Classic Video Showplace

The Life of William Bendix

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For over a hundred years some of the greatest video treasures of all time have been produced. Some have been lost in the sands of time and others, soon to be rediscovered, will become fan favorites for a whole new generation. 

Each week we will feature just one of the many hidden gems that you can see on ATVN with insights and commentaries on classic television shows and legendary cinematic performances.

William Bendix, who would go on to star in radio, television and films, had an auspicious start to his working career.

He would be fired as a bat boy for the New York Yankees baseball team.

The reason?  He obeyed orders from Babe Ruth during the height of his popularity to go out and buy him hot dogs and sodas right before a game — which was against team rules.

Twenty years later, Bendix starred in the The Babe Ruth Story motion picture, portraying the titular character.


Bendix was born in Manhattan, the only child of Oscar and Hilda (Carnell) Bendix. Named William after his paternal German grandfather, his uncle was composer, conductor, and violinist Max Bendix.  He would work odd jobs through the Great Depression, until deciding at the age of 30 to try his hand at acting.

After six years, he starred in his first feature film, The Glass Key, and in other film noir flicks. He had success largely playing rough but kind-hearted gangsters, soldiers or “blue-collar” type roles.  From 1942 until his death in 1964, Bendix was featured in 66 movies.  His greatest individual accomplishment in films was earning an Academy Award nomination for his role as a soldier in the 1942 war classic, Wake Island.

But in addition to his success on the big screen, Bendix became a national treasure throughout the 40s and 50s by portraying the fictional Chester A. Riley in the hit radio and later television series, The Life of Riley.

Originally a radio treatment to be a vehicle for Groucho Marx in a show called, “The Flotsam Family,” series creator Irving Brecher saw Riley in a film in which he played a taxi cab driver with a heavy Brooklyn accent.  According to the book “Raised on Radio,” Brecher went back and rewrote the premise of his show, basing the lead character on a “meat-and-potatoes” man of the house with comical frailties, casting Bendix in the lead.

The result was a Top 20 show through the latter half of the 1940s, in a period that also featured other radio show giants hosted by legends like Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Milton Berle, Red Skelton, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and many others.  Bendix also starred in the film version of the show in 1949 — the movie grossing $1.6 million at the box office.

The comedic plotlines centered around Riley himself — a gullible and clumsy but big-hearted man. Although operating with the best of intentions, Riley had the inclination of turning slight misunderstandings and slightly troubling situations into near-disasters.  He also had the uncanny ability to successfully play off of unique characters like his neighbor Waldo Binny, “Digger” O’Dell (“the friendly undertaker”), his co-worker and best friend, Gillis, and other colorful personalities.

To give yourself a treat, find copies of “Riley’s” radio shows involving his traditional Thanksgiving and Mother’s Day holidays episodes and also an episode entitled, “A Spicy Book.”

His trademark lines uttered on the show were some of the most popular catch-phrases of the decade.

Because of his movie contract, Bendix was not available when the series transitioned to television.  After an initial failed attempt with “The Great One” (Jackie Gleason) in the title role, Bendix reclaimed the role of Riley in 1953.  The show quickly shot up in the Nielson’s ratings (reaching as high as #16 in its first season), followed by five more years as a hit show, perennially winning its time slot.

William continued acting in movies and guest-starring on television until he was cast to star in a brand new sitcom in 1964 but CBS removed him from the project because of a rumor of ill-health.  This action severely curtailed Bendix’s job opportunities in the industry.  Bendix sued the network, claiming that he was in great health, and won the lawsuit, but the damage was done for the remainder of his career.  He later died of pneumonia at the age of 58.

In his obituary in The New York Times, Bendix was quoted as saying, “I’ve had a long, varied, pleasant, eventful career. I don’t hate anybody and I don’t have any bitter thoughts. I started out without any advantages, but I’ve been lucky and successful and I’ve had fun.”

You can see William Bendix in one of his most prominent film roles–that of Nick, the Saloon Owner, in the film, The Time of Your Life, in the “RCN Movie Vault” this Saturday at 9:30 p.m. on ATVN.  (This movie was made in 1948, at the height of his popularity on radio.)

To view the complete rundown of classic programming on ATVN, check out the weekly listings here.


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