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Happy Birthday, William Bendix!

In movies, television—and especially on radio—actor William Bendix frequently played a typical blue-collar working stiff.  Take his most famous role, Chester A. Riley, of the successful radio/TV sitcom The Life of Riley; the titular hero was a Brooklyn, NY expatriate who moved with his family (wife, daughter, and son) to the milder climes of California where he worked as a riveter at an aircraft factory.  As a well-meaning schmoe who frequently found himself in hot water, despite his best intentions, Bendix perfected the Brooklyn accent (and attitude) to make Riley a true pop culture hero.  So it may come as a bit of a surprise to learn that Bill—born on this date in 1906…actually hailed from Manhattan!

Biographers note that young William (named after his grandfather) was a descendant of famed composer Felix Mendelssohn-Barrholdy, and that his uncle Max was a composer-concertmaster with both the Chicago Symphony and the Metropolitan Orchestras.  A show business career appeared to be in the cards for Bill, and he made a rather inauspicious motion picture debut as a youngster in a Vitagraph short starring Lillian Walker (his father Oscar did odd jobs at the Vitagraph studios at the time).  Before returning to those endeavors, however, Bendix embarked on a series of colorful pursuits (after deciding not to finish high school), beginning with becoming a batboy for the New York Yankees in the 1920s.  The story goes that Bill obtained for Yankees player Babe Ruth a large order of hot dogs and soda before a game…and when this splendid repast rendered Ruth incapable of playing, Bendix got his pink slip from the organization.  (Later, Bill would portray the Bambino in a 1948 film, The Babe Ruth Story.)

William Bendix’s later occupations included stints as a singing waiter and grocery store manager—the latter career resulting from his marriage to Theresa Stefanotti in 1927 (his father-in-law called in a few favors).  His grocer days didn’t last long, however; the store went belly up during the Depression and Bill soon drifted into acting (he was a member of the Federal Theatre Project from 1935 to 1939), something he had previously done while warbling and waiting on tables.  Bendix also entertained in nightclubs and landed small roles in Broadway productions like Run Sheep Run and Miss Swan Expects, but his breakthrough role was that of Officer Krupp in the 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Time of Your Life.  His good notices in that smash would win him a contract with Hollywood producer Hal Roach, and he scored his first credited screen role in the Roach “streamliner” Brooklyn Orchid (1942).

In Orchid, Bendix played Timothy “Tim” McGuerin, a good-natured cab driver (Irish, begorrah)…and he reprised the role in two follow-ups, The McGuerins from Brooklyn (1942—also known as Two Mugs from Brooklyn) and Taxi, Mister (1943).  After seeing The McGuerins from Brooklyn, writer Irving Brecher wanted Bill to play the patriarch in a radio sitcom that he had originally created for his friend Groucho Marx (it was titled The Flotsam Family).  Groucho’s version went nowhere, but Brecher felt that with Bendix as the lead, the series might get picked up…and it did, making its debut over the Blue Network on January 16, 1944 (sponsored by the American Meat Institute).  The Life of Riley, as it eventually came to be known, was a huge hit. When it moved to NBC in the fall of 1945, it remained a radio staple until 1951.  The popular show—which inspired a feature film in 1949—would eventually transition to the small screen that same year…but in its first incarnation, Bendix was not able to reprise his role due to a clause in his motion picture contract.  Jackie Gleason played Riley in the first series (1949-50), and the second time around (1953-58) Bendix was back in his element as the bumbling, fumbling Riley.

William Bendix’s success in Brooklyn Orchid soon made him much-in-demand around Tinsel Town, landing him high profile gigs in features like Woman of the Year (1942) and Wake Island (1942—where he scored his solo Academy Award nomination playing Private Aloysius K. “Smacksie” Randall).  He was versatile enough to portray menaces (like the brutal henchman in 1942’s The Glass Key) and comic stooges (he’s an ideal foil for Abbott & Costello in Who Done It? [1942]).  Bill’s memorable movie roles include Guadalcanal Diary (1943), Lifeboat (1944), A Bell for Adano (1945), The Blue Dahlia (1946), The Dark Corner (1946), The Web (1947), and The Time of Your Life (1948)—this time playing Nick, the saloon owner in this James Cagney-financed production.

Bendix was more than capable when it came to providing support in films featuring his fellow radio comedians.  He’s part of the all-star ensemble in Duffy’s Tavern (1945), and has a delightful bit as a hypochondriac gangster (named “Bill Bendix”) in Fred Allen’s It’s in the Bag! (1945).  He’s Bob Hope’s prospective brother-in-law in Where There’s Life (1947), and gets the opportunity to croon with Bing Crosby (and Sir Cedric Hardwicke) in the delightful Technicolor musical A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949).  His comedic flair made Bill a delightful guest star on the radio shows of Victor Borge, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Al Jolson, Fibber McGee & Molly, and Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis.  Bendix’s other radio appearances include The Cavalcade of AmericaThe Columbia WorkshopCommand PerformanceFamily TheatreG.I. JournalThe Lady Esther/Camel Screen Guild Theatre, The Lux Radio TheatreThe Railroad HourSuspenseThe Theatre Guild on the Air, and Truth or Consequences.

While William Bendix continued to appear in films like The Big Steal (1949), Kill the Umpire (1950), and Detective Story (1951), the 1950s found him focusing more on his weekly duties on TV’s The Life of Riley and guesting on game shows like I’ve Got a Secret and What’s My Line?  After finishing that five-year Riley run, Bill would star on one additional series—a short-lived Western titled Overland Trail (co-starring Doug McClure)—and make appearances on favorites such as Wagon TrainThe Untouchables, and Burke’s Law.  His cinematic swan song was 1964’s Young Fury…he passed away that same year at the age of 58.

William Bendix is one of several guest stars on Smile a While, a fantastic collection of vintage broadcasts from The Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy Show (I wrote the liner notes!) featuring recently unearthed shows from 1943!  Bendix also appears on a memorable January 18, 1944 escapade of The George Burns-Gracie Allen Show that’s present and accounted for on Burns & Allen and Friends.  But to fully celebrate today’s birthday boy, check out Radio Spirits’ one-two punch of collections—Magnificent Mug and Blue Collar Blues—and potpourri sets like Great Radio Comedy to enjoy hilarious broadcasts of The Life of Riley.  William Bendix’s birthday…it’s definitely not a revoltin’ development!


  1. Just caught The Dark Corner for the first time a few weeks ago. Has Bendix ever been more chilling than that one?

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