Waldo Brian Donlevy (February 9, 1901 – April 6, 1972) was an American actor, noted for playing dangerous tough guys from the 1930s to the 1960s. He usually appeared in supporting roles. Among his best-known films are Beau Geste (1939), The Great McGinty (1940) and Wake Island (1942), in which he played the lead. For his role as Sergeant Markoff in Beau Geste, he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Donlevy starred as U.S. special agent Steve Mitchell in the radio/TV series Dangerous Assignment. Mitchell received assignments to exotic locales involving international intrigue from the Commissioner, played by Herbert Butterfield.
Donlevy’s obituary in The Times newspaper in the United Kingdom stated that “any consideration of the American ‘film noir’ of the 1940s would be incomplete without him”.
Donlevy was born in 1901 in Cleveland, Ohio, to Irish parents Rebecca (née Parks) and Thomas Donlevy, who were originally from Portadown, County Armagh. Sometime between 1910 and 1912, the family moved to Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin, where Donlevy’s father worked as a supervisor at the Brickner Woolen Mills.
Donlevy began his career in New York City in the early 1920s, appearing in many theater productions and also winning an increasing number of silent film parts. Previously, he had modeled for the illustrator J. C. Leyendecker, who produced illustrations for the famous Arrow Collar advertisements.
Donlevy had small roles in the silent films Jamestown (1923), Damaged Hearts (1924), Monsieur Beaucaire (1924), The Eve of the Revolution (1924), and School for Wives (1925). He had a small role on Broadway in the play What Price Glory (1925), which was a big hit and ran for two years, establishing him as an actor. He was in the film A Man of Quality (1926).
On Broadway he was in the popular musical Hit the Deck (1927–28), which ran for a year, then Ringside (1928), Rainbow (1928), and Queen Bee (1929). He had roles in the films Gentlemen of the Press (1929) and Mother’s Boy (1929). On stage, he appeared in Up Pops the Devil (1930–31), Peter Flies High (1931), Society Girl (1931–32), The Inside Story (1932), and The Boy Friend (1932). He was in a film short with Ethel Merman, Ireno (1932), and another short with Ruth Etting, A Modern Cinderella (1932). He returned to the stage for Three And One(1933) with Lilian Bond, a big personal success; No Questions Asked (1934); The Perfumed Lady (1934); and The Milky Way (1934). The latter led to him receiving a Hollywood offer to reprise his role in the film version but he was unable to due to a production delay. Donlevy had a final Broadway success with Life Begins at 8:40 (1934) with Bert Lahr and Ray Bolger. After that show Donlevy says “they were all signed for the movies. I thought that if they can make it I’m going to take a crack too.”
Donlevy’s break came in 1935, when he was cast in the film Barbary Coast, which was directed by Howard Hawks and produced by Samuel Goldwyn. Later in 1935, he was cast in Mary Burns, Fugitive, and the following year he received second-billing in It Happened in Hollywood and performed in a supporting role in Goldwyn’s Strike Me Pink and Paramount’s 13 Hours by Air.
“B” leading man
Donlevy had his first lead, in a “B” at Fox, in Human Cargo (1936), playing a wisecracking reporter opposite Claire Trevor. Donlevy followed it with other “B” lead roles: Half Angel (1936), High Tension (1936), 36 Hours to Kill (1936), Crack-Up (1936) with Peter Lorre, and Midnight Taxi (1937).
He supported in an “A”, This Is My Affair (1937), with Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck and Victor McLaglen. He went back to starring in a “B”, Born Reckless (1937). He was in In Old Chicago (1938) and was teamed with Victor McLaglen in Battle of Broadway (1938) and We’re Going to Be Rich (1938). Donlevy starred in Sharpshooters (1938) and was the lead villain in the studio’s prestigious Jesse James (1939).
Paramount used Donlevy in a key role in Cecil B. De Mille’s Union Pacific (1939), stepping in for Charles Bickford. He stayed at that studio for Beau Geste (1939). His performance in the latter, as the ruthless Sergeant Markoff, earned him an nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Donlevy went to Columbia to star in a “B film”, Behind Prison Gates (1939), and went to RKO for a support part in Allegheny Uprising (1939). He was the villain in Universal’s Destry Rides Again (1939).
Donlevy was then given the title role in The Great McGinty (1940) at Paramount, the directorial debut of Preston Sturges. The film was not a large hit but was profitable and received excellent reviews, launching Sturges’ career as a director. Donlevy would reprise the role several times on radio, and on television. At Universal Donlevy was in When the Daltons Rode (1940) then he went into Fox’s Brigham Young: Frontiersman (1940). Donlevy was fourth billed in I Wanted Wings (1941) then MGM borrowed him to support Robert Taylor in Billy the Kid (1941). At Universal, Donlevy was top billed in South of Tahiti (1941) and he supported Bing Crosby in Birth of the Blues (1942).
Paramount gave him a star part in The Remarkable Andrew (1942), playing Andrew Jackson, then Columbia teamed him with Pat O’Brien in Two Yanks in Trinidad (1942). Edward Small hired him to play the lead in A Gentleman After Dark (1942) and he supported Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck in Paramount’s The Great Man’s Lady (1942). In 1942, Donlevy starred in Wake Island with William Bendix and Robert Preston, playing a role based on James Devereux. The film, directed by John Farrow, was a huge big success. So too was the adaptation of Dashiell Hammet’s classic The Glass Key (1942). At Universal, Donlevy starred in Nightmare (1942), and MGM borrowed him to support Taylor again in Stand By for Action (1942). Donlevy had the lead role in Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die! (1943), made for United Artists and co-written by Bertolt Brecht. He had a cameo as Governor McGinty in Sturges’ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944).
