December 14, 1918– Jeff Chandler:
“I thought that for once I could keep my shirt on and not have to shave my chest. But today, for a man to be a hit on the screen, he has to take his shirt off.”
In that last era of true studio power in the 1950s, Universal Pictures had the strongest group of male contract players including Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson, and Jeff Chandler. Chandler worked in a few top productions, but mostly he found himself with jobs in B-pictures. But, he was still a very popular movie star with his photograph frequently featured in the fan magazines. He certainly had arresting features: 6’3’’, premature curly silver hair, dimpled chin, warm sexy eyes. He possessed a strong low voice and a heroic quality that made him especially well-suited for Westerns and War films. Like many contract players, Chandler had little say in which projects he did and he suffered from crappy scripts even though he was a good actor.
Chandler was born Ira Gossel in Brooklyn. He studied drama at the Feagin School at Rockefeller Center and made his professional debut in The Trojan Horse at the Mill Pond Playhouse on Long Island in 1941.
Chandler enlisted in the US Army in 1942. A year later, he was a second lieutenant in an army aircraft division and spent two years stationed in the Aleutians Islands. After WW II, he was discharged from the Army in California and like a lot of hot guys just back from the war, he got himself to Hollywood. He smartly got rid of Ira Gossel and took Van Johnson’s character name from Easy To Wed (1946) after seeing a matinee.
Chandler appeared more than 50 times on Lux Radio Theater and other radio shows, including playing the teacher Eve Arden moons over on the popular Our Miss Brooks. He caught his lucky break when he was cast in a small role on an episode of Rogue’s Gallery starring Dick Powell. Powell’s insistence on Chandler for a part in his film won him a small role in Johnny O’Clock (1947). Chandler, on his good fortune, commented:
“Dick’s been keeping his eye on me ever since. People are always doing things for me and I’m not that nice of a guy. They’re impressed with my size.”
The Powell gig led to a 10 year contract at Universal. He was cast in Sword Of The Desert (1949) as a Jewish underground leader guiding refugees to Palestine. Universal loaned Chandler to Twentieth Century-Fox for Broken Arrow (1950), with the stipulation that he receive star billing. Chandler returned to his home studio a star.
“Fox was looking for a guy big enough physically to play the Indian warrior Cochise and weird enough to film audiences to lend authenticity to the part. I seemed to fit the bill.”
Broken Arrow is a rather good, engrossing action packed Western, and a rare film for the time in attempting to authentically depict Native Americans with some degree of sensitivity. Chandler received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor his performance, losing to George Sanders for All About Eve.
Chandler got top billing for the first time in Smuggler’s Island (1951) and he played Cochise for a second time in The Battle At Apache Pass (1952).
Chandler wanted to be a singer also and he made his musical debut on The Peggy Lee Show in 1952. Decca Records signed him to a contract and he started his own label, Chandler Music Company. He released popular versions of I Should Care and Lamplight, plus he composed and sang the title song for Six Bridges To Cross (1955), a Tony Curtis vehicle. Chandler packed the house with his nightclub act in Las Vegas.
Universal continued to cast Chandler as an Indian in The Great Sioux Uprising (1953) and War Arrow (1953), and as an Asian in East Of Sumatra (1953), Yankee Pasha (1954), and as Attila T. Hun in Sign Of The Pagan (1954).
Universal gave poor Chandler a lot of junkie jobs, but thankfully the studio did give us the delicious camp classic Female On The Beach (1955), a flick I never get tired of seeing in its fully demented Joan Crawford madness. The film’s premise is so fully nutty, with dialogue that is so unintentionally funny that every scene is memorably quotable. The casting, location, costumes, and music are insane.
Crawford requested Chandler for her leading man even though she was 50 years old and Chandler was 37. He never gets as dramatic as Crawford, but he does get to say lines like:
“I don’t hate women. I just hate the way they are.”
With his beach wardrobe, he manages to look just like “Race” Bannon, the character from the mid-1960s Saturday morning cartoon, Jonny Quest, said to be based on the prematurely-gray Chandler. I always thought it was disconcerting to have a crush on an animated character. For sheer high camp at high tide, Female On The Beach is a tasty camp confection…a must see.
Frustrated with the work offered at Universal, Chandler formed his own production company in 1959. The Plunderers (1960) was the company’s debut film and Chandler’s final Western. He produced and played the lead in The Story Of David (1960), filmed on location in Israel.
Chandler also did Twentieth Century-Fox’s sequel to their highly successful Peyton Place (1957), Return To Peyton Place (1961) directed by Jose Ferrer. He also produced Merrill’s Marauders (1962), which got terrific reviews for Samuel Fuller’s taut direction and Chandler’s performance. During filming in the Philippines, Chandler sustained a back injury so severe that he was admitted to a Manilla hospital to receive morphine shots to continue filming. After the movie was completed, Chandler returned to Los Angeles and entered a hospital to undergo surgery for a ruptured spinal disc, a seven-hour operation that required transfusions of 55 pints of blood. A week later there was a second surgery, but a few days later, Chandler’s final credits rolled, gone under very mysterious circumstances at just 42 years old.
Chandler’s ex-wife and their children sued his surgeon and the hospital for malpractice, assault and battery, and wrongful death. The Screen Actors Guild brought an actors’ petition demanding an official investigation. The California State Bureau Of Hospitals investigation absolved the hospital of charges of negligence, but discovered 27 counts of non-compliance. The hospital paid out $233,358.42 in a settlement to avoid bad press.
Tid-bits: When his pal Sammy Davis, Jr. lost an eye in an accident, Chandler offered to give Davis one of his own eyes, an act of kindness that so moved Davis that it led to his conversion to Judaism.
Chandler had an affair with wet star Esther Williams. She claimed in her 1999 memoir, Million Dollar Mermaid, that Chandler was a crossdresser and that was why she broke off the relationship.
Chandler had the looks and the body that was popular in the male physique magazines of his era. He also looked like one of the Biblical heroes on the mural in my Sunday school class. He had that yummy Jewishness that I always went for. He was just impossibly handsome. His real name may have been Ira Grossel but his screen-name got it exactly right.