We make no bones about it: we are enormous Dan Duryea fans.
No classic Hollywood star that we know of presented himself so convincingly onscreen as a sadistic villain, sleazy woman abuser and confirmed bad guy — and yet led his private offscreen life in more exemplary fashion.
Explored in author Mike Peros’ welcome new biography of the actor (Dan Duryea: Heel with a Heart, published by University Press of Mississippi, 221 pages) is the notion of the contrast between (the actor’s) screen image as one of cinema’s nastiest scoundrels and the reality of his life as one of Hollywood’s most honorable and decent men, a faithful husband and devoted father.
Duryea was married only once, a union that lasted 35 years until his wife’s death.
He avoided the party circuit. He was the attentive father to two sons. He joined the PTA, and was involved with Cub Scouts. He loved sailboats and gardening. He joined civic groups and was an early environmentalist. The actor genuinely cared about his family, his friends (most of whom were not in the Hollywood community) and his town, writes Peros.
Onscreen was another matter entirely. Duryea was tall, lean, and sported a voice tinged with a nasty whine. He invariably dressed to be noticed.The characters he played enjoyed slapping leading ladies onscreen — a trait that earned him the sobriquet “the sadistic dandy.”
No wonder he was one of the biggest males stars of Forties and Fifties film noir. The irony was that the more leading ladies Duryea roughed up, the more fan mail he received from female fans all over the world.
In a piece headlined, Duryea Says Heel Roles Keep Him Well Heeled, legendary columnist Hedda Hopper wrote that the actor consulted a psychiatrist — not on his own behalf but to try and figure out why his nasty screen portrayals elicited such a huge fan response.
Onscreen, Duryea was completely politically incorrect, observed film noir historian Eddie Muller in his informative commentary for the DVD release of 1949’s Too Late For Tears. In that one, Duryea slaps Lizabeth Scott around.
At the height of his popularity, Duryea was actually promoted and sold by the studios explicitly for his onscreen caddishness. (The one sheet advertising Too Late For Tears shows Scott being struck under the headline, That’s Just To Remind You…You’re In A Tough Racket Now!)
Actually, according to Muller, Duryea’s first big role came in 1945 in director Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window, in which dangerous Dan as a dead man’s bodyguard hauls off against Joan Bennett. The scene had such an impact on audiences that variations of it were repeated in Duryea’s succeeding pictures. (In Paramount’s 1949 thriller, Dan pitches Dorothy Lamour off a tall building.)
The actor perfectly played the “McGoof,” said Muller, a term coined by writer Damon Runyon referring to a man who took advantage of women, then brushed them off when he had used them and taken all their money. Duryea did this better than anyone else in movie history.
The reality: Duryea was a cultivated (he studied English lit. at Cornell and grew up in White Plains, N.Y.), stage-trained actor whose private life, as noted, was the soul of domesticity. His wife, Helen Bryan, was his high school sweetheart. Their marriage ended at her death in 1967; Duryea was 61 when he succumbed the following year to cancer.
Dan Duryea: Heel With A Heart is a gracefully written, much-needed accounting of the actor’s life and career, providing a granular look at his prolific output covering more than 100 credits — westerns and comedies besides film noir — spread over nearly 35 years.
As author Peros writes, Duryea was a consummate actor and a gentleman until the end.