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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,581


This is the grave of William Bendix.

Born in Manhattan in 1906, Bendix grew up in a well off German immigrant family. Among his family members was his Uncle Max, concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera’s orchestra. Now, this sounds slightly apocryphal, but evidently, Bendix was a bat boy for the New York Yankees for a few years in the 1920s, but got fired after Babe Ruth ordered a huge amount of hot dogs and sodas, got sick, and couldn’t play the game. Bendix went to pick up the goods and got fired after Ruth got sick. Not saying this isn’t true, am saying that it sounds like a story.

I’m not sure what Bendix did as a young man, but by the time he was 30, he was working in the Federal Theater Project and decided to pick up acting. He did well enough and went to Hollywood in the early 40s. He was a big man (or at least he looked big) and he could play a dope or a tough or a supportive guy. He wasn’t lead material, but in an era of great character actors, he could hang with any of them. So his first Hollywood role was in The Glass Key in 1942, the Dashiell Hammett adaptation with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Bendix was listed fourth in the credits, which is pretty good for your first film. Bendix would really have a whole long career of fourth guy in the credits. He blew up that year, with 7 different films. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Wake Island which is the kind of whatever Hollywood war production that got ramped up immediately after Pearl Harbor. It would be his only nomination, but he still had a pretty long career.

Alfred Hitchcock soon cast him in Lifeboat, which came out in 1944 and for which Bendix got a lot of attention. He actually did get top billing in The Hairy Ape, which is an adaptation of the Eugene O’Neill play that also starred Susan Hayward.

Somewhat amusingly, Bendix was cast to play his old pal Babe Ruth in The Babe Ruth Story in 1948. I have not seen this, but by all accounts, it is an absolutely terrible movie. But in the late 40s, he really was one of the great character actors of the era. He was The Blue Dahlia, again with Ladd and Lake. He was with Bing Crosby in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. He worked with James Cagney in The Time of Your Life. He also had his own radio show titled The Life of Riley and that became a minor film in 1949. He continued to get pretty good roles with pretty good directors into the 50s. There was The Big Steal, directed by Don Siegel, and Submarine Command, directed by John Farrow, and Blackbeard the Pirate, directed by Raoul Walsh.

As the 50s went on, a lot of Bendix’s work went to TV. He couldn’t do the adaptation of The Life of Riley for TV because of preexisting film commitments. Jackie Gleason took the part but the show didn’t hit because Bendix was so identified with the lead role. It was cancelled after one season. But he was on all sorts of shows in the way that so many older film actors were in the 50s. There was the game show circuit and there was the guest star on shows circuit and Bendix did both of them.

Also, like so many of the Hollywood stars that I’ve discussed in this series, Bendix was a right-wing Republican. Again, the idea that Hollywood is some sort of liberal bastion does not hold up to historical inquiry, at least not among the leading actors, or in this case, supporting actors.

As Bendix aged, his health got worse. He still worked though. In 1964, he was supposed to do a new show for CBS costarring Martha Raye. But Bendix’s health was so bad that CBS preemptively cancelled it. Bendix sued for $2.6 million, saying his health was great and he could do everything he needed and that CBS was killing his career through this move. But….Bendix died of pneumonia later that year, so maybe not. He was 58 years old.

William Bendix is buried in San Fernando Mission Cemetery, Los Angeles, California.

If you would like this series to visit other people nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1943, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Walter Huston, nominated for Yankee Doodle Dandy, is in Fresno, California. Frank Morgan, nominated for Tortilla Flat, is in Brooklyn. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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