Doctors, Lawyers and genial Gentlemen – Lew Ayres (1908 – 1996)

Posted in Rewind by - October 05, 2014
Doctors, Lawyers and genial Gentlemen – Lew Ayres (1908 – 1996)

A talented actor who often played the nice guy; Lew Ayres characters were often quiet in nature but strong in stature. A prolific television performer he also starred in some large-scale epics and cult second features.

Born Lewis Frederick Ayre III on December 28th 1908, Lew Ayres had no intention of being an actor. Dropping out of college, he was spotted by a talent scout and entered movies in 1929. That same year he co-starred with Greta Garbo in her final silent movie; ‘The Kiss’ (’29), and it was only a year later that Ayres starred in the film for which he is perhaps most remembered for. Playing German soldier Paul Bäumer in the classic anti-war film ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (’30), the movie went on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The experience of the movie affected Lew deeply, and when he was later drafted into WWII, he was by now a conscientious objector. Ostracised for a while, he went on to become a noted medic during WWII and later won Hollywood favour again.

A good role came in 1938 when he played Katherine Hepburn’s drunken brother, in the excellent romantic comedy ‘Holiday’, with Cary Grant. That same year Lew signed with MGM, and between 1938 and 1942 played the popular role of Doctor James Kildare in nine feature films, beginning with ‘Young Dr. Kildare’ (’38). After the series ended in 1942, Ayres had one of his best roles in Robert Siodmak’s superb drama ‘The Dark Mirror’ (’46). He was a kind doctor analysing Olivia de Havilland’s twin sisters, to determine which one of them committed a murder. After falling for the good twin, he soon realises that the evil one is out to destroy them. My favourite performance from Lew was as the kindly doctor in ‘Johnny Belinda’ (’48), helping Jane Wyman’s deaf-mute come out of her shell. It was a wonderful performance and earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination, losing out to Laurence Olivier’s ‘Hamlet’.

The Fifties gave Lew little in the way of good parts, with his best one coming at the beginning of the decade. In John Sturges intriguing 1950 drama ‘The Capture’, he played a man seeking to amend for the death of a police suspect, while becoming involved in the dead man’s widow, played by Teresa Wright. After slumming it through a couple of dodgy pictures, including the bland noir ‘No Escape’, and the trashy sci-fi ‘Donovan’s Brain’ (both ’53), Lew would spend the rest of the decade in television, including a handful of Playhouse productions.

A couple of decent parts came in the early Sixties, first playing the Vice President in Otto Preminger’s overlong but powerful political melodrama ‘Advise and Consent’ (’62). The other was in Edward Dmykryk’s trashy soaper ‘The Carpetbaggers’ (’64), as George Peppard’s lawyer; “Mac” McAllister. After more television work, Lew appeared in some interesting if not successful movies in the Seventies. After a part in Disney’s seldom seen dog drama ‘The Biscuit eater’ (’72), he took a small role in the sci-fi sequel ‘Battle for the Planet of the Apes’ (’73), the last and weakest entry in the five-film series. One good picture around this time (again as a doctor) was the 1972 television movie ‘She Waits’, starring Patty Duke as a new bride possessed by her husbands deceased former wife. After the tepid sci-fi thriller ‘End of the World’ (’77), Lew had a memorable death scene beneath the ice, in the entertaining horror sequel ‘Damien- Omen II’ (’78).

Between many television appearances in the Seventies and Eighties Lew played another doctor, in Terence Hill’s 1984 Italian comedy ‘The World of Don Camillo’, his last cinematic release. After a few more TV appearances, Ayres retired from the screen in 1994. Married three times, including to actresses Lola Lane (’31 – ’33), and Ginger Rogers (’34 – ’40); Lew Ayres died on December 30th 1996, of complications from a coma, just two days after his 88th birthday. He left a widow of 32 years, Diana Hall, and their son Justin. A warm, likable lead actor, Lew Ayres gave gravitas to some memorable movies in an interesting career spanning 65 years.

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