The Life of Riley
THE LIFE OF RILEY TV SHOW – SAVINGS BONDS SALESMAN – 1950’s
The cast of “The Life Of Riley” – Starring William Bendix
The Life of Riley, with William Bendix in the title role, is a popular American radiosituation comedy series of the 1940s that was adapted into a 1949 feature film, a long-run 1950s television series (originally with Jackie Gleason as Riley for one truncated season, then with Bendix for six seasons), and a 1958 comic book.
The show began as a proposed Groucho Marx radio series, The Flotsam Family, but the sponsor balked at what would have been essentially a straight head-of-household role for the comedian. (Groucho went on to host Blue Ribbon Town from 1943 to 1944 and then You Bet Your Life from 1947 to 1961.) Then producer Irving Brecher saw Bendix as taxicab company owner Tim McGuerin in Hal Roach‘s The McGuerins from Brooklyn (1942). The Flotsam Family was reworked with Bendix cast as blundering Chester A. Riley, a wing riveter at the fictional Cunningham Aircraft plant in California. His frequent exclamation of indignation—”What a revoltin’ development this is!”—became one of the most famous catchphrases of the 1940s. The radio series also benefited from the immense popularity of a supporting character, Digby “Digger” O’Dell (John Brown), “the friendly undertaker”.
The expression, “Living the life of Riley” suggests an ideal contented life, possibly living on someone else’s money, time or work. Rather than a negative freeloading or golddigging aspect, it implies that someone is kept or advantaged. The expression was popular in the 1880s, a time when James Whitcomb Riley‘s poems depicted the comforts of a prosperous home life, but it could have an Irish origin—after the Reilly clan consolidated its hold on County Cavan, they minted their own money, accepted as legal tender even in England. These coins, called “O’Reillys” and “Reilly’s” became synonymous with a monied person, and a gentleman freely spending was “living on his Reillys.”
The first Life of Riley radio show was a summer replacement show heard on CBS from April 12, 1941 to September 6, 1941. The CBS program starred Lionel Stander as J. Riley Farnsworth and had no real connection with the more famous series that followed a few years later.
The radio program starring William Bendix as Riley initially aired on the Blue Network, later known as ABC, from January 16, 1944 to June 8, 1945. Then it moved to NBC, where it was broadcast from September 8, 1945 to June 29, 1951. The supporting cast featured Paula Winslowe portraying Peg, Riley’s wife, as well as John Brown, who portrayed not only undertaker “Digger” O’Dell but also Riley’s co-worker Jim Gillis. Francis “Dink” Trout played the character of Waldo Binny. Whereas Gillis gave Riley bad information that got him into trouble, Digger gave him good information that “helped him out of a hole”, as he might have put it. Brown’s lines as the undertaker were often repetitive, including puns based on his profession; but, thanks to Brown’s delivery, the audience loved him. The program was broadcast live with a studio audience, most of whom were not aware Brown played both characters. As a result, when Digger delivered his first line, it was usually greeted with howls of laughter and applause from surprised audience members.
The series was co-developed by the non-performing Marx Brother, Gummo. The American Meat Institute (1944–45), Procter & Gamble (Teel dentifrice and Prell shampoo) (1945–49), and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer (1949–51) took turns as the radio program’s sponsor.
William Bendix starred in the 1949 film version of The Life of Riley. This prevented him from starring in the TV series that began in 1949. He took over the starring role in the TV series’ second run that started in 1953. Bendix and Rosemary DeCamp (who starred as Riley’s wife in Gleason’s version of the TV series) repeated the roles when an hour-long radio adaptation of the feature film was presented on Lux Radio Theater in May 1950.