Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

TINTYPE TUESDAY: Dan Duryea — Gardener and Cub Scout Leader!

Welcome to another edition of TINTYPE TUESDAY!

A few years ago, between films of a double feature at the Film Forum in New York (Black Angel and Criss Cross), this old guy sitting next to me muttered, to no one in particular, “I wonder if that was really Dan Duryea playing the piano.”

And I jumped in with something like, “Oh yes, it was! And you can tell by his hands—those long, tapering fingers—that he’d be a good at it. You know, he grew up not far from here, in White Plains! And then went to Cornell, where he was head of the drama society, right after Franchot Tone. But then he went into advertising, which he thought was more stable, but it was so stressful he had a heart attack! Can you imagine! And he didn’t get into movies until he was in his thirties and…”

When I finally paused to breathe, I realized I wasn’t the only one who needed a little air. The guy I was talking to—okay, yammering to—looked a little scared. He jumped up and said, “I’m just gonna go get a soda…” Then he scurried up the aisle, his white hair flying over the back of his shirt collar. He never came back.

Yes, I gushed so hard over Dan Duryea that I frightened an old man. Usually when I go to a revival theater on the odd Wednesday afternoon, I run into a troubled loner or two. That day, apparently, it was me.

I never even got to tell the guy that Dan was a homebody at heart…

…and that any resemblance between him and his characters was purely coincidental—though his choice of roles was intentional.

“I looked in the mirror and knew with my ‘puss’ and 155-pound-weakling body, I couldn’t pass for a leading man, and I had to be different,” Duryea once said in an interview with Hedda Hopper. “So I chose to be the meanest S.O.B. in the movies. Strictly against my mild nature, as I’m an ordinary peace-loving husband and father.” (Okay I’m just gonna interrupt him here to say is there anything more fabulous than a great-looking guy who has no idea how attractive he is?)

When the conversation turned to co-stars, Duryea admitted to a favorite: “Joan Bennett… a true professional and so easy to work with in the two films we made with Eddie Robinson, The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street… I found her very attractive.” But the guy couldn’t even talk about her without bringing up his wife: “Before you ask, Hedda, no, I did not have an affair with her or any other of my co-stars for one very good reason: I was very happily married and never broke my vows.”

Dan and Helen Duryea and their sons, Peter and Richard, lived in a sprawling, Mediterranean-style house on Mulholland Drive, on a hilltop overlooking Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley. Soon after he bought the house, he began planting roses, lilacs and peonies, which thrived in the SoCal sun but still required lots of attention. Eventually, Dan was tenderly caring for about 175 rose bushes. (Always, it seems, while wearing that one hat.)

sis-duryea-14

Dan was even more devoted to dogs. First came a cocker spaniel named Jerry and then a mutt named—aw, go ahead, take a guess—Blackie.

He even had a favorite comfy chair—the only thing he brought with him from his days in New York—where he’d read scripts and make notes. Most of the books on the shelves were about photography, gardening and boating; he never read murder mysteries, as they kept him up nights.

And while in the pix below, he might seem to be saying, “Here’s where I shove Joan onto the bed!” he was scrupulous about protecting his kids from his seamier screen side. “We weren’t allowed to go to his movies, because he didn’t think it was a good thing for us to see him slapping women,” Richard recalled at a 2013 film festival.

Home movies, though, were an altogether different affair, often featuring the kids’ Cub and Boy Scout outings (Dan was a troop leader, and also active in the PTA).

But sometimes his movie roles spilled over, at least a little bit, into his serene family life. For instance, if you’ve ever wondered what it looks like when a notorious outlaw takes his kids to the amusement park, here’s your chance. (The sideburns were for the title role in Black Bart.)

P.S.: If you’d like to see Black Angel, the movie I was gushing over in the theater the day I sent the old man screaming for the lobby, the whole film is right here; I featured it in one of my Streaming Saturdays.

TINTYPE TUESDAY is a regular feature on Sister Celluloid, with fabulous classic movie pix (and backstory!) to help you make it to Hump Day! For previous editions, just click hereand why not bookmark the page, to make sure you never miss a week?

11 Comments

  1. Love love love finding out about the “vintage” stars real personalities, and especially when they turn out to be regular people! Thanks for the insights!

    • You’re most welcome!! Happy to share the behind-the-scenes stories and the Dan Duryea love!! 🙂

  2. What a wonderful post. I love Duryea even more now.

  3. Great pictures. Screen and real life so different. Who doesn’t love Dan!

  4. I’m having difficulty processing this. Lol. He was a brilliant actor for sure, even more so than I ever realized.

  5. I love Dan Duryea. One of my favourite noir players.

  6. I love this look at Duryea, the family man. How fortunate his wife and sons were that he was loyal and gave them a stable life to thrive in. As a Boy Scout Shop worker, I am doubly thrilled to learn about his activity with BSA and his sons-how neat is that!!!

  7. This makes me love him even more! I’ve yet to watch a Dan Duryea movie I haven’t loved. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Nice feature on Dan and something beyond what we see on the screen. Such a likable bad guy!

    • Thanks so much, Mike!! Yes, he was fabulously bad onscreen and just plain fabulous offscreen!! 🙂

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