Four Noir Fellas: Show Biz Beginnings
Last month’s Noir Nook focused on the opening scenes from some of my favorite noir features. In a further nod to the start of the new year, this month I’m taking a look at four of my favorite noir fellas, and how they got their starts on the silver screen.
Born Nicholas Peter Conte in Jersey City, New Jersey, this future noir star was the son of a neighborhood barber who insisted that his son take lessons in piano and art. Although he organized and performed in a jazz band during high school, Conte was a mediocre, unfocused student, and after graduation, he took on a variety of jobs, quitting when he got bored or getting fired for failing to fulfill his duties. (He was once dismissed as a floor walker at a department store for “permitting women to wear more clothes out of the store than they had when they entered,” he recalled.) His life took on a notable focus in 1935, when he landed a job as a waiter at the Pinebrook Country Club in Connecticut, where he was required to entertain the guests in addition to waiting tables. Conte’s performance in a play at the country club was spotted by a member of The Group Theatre, who suggested he pursue an acting career and later arranged a scholarship for him at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. Conte remained at the Playhouse for two years; he debuted on Broadway in 1939 in My Heart’s in the Highlands, the first play penned by William Saroyan, then landed the title role in the road company of Golden Boy. After this production, Conte decided to give Hollywood a try, and was quickly signed by 20th Century-Fox, earning fourth billing in his first film, a western called Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence (1939).
Born in White Plans, New York, Dan Duryea first showed a fondness for acting as a member of his high school’s drama club and, later, at Cornell University, where he succeeded future star Franchot Tone as president of the Dramatic Club. By the time he graduated, though, Duryea had decided to pursue an advertising career, and he landed a job selling ad space in small daily and weekly newspapers. After several years in this field, Duryea suffered a mild heart attack during a basketball game, and was encouraged by his doctors to choose a less stressful job. He turned to his former love for acting, finding small roles in summer stock and making his Broadway debut in 1935 in Dead End (written by a former Cornell classmate, Sidney Kingsley). For 85 weeks, Duryea played small parts in the production, but toward the end of the play’s run, he was given the lead role. This led to a string of additional roles, and a few years later, he was hired for the part of Leo Hubbard in the Broadway production of The Little Foxes, starring Tallulah Bankhead. When producer Sam Goldwyn bought the rights to the film, he hired Duryea to reprise his role and he made his big-screen debut in the feature in 1941.
Ryan was born in Chicago, the first child of a well-to-do building contractor. While a student at Dartmouth College, Ryan was editor of the school newspaper, participated in track and football, and became the first freshman to win the college’s heavyweight boxing championship. After graduating with a degree in English, Ryan toiled at a number of jobs, including digging sewer tunnels, working in the engine room on an ocean liner, and serving as paving supervisor for the Works Progress Administration. (“I just didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Ryan later recalled. “If times had been different, people would have called me a bum.”) Finally, in 1936, Ryan joined an amateur theater group in Chicago, and two years later, he moved to Los Angeles to join the Max Reinhardt Workshop. After making his professional stage debut in Too Many Husbands at the Belasco Theatre, he was spotted by a Paramount talent scout and signed to a contract. In his first film, Golden Gloves (1940), he was able to put his boxing skills to good use, playing a bit part as a boxer.
A native of Sunrise, Minnesota, Richard Widmark once claimed to have been a “movie nut” since the age of three, and while he wasn’t necessarily interested in acting, he discovered early on that he had an affinity for public speaking. With plans to utilize this ability as a lawyer, Widmark enrolled at Lake Forest (Illinois) College as a pre-law student, but while there, he was encouraged by the school’s drama coach to pursue an acting career. After his graduation, he remained at the school for two years, teaching speech and drama, then headed for New York, where a former classmate gave him a job on the radio series, Aunt Jenny’s Real Life Stories. He appeared in countless radio programs during the next several years, sometimes as many as eight a day, from morning until midnight. Rejected for service in the U.S. Army due to a perforated eardrum, Widmark entertained servicemen during the war years as part of the American Theatre Wing, and he made his Broadway debut in 1943, in Kiss and Tell, playing a young Army Air Corps lieutenant. He went on to appear in several other theater productions, and got his big-screen break when Hollywood director Henry Hathaway visited New York to cast the role of a vicious hoodlum in his upcoming film, Kiss of Death (1947). Although Hathaway didn’t want Widmark (“I have a high forehead – he said I looked too intellectual,” Widmark said.), he was overruled by studio head Darryl Zanuck, and Widmark debuted in the film, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Who are some of your favorite noir performers? Let me know and I’ll spotlight their show biz beginnings in a future Noir Nook!
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
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