Donlevy was given the lead role in An American Romance (1944), directed by King Vidor for MGM, in a role intended for Spencer Tracy. It was a prestigious production, but the film was a box-office and critical disappointment. He had a cameo as himself in Duffy’s Tavern (1945), and he was Trampas to Joel McCrea’s The Virginian (1946). After playing the male lead in Our Hearts Were Growing Up (1946) Donlevy was borrowed by Walter Wanger for Canyon Passage (1946).
At Paramount he was in Two Years Before the Mast (1946), although top billing went to Alan Ladd. Donlevy was originally going to play the sadistic captain, but wound up giving that role to Howard da Silva and played Richard Dana instead. At Paramount, Donlevy supported Ray Milland in The Trouble with Women (1947) then went to Fox to play a heroic DA in Kiss of Death (1947) with Victor Mature and Richard Widmark. For UA, he supported Robert Cummings in Heaven Only Knows (1947) and then went to MGM for the Killer McCoy (1947), a hit with Mickey Rooney; A Southern Yankee (1948) with Red Skelton; and Command Decision (1948) with Clark Gable. Donlevy supported Dorothy Lamour in The Lucky Stiff (1949) then starred in Arthur Lubin’s Impact (1949).
He appeared on television in The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre, and made two films for Universal-International, Shakedown (1950) and Kansas Raiders (1950) (playing William Quantrill opposite Audie Murphy’s Jesse James). He did Pulitzer Prize Playhouse on TV then went to Republic for Fighting Coast Guard (1951), Ride the Man Down (1952), Hoodlum Empire (1952) and Woman They Almost Lynched (1953) and RKO for Slaughter Trail (1952).
In 1952 he starred in and produced a TV series Dangerous Assignment which he had performed on radio from 1949 to 1954.
Donlevy focused on television: Robert Montgomery Presents, The Motorola Television Hour, Medallion Theatre, Star Stage, Climax!, Damon Runyon Theater, Kraft Theatre, Studio One in Hollywood, Crossroads, The Ford Television Theatre, The DuPont Show of the Month and Lux Video Theatre.
He had a support role in The Big Combo (1955) and played the lead in the British science-fiction horror film The Quatermass Xperiment (called The Creeping Unknown in the US) for the Hammer Films company, playing the lead role of Professor Bernard Quatermass. The film was based on a 1953 BBC Television serial of the same name. The character had been British, but Hammer cast Donlevy in an attempt to help sell the film to North American audiences. Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale disliked Donlevy’s portrayal, referring to Donlevy as “a former Hollywood heavy gone to seed”. Nonetheless the film version was a success, and Donlevy returned for the sequel, Quatermass 2 (Enemy From Space in the US), in 1957, also based on a BBC television serial. This made Donlevy the only man ever to play the famous scientist on screen twice, although Scottish actor Andrew Keir would later play him both on film and on radio.
In between the films Donlevy was in A Cry in the Night (1956). He had the lead in a “B” western, Escape from Red Rock (1957) and a support part in Cowboy (1958). He announced he had formed his own company for whom he would make a western, The Golden Spur, but it appears to have not been made. Donlevy guest-starred on TV in Rawhide, Wagon Train, Hotel de Paree, The Texan, The DuPont Show with June Allyson, Zane Grey Theater, and The Red Skelton Hour. He had support roles in Juke Box Rhythm and Never So Few (both 1959) and the lead in Girl in Room 13 (1960). Donlevy toured on stage in a production of The Andersonville Trial. He supported Jerry Lewis in The Errand Boy (1961) and Charlton Heston in The Pigeon That Took Rome (1962) and guested on Target: The Corruptors, Saints and Sinners, and The DuPont Show of the Week.
He had the lead in Curse of the Fly (1965) for Robert L. Lippert and supported in How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965). In 1966 in one of the final episodes of Perry Mason, “The Case of the Positive Negative”, Donlevy played defendant General Roger Brandon.
Donlevy’s last performances included The Fat Spy (1966), an episode of Family Affair, new American footage shot in New York for Gamera the Invincible (1966), Five Golden Dragons (1967) for Harry Alan Towers, and the A.C. Lyles films Waco (1966), Hostile Guns (1967), Arizona Bushwhackers (1968), and Rogue’s Gallery (1968).
His last film role was in Pit Stop, released in 1969.
Donlevy was married to Yvonne Grey from 1928 to 1936. She divorced him on grounds of cruelty and he agreed to pay $5,000 a month in alimony. He married actress Marjorie Lane in 1936. They had one child together and divorced in 1947. He was married to Lillian Arch Lugosi (the former wife of Bela Lugosi) from 1966 until his death in 1972.
Donlevy supported Thomas Dewey in the 1944 United States presidential election.
Donlevy was operated on for throat cancer in 1971 and died from the disease on April 6, 1972, at the Motion Picture Country Hospital in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, California. He was 71 years old. He was survived by his wife, Lillian, and a daughter, Judy Donlevy, by his second wife. His ashes were scattered over Santa Monica Bay.
|1942||Philip Morris Playhouse||The Great McGinty|
|1943||Burns and Allen||“Brian Donlevy Guest Star”|
|1946||Suspense||“Out of Control”|
|1949–1954||Dangerous Assignment||Main Role, Secret Agent Steve Mitchell|