Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to radio and the people “behind the microphone,” so to speak, and whether they are true or false.
RADIO URBAN LEGEND: Life of Riley was originally a Groucho Marx vehicle!
While it may be true for movies, as well, the media of Radio and Television seem to be places where the following statement is particularly true – strong performances (or, in the alternative, strong personalities) can often make the difference between a show being a classic and a show being forgotten.
A great example of this phenomenon is the classic early situation comedy from 1941 (and likely THE original situation comedy, at least in how we think of the term today), Life of Riley.
The show is basically a generic sitcom, with its sole distinguishing plot characteristic being that it is about lower middle-class people in New York City, specifically a wing riveter at an Aircraft plant named Chester A. Riley.
The title “Life of Riley” is play on the phrase “Living the life of Riley,” which means living an expensive lifestyle (this, of course, was meant as an ironic title).
While the only distinguishable plot characteristic was the setting of the sitcom, the one thing that REALLY set it apart was its star, veteran movie character actor, William Bendix.
In the able hands (and voice) of Bendix, Riley was kept from turning into an insufferable lout, which the character easily could have turned into. Riley did not have the depth of, say, a Ralph Kramden or an Archie Bunker, but Bendix still kept him grounded in life enough that listeners could root for the guy. The addition of John Brown’s gravedigger character Digby O’Dell, really sold the show, making it a permanent hit. It was even one of the rare radio hits that continued as a major hit on television (an early attempt to adapt it for television show had Riley played by none other than the future Ralph Cramden himself, Jackie Gleason) with Bendix eventually playing the character on the most successful adaptation of the show on television.
Here’s an ad for the show from one of their first sponsor, the American Meat Institute…
Amazingly enough, though, the Life of Riley almost never existed, because it was based on a failed pilot that originally starred Groucho Marx!
The idea of lower middle class situation comedy was first developed by Irving Brecher to star Groucho Marx as the head of the family. It was titled The Flotsam Family. Marx played against type a bit by playing the role completely straight, as a real actor. That displeased the potential sponsor for the series, who just could not buy Marx as the character. So the pilot episode was all that was made.
After seeing Bendix in a film, though, Brecher came up with the idea of revamping the show to be about a Bendix-esque character, and, the rest is history.
It was basically the opposite of Bendix’s Riley’s most famous catchphrase (which lives on today in the pages of the Fantastic Four via Ben Grimm, the Thing), “What a revoltin’ development dis is!”
Commenter Flo mentions that a co-biography of Irving Brecher just came out (sadly, Mr. Brecher passed away before its release) called The Wicked Wit of the West: The last great Golden-Age screenwriter shares the hilarity and heartaches of working with Groucho, Garland, Gleason, Burns, Berle, Benny and many more. Hank Rosenfeld wrote it with Brecher.
The legend is…
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is [email protected]