My Favorite Husband was a sporadically funny series that didn’t really find its full footing until writer Jess Oppenheimer was hired to script the show after he lost his job as head man on The Baby Snooks Show. Oppenheimer was quickly promoted to director-producer, and along with network staff scribes Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll, Jr., revamped both the series and Lucy’s character—making her more childlike and impulsive (qualities that defined Fanny Brice’s Snooks, when you stop and think about it). Denning’s portrayal of Richard Cugat also got a reworking: while he remained a jocular, good-natured individual, he wasn’t afraid to lay down the law when it came to the shenanigans engineered by his endearingly ditzy wife. The characters of Rudolph and Iris Atterbury—played by Gale Gordon and Bea Benaderet—were also added, and the show soon featured radio veterans Ruth Perrott, Hans Conried and Eleanor Audley, to name a few.

denning5Old-time radio fans know that Husband was pretty much the blueprint for Ball’s mega-successful I Love Lucy, which came about when CBS wanted her to bring MFH to TV and she told them that if her real-life husband Desi Arnaz wasn’t cast as her television spouse it wasn’t gonna happen. Richard took all this in stride (no offense, but Lucy wasn’t going to back down on the Desi thing). And he had a show waiting for him in the wings for him anyway – Mr. and Mrs. North, a small screen adaptation of the long-running radio hit. Denning was Jerry North, and the attractive Barbara Britton perfectly complemented him as wife Pam. Mr. and Mrs. North had a two-year run on TV, but Barbara and Richard later inherited the radio roles from Alice Frost and Joseph Curtin in 1953 and continued over the ether until the series rang down the curtain in April of 1955.

denning11Richard Denning continued to work in feature films while at the same dabbling in the medium known as television: he guest-starred on such series as Cavalcade of America, The Ford Television Theatre and Cheyenne, and in 1959 starred as Dr. Greg Graham on The Flying Doctor. The following year, Denning got back into the detective game by playing longtime radio favorite Michael Shayne in a season-long series. Dick later played TV pop to Debbie Watson on a sitcom called Karen, which was part of a trilogy of series under the umbrella title of 90 Bristol Court (the others being Tom, Dick and Mary and Harris Against the World). After finishing a film in 1968 entitled I Sailed to Tahiti With an All-Girl Crew (thanks for the spoiler warning), Denning was ready to kick back and enjoy retirement in The Aloha State with his wife Evelyn. But producer Leonard Freeman made the actor an offer he couldn’t refuse: he’d work five-hour days and a four-day work week and in turn be the familiar face of Governor Paul Jameson on the hit crime drama Hawaii Five-O. (That’s how Denning got into politics.) Richard Denning remarried after his wife Evelyn’s death; he and spouse Patricia Leffingwell remained together until the actor’s death in 1998.

20518Radio Spirits offers an eight-DVD set—with a total of thirty-two episodes—that spotlights the televised adventures of Mr. and Mrs. North as played by today’s birthday boy and leading lady Barbara Britton (they also appear in “The Doll House,” a North episode spotlighted in our collection Rare TV Detectives, Volume 2). When you’re done with those, we invite you to listen to Britton’s Pam and Denning’s Jerry investigate “murder liberally sprinkled with laughs” in Bet on Death and Touch of Death. Happy birthday to Richard Denning!

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