Dan Duryea (January 23, 1907 – June 7, 1968) was an American actor in film, stage
and television. Known for portraying a vast range of character roles as a villain, he
nonetheless had a long career in a wide variety of leading and secondary roles.
Born and raised in White Plains, New York, Duryea graduated from White Plains High
School in 1924 and Cornell University in 1928. While at Cornell, he was elected
into the prestigious Sphinx Head Society, Cornell’s oldest senior honor society. He
majored in English with a strong interest in drama, and in his senior year succeeded
Franchot Tone as president of the college drama society.
As his parents did not approve of his choice to pursue an acting career, Duryea
became an advertising executive, but after six stress-filled years, had a heart attack
that sidelined him for a year.
Returning to his earlier love of acting and the stage, Duryea made his name on
Broadway in the play Dead End, followed by The Little Foxes, in which he portrayed
Leo Hubbard. In 1940, Duryea moved to Hollywood to appear in the film version of
The Little Foxes. He continued to establish himself with supporting and secondary
roles in films such as The Pride of the Yankees and None But the Lonely Heart. As
the 1940s progressed, he found his niche as the “sniveling, deliberately taunting”
antagonist in a number of film noir subjects (Scarlet Street, The Woman in the
Window, Criss Cross, Too Late for Tears) and westerns such as Along Came Jones
and Black Bart, although he was sometimes cast in more sympathetic roles (Black
Angel, One Way Street). In 1946, exhibitors voted him the eighth most promising “star
In the 1950s, Duryea co-starred with James Stewart in three films, Winchester ’73 (as
the dastardly “Waco Johnny” Dean), Thunder Bay, and Night Passage. He was
featured in several other westerns, including Silver Lode, Ride Clear of Diablo, and
The Marauders, and in more film-noir productions like 36 Hours, Chicago Calling,
Storm Fear, and The Burglar, not always as the film’s villain but often.
When interviewed by Hedda Hopper in the early 1950s, Duryea spoke of career goals
and his preparation for roles:
“Well, first of all, let’s set the stage or goal I set for myself when I decided to become
an actor … not just ‘an actor’, but a successful one. I looked in the mirror and knew
with my ‘puss’ and 155-pound weakling body, I couldn’t pass for a leading man, and I
had to be different. And I sure had to be courageous, so I chose to be the meanest
s.o.b. in the movies … strictly against my mild nature, as I’m an ordinary, peace-loving
husband and father. Inasmuch, as I admired fine actors like Richard Widmark, Victor
Mature, Robert Mitchum, and others who had made their early marks in the dark,
sordid, and guilt-ridden world of film noir; here, indeed, was a market for my talents. I
thought the meaner I presented myself, the tougher I was with women, slapping them
around in well produced films where evil and death seem to lurk in every nightmare
alley and behind every venetian blind in every seedy apartment, I could find a market
for my screen characters…. At first it was very hard as I am a very even-tempered
guy, but I used my past life experiences to motivate me as I thought about some of
the people I hated in my early as well as later life … like the school bully who used to
try and beat the hell out of me at least once a week … a sadistic family doctor that
believed feeling pain when he treated you was the birthright of every man inasmuch
as women suffered giving birth … little incidents with trade-people who enjoyed acting
superior because they owned their business, overcharging you. Then the one I used
when I had to slap a woman around was easy! I was slapping the over-bearing
teacher who would fail you in their ‘holier-than-thou’ class and enjoy it! And especially
the experiences I had dealing with the unbelievable pompous ‘know-it-all-experts’ that
I dealt with during my advertising agency days … almost going ‘nuts’ trying to please
these ‘corporate heads’ until I finally got out of that racket!”
In his last years, Duryea rejoined former co-star Stewart for the adventure film The
Flight of the Phoenix, about men stranded in the Sahara desert by a downed airplane.
He worked in overseas film productions including the Italian western The Hills Run
Red (1966) and the spy thriller Five Golden Dragons (1967) in West Germany, while
continuing to find roles on American television. He also appeared twice on the big
screen with his son, character actor Peter Duryea, in the low-budget westerns
Taggart (1964), and The Bounty Killer (1965).
Duryea starred as the lead character China Smith in the television series China Smith
from 1952 to 1956, and The New Adventures of China Smith from 1953 to 1954.
He spoofed his tough-guy image in a comedy sketch about a robbery on the Feb. 20,
1955 episode of The Jack Benny Program.
Duryea guest starred as Roy Budinger, the self-educated mastermind of a criminal
ring dealing in silver bullion, in the episode “Terror Town” on October 18, 1958 of
NBC’s western series Cimarron City.
In 1959, Duryea appeared as an alcoholic gunfighter in third episode of The Twilight
Zone, “Mr. Denton on Doomsday.” He guest starred on NBC’s anthology series The
Barbara Stanwyck Show and appeared in an episode of Rawhide in 1959, “Incident
Of The Executioner.” On September 15, 1959, Duryea guest starred as the outlaw
Bud Carlin in the episode “Stage Stop,” the premiere of NBC’s Laramie western
series. Duryea appeared again as Luke Gregg on Laramie on October 25, 1960, in
the episode “The Long Riders.” Duryea also put in a great comic performance in The
Alfred Hitchcock Hour in an episode called “Three Wives Too Many” (1964).
Three weeks later, on November 16, 1960, Duryea played a mentally unstable
pioneer obsessed by demons and superstitions in “The Bleymier Story” of NBC’s
Wagon Train. Elen Willard played his daughter; James Drury, his daughter’s suitor.
Duryea was cast twice in 1960 as Captain Brad Turner in consecutive episodes of the
NBC western series Riverboat.
In 1963, Duryea portrayed Dr. Ben Lorrigan on NBC’s medical drama, The Eleventh
Hour. From 1967 to 1968, he appeared in a recurring role as Eddie Jacks on the soap
opera Peyton Place.
Duryea was quite different from the unsavory characters he often portrayed. He was
married for 35 years to his wife, Helen, until her death in January 1967. The couple
had two sons: Peter (who worked for a time as an actor), and Richard, a talent agent.
At home, Duryea lived a quiet life at his house in the San Fernando Valley, devoting
himself to gardening, boating, and community activities that included, at various times,
active membership in the local parent-teacher association, and Scout Master of a Boy
On June 7, 1968, Duryea died of cancer at the age of 61. The New York Times
tellingly noted the passing of a “heel with sex appeal.” His remains are interred in
Forest Lawn – Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.