William Bendix made a career out of playing lovable big lugs, although he also occasionally got to play sinister and tragic roles with equal success. He was born in New York City, in a cold-water flat at Third Avenue and 45th Street in 1906, the only son of Oscar Bendix and the former Hilda Carnell. Oscar Bendix was a musician who played in local bands, including one led by Arthur Pryor, while an uncle, Max, was a violinist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra -- but William's interest in music was solely as a listener. He was raised in the Bronx, and graduated from P.S. 5, later attending Townsend Harris High School, where his main interests lay in sports, especially baseball. He was later a bat boy at the Polo Grounds, at a time when both the New York Giants and the New York Yankees played there, and his job only ended when the Yankees, in a dispute with their landlords the Giants, pulled up stakes to build Yankee Stadium as their new home.
Acting was in Bendix's background, however -- he'd started at age five, when his father, while working as a handyman at the Vitagraph Studios, got the boy a job in a silent production. Bendix fit occasional acting work in between odd jobs, including work as a singing waiter, but it was only after visiting the Henry Street Settlement on New York's Lower East Side that he began taking acting seriously, and he became a member of the Henry Street Players. In his early twenties, with help from his new father-in-law, he became manager of a grocery store in Newark, NJ, and this was how Bendix earned his living for the next few years. He later worked in the Federal Theater Project in New Jersey, and it was through that association that he was seen by Cheryl Crawford, who got him into a half-dozen of the Theater Guild's productions. Those were short-running plays that didn't do Bendix any direct good, but then he was cast in the role of Policeman Krupp in William Saroyan's play The Time of Your Life. That production ran for two years on Broadway and gave Bendix an acting career -- he was subsequently signed by producer Hal Roach to a film contract.
Bendix was a success in his first role, as a tavernkeeper in the romantic comedy Woman of the Year (1942). He received an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for his performance in 20th Century Fox's Wake Island, and went on to perform in Guadalcanal Diary, playing a similar likable Brooklyn-accented GI. Bendix was soon the most prominent of a cadre of Hollywood actors who specialized in that kind of role, and included Dewey Robinson and Dick Wesson. But unlike Robinson and Wesson, who usually played bit and supporting roles, Bendix was usually a leading man and even something of a star in the movies in which he worked.
Bendix was the dumb detective-sergeant foil to Lou Costello in Who Done It?, and the disturbed, possibly homicidal war veteran pal to Alan Ladd in The Blue Gardenia, one of several roles that he played with Ladd, an extension of a friendship that began on the set of The Glass Key (1942). Ladd and Bendix were doing a scene in that movie in which the latter's character had to pummel the star; Bendix ended up accidentally pounding Ladd for real, and out of his concern for the other actor and their superb work together, a close friendship was born. Bendix was also the lovable, gullible sailor in Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat, possibly his best-known movie today. Bendix got starring roles in a handful of movies, most notably Jules Levy's production of The Hairy Ape (1944) and The Babe Ruth Story (1948). His portrayal of Hank Smith in The Hairy Ape, from the Eugene O'Neill play, might be Bendix's best work onscreen, while the role of Babe Ruth was one to which he resonated personally, having known the legendary Yankee (although the movie itself is regarded as among the worst sports biographies, and among the worst biographical films ever to come out of Hollywood). Despite these starring parts, Bendix was most widely seen in key supporting roles, such as the brutal private investigator in The Dark Corner (1946) or the larcenous army investigator in The Big Steal (1949). He even got to do a comic turn in a period piece, portraying Sir Sagramore in A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court (1949).
During the 1940s, Bendix also took on the role that would make him a millionaire. As Chester A. Riley, the lovable but hapless family man and factory worker on The Life of Riley on the radio, he became a star in that medium, and he eventually did the role in movies and took over the part for television as well, where he became a small-screen star during the first half of the 1950s. For all of his success in movies and on television, however, Bendix preferred working on the stage, which he found the most fulfilling medium to work in, and he devoted himself to theater work during the second half of the 1950s and the early '60s. He made very few film appearances after playing a key co-starring role in Josef von Sternberg's Macao (1952), and in the second half of the 1950s did less than one movie a year. He did television work, including one-shot appearances on anthology shows such as Screen Directors' Playhouse (in which he portrayed Dennis Hopper's sandhog father in a drama entitled High Air); and he later co-starred with Doug McClure in a short-lived Western series called Overland Trail in 1960. Bendix spent most of 1964 in the road company of the play Never Too Late. He died of cancer in December of that year.