Riley worked in an aircraft plant in California, but viewers usually saw him at home, cheerfully disrupting life with his malapropisms and ill timed intervention into minor problems. His ...
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Riley worked in an aircraft plant in California, but viewers usually saw him at home, cheerfully disrupting life with his malapropisms and ill timed intervention into minor problems. His ... See full summary »
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Ann B. Davis,
Riley worked in an aircraft plant in California, but viewers usually saw him at home, cheerfully disrupting life with his malapropisms and ill timed intervention into minor problems. His stock answer to every turn of fate became a catch phrase: 'What a revoltin' development this is!"Written by
THE LIFE OF RILEY (1949) has an interesting history for that it is remembered, if at all, solely as the role created by William Bendix. This in part is true, for that Bendix did originate the role of Chester A. Riley on radio in 1944. Although it's been said that he was unavailable to star in the proposed TV series in 1949, he did get to star as Riley in the 1949 Universal-International movie version of that same name with Rosemary DeCamp as his wife, Peg (which at one time aired on American Movie Classics in the late 1980s).
As for the TV series, the Dumont network substituted the unavailable Bendix for the not-so-well-known Jackie Gleason as Riley; with Rosemary DeCamp as Peg; Lanny Rees as son, Junior; and Gloria Winters as daughter, Babs; along with Sid Tomack as Riley's friend, Gillis. After 26 episodes, the series was cancelled in early 1950. Then in 1953, THE LIFE OF RILEY was brought back to television (NBC), this time with William Bendix playing Riley and Marjorie Reynolds as Peg. The new series lasted five successful years. By the time THE LIFE OF RILEY ended its run in1958, Jackie Gleason had won immortality with his role as Ralph Kramden in THE HONEYMOONERS series from 1955-56, which enjoys TV reruns up to this very day. But as for Gleason's role as Riley, it has become long forgotten, until ...
New York City's own WPIX, Channel 11, resurrected THE LIFE OF RILEY series in February 1977 and played it only on weekends during the 11 p.m. to midnight time slot, following Gleason's ever popular THE HONEYMOONERS. It remained on that channel for the next few years before being moved to 5 a.m. and disappearing from TV land once again by 1986.
THE LIFE OF RILEY opens with a whistling underscore (long before THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) with the camera focusing on the drawing sketch of the outside of a house with the lights turning on, which fades to THE LIFE OF RILEY starring Jackie Gleason and Rosemary DeCamp, followed by a guest star name, if any. While watching this 1949 sit-com, many things came to mind. First, Jackie Gleason was surprisingly slim with his hair sometimes blondish (later darker) and/or curly, not the "fat man" he made famous years later as Ralph Kramden; second, the show was done on film, not the usual kinoscope (frequently used in early TV) that makes the show appear faded and sound distant; and third, this early TV show even had a laugh track and possibly the use of three camera operation - two years before I LOVE LUCY (1951) had claimed to be the first to use these techniques. As for the episodes, I found Episode One to be the funniest, in which, in typical TV sit-com format, Riley believes he's going to die when he mistakes a butcher's message with that of his doctor's, messages that got mixed up by Junior. The episodes that followed were somewhat passable, not great. The true character who helped the series along was Digger O'Dell, the friendly undertaker (played by John Brown, who played an insurance agent in the first episode). His dry sense of humor and true mortician appearance, with funeral jokes were as welcome here as Fonzie was to HAPPY DAYS in the 1970s. Of course, Digger would exit the segment by speaking words, "I must be shoveling off." This may sound morbid to some, but Brown succeeds into making his character the one viewers eagerly await for an appearance, even for a few minutes, knowing that when he's on, there definitely is going to be some good laughs (especially when a viewer happens to be Count Dracula). Brown reprised his role in the Bendix 1949 movie version, but sadly, the Digger O'Dell character made famous in the Bendix radio series, is not visible at all in the latter Bendix TV series. Also seen in the Gleason series are Jimmy Lydon (the movies' Henry Aldrich) as Simon, the boy who loves Babs but is hated by Riley; Bobby Jellison as Waldo Binny, among others. Although a comedy series, the show did take time to have sentimental episodes, such as I in which there is a flashback that leads to the event of the birth of Chester and Peg's first baby.
Jackie Gleason does what he can in stepping into William Bendix's shoes, even though Gleason is as miscast in playing Riley as Bendix would be all wrong in playing Ralph Kramden. For those accustomed in seeing Gleason as Ralph Kramden, the blabber-mouth bus driver from Brooklyn, NY, it would also seem awkward watching Gleason playing a father of two teenagers, since his future Kramden role was fatherless. But one thing remains the same as both Riley and Ralph, his screen wife has more common sense than he does.
So whenever anyone asks the question, "Who originated the role Chester A. Riley on television," and the answer comes up "William Bendix," think again. But here's another question. Will this series ever turn up on TV again? I guess that's up to anyone wanting to place all 26 episodes onto DVD to decide.
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