William Bendix: An Authentic Lug

Quintessential blue-collar actor William Bendix (1906-1964) was often cast as a guy from Brooklyn or the Bronx, although he was a native of the Manhattan neighborhood of Murray Hill. He dropped out of high school to be a bat boy for the New York Yankees and Giants, and first got involved with the theatre with the Henry Street Players. For a time he worked as a singing waiter and a grocer and then got involved with the Federal Theatre Project and the Theatre Guild, which led to a series of roles on Broadway: The Trial of Dr. Beck (1937), Run Sheep Run (1938), and Miss Swan Expects (1939).

Bendix’s brawny, rough hewn but lovable presence was perfectly suited to the needs of Depression, World War Two and Post-War era story telling. He read as a Regular Joe. His first major part was the original Broadway production of William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life (1939-1940). He would also be in James Cagney’s film version nearly a decade later.

The Broadway attention allowed him to give Hollywood a shot. He was an extra in They Drive by Night (1940), but Hal Roach gave him a starring part in a short lived comedy film series in which he played taxi driver Tim McGuerin: Brooklyn Orchid (1942), Two Guys from Brooklyn a.k.a. The McGuerins  from Brooklyn (1942) and Taxi, Mister (1943). Bendix rapidly spun out of Roach’s reach almost from the beginning. He’d been nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role in Wake Island (1942), was in Woman of the Year (1942) with Tracy and Hepburn, and was a thug in Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key (1943) with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. In 1943 he merged his Roach character with a WWII picture when he played “Taxi” Potts in Guadalcanal Diary. In 1944 came two highly memorable roles, the part of the ill-fated Gus in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat; and Hank Smith, the titular character in Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape.

That same year came yet another defining role, one Bendix would play in three different media for close to 15 years: that of Chester A. Riley in the evergreen (and influential) sitcom The Life of Riley. Originally conceived by Irving Brecher as The Flotsam Family, a vehicle for Groucho Marx, Brecher tweaked the concept for Bendix when sponsors rejected the notion of Groucho as a sit-com dad. Bendix played the part on radio from 1944 through 1951, in a 1949 film, and on television from 1953 through 1958. (Jackie Gleason famously played the role on tv for a single season in 1949 since Bendix was making the movie version at the time). Riley can be thought of as the spiritual heir to every working class sit com dad since, from Ralph Kramden to Fred Flintstone, to Archie Bunker to Al Bundy to The King of Queens to Homer Simpson.

Bendix had countless other film roles during his time as “Riley”. He’s in The Blue Dahlia (1946) with Ladd and Lake again; the lead role in The Babe Ruth Story (1948), the film version of The Time of Your Life (1948), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949), Streets of Laredo (1949), Kill the Umpire (1950), Detective Story (1951), A Girl in Every Port with Groucho (1952), and Macao (1952), among others.

After Riley ended in ’58, Bendix was a regular on the western series Overland Trail (1960), and did guest shots on shows like Wagon Train and The Untouchables. He still did the occasional movie but his “type” seemed less in tune with the times by the sixties, and he was growing older. His last role was in the western Young Fury (1964) with Rory Calhoun and Virginia Mayo. His last years were beset with health problems stemming from problems with his digestive system. Bedridden with that, he died of pneumonia at the age of 58.