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The Life of Riley, with William Bendix in the title role, is a popular American radio situation 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. (Marx 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. It was later reused by Benjamin J. Grimm of the Fantastic Four. The radio series also benefited from the immense popularity of a supporting character, Digby "Digger" O'Dell (John Brown), "the friendly undertaker".
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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 is of uncertain origin, and is first attested from around World War I, particularly in American servicemen. Various theories exist as to the origin, such as to an origin 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 as Peg, Riley's wife, and as Riley's mother-in law; John Brown as undertaker "Digger" O'Dell and as Riley's co-worker Jim Gillis; Francis "Dink" Trout as Waldo Binny; Tommy Cook, Bobby Ellis and Scotty Beckett each played the role of Junior during the show's run; Sharon Douglas played Babs; and in one episode Henry Morgan voiced Riley's father. Alan Reed was a regular on the show as multiple characters, including Riley's boss Mr. Stevenson and Peg's father; Shirley Mitchell played Honeybee Gillis; and Hans Conried was Uncle Baxter.
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 turned agent, 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.
Originally, William Bendix was to have appeared on both radio and television, but Bendix's RKO Radio Pictures movie contract prevented him from appearing on the television version. Instead, Jackie Gleason starred, along with Rosemary DeCamp, replacing Paula Winslowe, as wife Peg, Gloria Winters as daughter Barbara (Babs), Lanny Rees as son Chester Jr. (Junior), and Sid Tomack as Jim Gillis, Riley's manipulative best buddy and next-door neighbor. John Brown returned as the morbid counseling undertaker Digby (Digger) O'Dell ("Cheerio, I'd better be... shoveling off"; "Business is a little dead tonight"). Television's first Life of Riley won television's first Emmy (for "Best Film Made For and Shown on Television"). However, it came to an end after 26 episodes, not because of low ratings or a desire by Gleason to leave the series, but because Irving Brecher and sponsor Pabst Brewing Company reached an impasse on extending the series for a full 39-week season. Groucho Marx received a credit for "story."
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The second TV series ran for six seasons, from January 2, 1953 – May 23, 1958. It was produced by Tom McKnight for NBC, and featured William Bendix. He was supported by Marjorie Reynolds, replacing both Paula Winslowe and Rosemary DeCamp, as wife Peg, Tom D'Andrea as schemer buddy Gillis, Gloria Blondell as Gillis' wife, Honeybee, Lugene Sanders as daughter Babs, and Wesley Morgan as son Junior. This Life of Riley series with Bendix, was a ratings hit, ranking at #16 in its first season, with four of its six seasons in the top 30, and ran for a total of 217 episodes. It then went into syndicated reruns.
In all of the show's incarnations, the comedic plotlines centered around Riley himself, a gullible and occasionally clumsy (but big-hearted) lug, and the doings and undoings of his family. Riley's penchant for turning mere trouble into near-disaster through his well-intentioned bumbling was often aided or instigated by his arch best friend/next-door neighbor, Gillis.
In several ways, Riley was a prototype for later blue-collar sitcom protagonists such as blustery, get-rich-quick schemer Ralph Kramden and his animated stone-age counterpart Fred Flintstone; blustery bigot Archie Bunker; benign, bighearted Dan Conner; and King of Queens Doug Heffernan. Perhaps the greatest tribute to The Life of Riley was paid by Married... with Children: Ed O'Neill's language and manner of speaking as Al Bundy are remarkably similar to Bendix's, and Al's wife, like Riley's, is named Peg. Bendix's Riley, especially, was perhaps too guileless to be the true prototype for this group, but for making blue-collar characters as operable on television as on radio or in film, Chester Riley earned his place in broadcasting history.
The final season and a half, broadcast from January of 1957 through June of 1958, was filmed and originally broadcast in color, although only black-and-white film prints of those final episodes were syndicated. Fans hope that when the entire series is released on DVD that the color episodes will appear in color.
William Bendix and Sterling Holloway, 1957.
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