Dan Duryea : Heel With a Heart
By Mike Peros
Dan Duryea is one those actors who is unforgettably identifiable. I can still recall the first time I saw him on the TV screen as a kid who loved westerns. I had no idea who the actor’s name was but to this day I’ve never forgotten his character’s name, Whitey Kincade. It was an Audie Murphy western titled Ride Clear of Diablo. Duryea was of course the bad guy opposite Audie’s good guy but Duryea’s outlaw was so damned likable I was rooting for him at the fadeout. From that moment forward, I knew that I was going to be a life long fan of the actor who played a heel who did indeed have a heart as Whitey Kincade, Dan Duryea.
To this day actors are still being typecast though I don’t believe it’s as noticeable as it was during the studio era and Dan Duryea is a prime example of an actor who never escaped the indelible impression he made on movie goers as a despicable character in his film debut, The Little Foxes. Duryea was cast in the film after scoring a success in the role on Broadway. It’s interesting to note that an earlier stage role got him noticed for The Little Foxes play. That of the cowardly Bob Ford who famously shot Mr. Howard (Jesse James) in the back. Right from the beginning it would appear that Duryea’s career path was set as a man who could deliver villainy to the masses. And do it superbly.
Not knowing much besides the obvious in the career of Duryea, Peros book gives us a look behind the villainy at a devoted family man who was married to the same woman, Helen, from 1932 till her sudden death in 1967. He fathered two children, Peter and Richard and again seemed to do his best to raise them outside the world of Hollywood. Peros covers Dan’s career trajectory from Foxes forward in films where the studios continued to showcase his villainy and those that tried to break the mold. Films like The Pride of the Yankees and Sahara opposite Bogie. Mostly to no avail and when he teamed with Fritz Lang for a trio of titles, he proved a perfect fit for the world of Noir and left us many classics to enjoy. The Woman In The Window, Black Angel, Criss Cross and Too Late For Tears which has recently been rescued from obscurity to great acclaim.
With the fifties came the western and Dan’s encounter with Jimmy Stewart in Winchester ’73 is as explosive a scene as the western had yet delivered up to 1950. Dan proved himself a great addition for western movies during the height of the genre’s popularity. The book also brought to my attention the movies where he continued to attempt a change of image. Comedies like White Tie and Tails or Kathy ‘O and his move to television as China Smith, a show he headlined for two separate stints. The book also serves as an overview of the extensive television work that Duryea did throughout the 50’s and 60’s.
I rarely miss an opportunity to see a Dan Duryea film that may be new to me so I’ll admit to skipping over some of the pages within Peros’ book as he has a tendency to play spoiler. If I had seen the movie he’s recounting I would read on but if it’s a new to me title then I’d read the historical data but scan past the plot summary. No harm done.
If anything I came away liking Duryea the man and that’s not something I say about every film star I read about from the past. One thing the book does is compare Dan to Richard Widmark and that’s something that seems so obvious yet I’d never done it. They kind of look alike and appear to be about the same size. Both started off playing outright villains. The difference is Widmark got out from under Tommy Udo’s long shadow though it still lingered for the balance of his illustrious career. Truthfully, I was reminded of Robert Ryan when reading this. Like Ryan, Dan was married to the same woman for life and stayed out of the Hollywood lifestyle preferring to raise a family and get involved in local small town activities. Both actors are heavily remembered for their contributions to the Noir genre but were easily cast in westerns and dramas. And again, both actors never really escaped their first success. Dan’s Little Foxes and Ryan’s Crossfire.
A worthwhile edition for those looking to read up on both Duryea the star and Duryea the family man.
So while the smiling Whitey Kincade is my earliest memory of Dan, what’s yours?