Obituary: Richard Denning
Wednesday 14 October 1998
In the Fifties he developed a cult following for his leading roles in such monster films as The Creature From the Black Lagoon, Target Earth and The Black Scorpion, while television viewers will remember him as the Governor on Hawaii Five-0, a part he played for 12 years.
Born Louis Albert Heindrich Denninger Jnr in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1914, he was the son of a garment manufacturer and attended Woodbury Business College, graduating with a Masters in Business Administration. His father wanted him to join the family business, but Denning had already become interested in acting.
After a night-school course in drama, and performances in a small theatre, he entered a radio contest, "Do You Want To Be An Actor?", choosing to perform a scene from the film Lives of a Bengal Lancer, and won his heat - one of 13. All winners were given a screen test by Warners in the spring of 1936. "I never saw the test, and wondered if they actually put any film in the cameras, but I was later told by my agent that Warners had been impressed but told him that I was too much like another young man they had under contract - Errol Flynn!"
Securing a long-term contract with Paramount, he was advised by the head of the talent department, Ted Lesser, that a change of name was necessary. "He told me that I looked like a Richard, and that Denninger sounded too much like Dillinger, who had been Public Enemy No 1".
From 1937 to 1942 Denning made over 50 films for Paramount, many of them fleeting bit roles. He looked good in a sweater and could often be seen as a college boy or football player in such films as Hold 'Em Navy (1937, his first film) and Campus Confessions (1938). The studio had bought the (ghosted) memoirs of the FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover and made several films from its chapters. Denning was one of Bonnie and Clyde's gang in Persons in Hiding (1939), and had a prominent role as a mobster son of "Ma" Barker (Blanche Yurka) in Queen of the Mob (1940).
The following year he had his best role to date when loaned to Columbia for Adam Had Four Sons (1941). In this popular drama (Ingrid Bergman's second Hollywood film) Denning was stoically honourable as he rejected the advances of his brother's scheming wife (Susan Hayward). Paramount then gave the actor the leading role apposite Dorothy Lamour in Beyond the Blue Horizon (1942). Though one of the weakest of Lamour's "sarong" movies, it was to remain Denning's favourite Hollywood role.
But America was now at war, and after a loan-out to Fox to play a detective in the ingenous thriller Quiet Please, Murder (1942), Denning joined the Navy as a First Class Petty Officer in the submarine service. During the filming of Quiet Please, Murder, he had eloped to Las Vegas with Evelyn Ankers, who broke her engagement to the actor Glenn Ford to marry him. Known as "Queen of the Screamers" for her horror roles at Universal, Ankers frequently co-starred with the heavy drinker Lon Chaney Jnr, with whom she did not get along, and at a Universal function, the friction between Chaney and Denning reached a point where Denning threw his sundae into Chaney's face and Chaney had to be restrained from throwing hot coffee into Denning's.
After the war, Denning could not get an acting job for 18 months. "We lived in a trailer on the ocean front, and I put down a hundred lobster traps. We ate and sold lobsters and made a good living. Later we realised that was the happiest 18 months of our lives."
Denning then got a major break on radio when asked to replace Lee Bowman as a banker married to a scatterbrained wife (Lucille Ball) in the hit series My Favorite Husband. His film work was now in B movies or playing supporting roles in major ones - in both When My Baby Smiles at Me (1948) and An Affair to Remember (1957) he was in love with the heroines (Betty Grable and Deborah Kerr respectively) but withdrew gracefully when he realised they loved another, and he good-naturedly played a physical- fitness enthusiast made the butt of much humour in Douglas Sirk's Weekend With Father (1951).
Jack Arnold's classic The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), which practically saved Universal from bankruptcy, was the first of Denning's monster films and gave him a rare unsympathetic role as a single-minded scientist. He then battled earth-conquering robots in Target Earth (1954), produced by Herman Cohen . In Creature with the Atom Brain (1955), he unmasked a scientist who revives the dead with the help of brain tissue under high voltage then uses the zombies to take revenge on his enemies. The Day The World Ended (1956) was Roger Corman's first science-fiction film, with Denning playing a geologist, one of seven survivors of a complete nuclear holocaust.
Several fading Hollywood stars at this time accepted offers to star in British B movies, and in 1956 Denning made a film for the production company Butchers, Assignment Redhead. In Hollywood it was back to horror with The Black Scorpion (1957) co-starring Mara Corday and distinguished by the stop-frame animation work of Willis O'Brien, famous for King Kong. He returned to England in 1960 to film a 39-episode television series, The Flying Doctor.
The same year he appeared with his wife in No Greater Love, a film produced under the auspices of the Lutheran church, of which the couple had become active members. After appearing in the horror anthology Twice Told Tales (1963), Denning retired from movies and moved with his wife to Maui in Hawaii, where he became an executive of the Boy Scouts of America. He stated at the time, "My wonderful wife suggested that, since we had worked and saved together since our marriage, perhaps the time had come to do the things we really enjoyed and at a comfortable tempo," and he described their home as "about as close to Paradise as we could find on earth - and we love it more each day." When he accepted the role of the Governor in Hawaii Five-0 in 1968, Ankers was offered the part of his wife but declined. "She prefers to go to Honolulu and shop," said Denning.
Ludwig Albert Heindrich Denninger Jnr (Richard Denning), actor: born Poughkeepsie, New York 17 March 1914; married 1942 Evelyn Ankers (died 1985; one daughter), second Patricia Leffingwell; died Escondido, California 11 October 1998.
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