Brian Donlevy

Waldo Brian Donlevy (February 9, 1901 – April 6, 1972) was an American actor, noted for playing dangerous tough guys from the 1930s to the 1960s. He usually appeared in supporting roles. Among his best-known films are Beau Geste (1939), The Great McGinty (1940) and Wake Island (1942), in which he played the lead. For his role as Sergeant Markoff in Beau Geste, he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Brian Donlevy
Brian Donlevy, 1955.
Waldo Brian Donlevy

(1901-02-09)February 9, 1901
DiedApril 6, 1972(1972-04-06) (aged 71)
Years active1924–1969
Yvonne Grey
(m. 1928; div. 1936)

Marjorie Lane
(m. 1936; div. 1947)

Lillian Lugosi
(m. 1966; his death 1972)

Donlevy starred as US special agent Steve Mitchell in the radio/TV series Dangerous Assignment. Mitchell received assignments to exotic locales involving international intrigue from the Commissioner played by Herbert Butterfield.[3][4]

Donlevy's obituary in The Times newspaper in the United Kingdom stated that "any consideration of the American 'film noir' of the 1940s would be incomplete without him".[5]

Early life

Donlevy was born in 1901 in Cleveland, Ohio, to Irish parents Rebecca (née Parks) and Thomas Donlevy, who were originally from Portadown, County Armagh.[6][7][8][9] Sometime between 1910 and 1912, the family moved to Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin,[10] where Donlevy's father worked as a supervisor at the Brickner Woolen Mills.[1]



Donlevy began his career in New York City in the early 1920s, appearing in many theater productions and also winning an increasing number of silent film parts. Previously, he had modeled for the illustrator J. C. Leyendecker, who produced illustrations for the famous Arrow Collar advertisements.

Donlevy had small roles in the silent films Jamestown (1923), Damaged Hearts (1924), Monsieur Beaucaire (1924), The Eve of the Revolution (1924), and School for Wives (1925). He had a small role on Broadway's What Price Glory (1925), which was a big hit and ran for two years, establishing him as an actor.[11] He was in the film A Man of Quality (1926).

On Broadway he was in the popular musical Hit the Deck (1927–28), which ran for a year, then Ringside (1928), Rainbow (1928), and Queen Bee (1929). He had roles in the films Gentlemen of the Press (1929) and Mother's Boy (1929). On stage, he appeared in Up Pops the Devil (1930–31), Peter Flies High (1931), Society Girl (1931–32), The Inside Story (1932), and The Boy Friend (1932). He was in a film short with Ethel Merman, Ireno (1932), and another short with Ruth Etting, A Modern Cinderella (1932). He returned to the stage for Three And One(1933) with Lilian Bond, a big personal success; No Questions Asked (1934); The Perfumed Lady (1934); and The Milky Way (1934). The latter led to him receiving a Hollywood offer to reprise his role in the film version but he was unable to due to a production delay. Donlevy had a final Broadway success with Life Begins at 8:40 (1934) with Bert Lahr and Ray Bolger.[11] After that show Donlevy says "they were all signed for the movies. I thought that if they can make it I'm going to take a crack too."[12]


Donlevy's break came in 1935, when he was cast in the Edward G. Robinson film Barbary Coast produced by Samuel Goldwyn.[13] He was in Mary Burns, Fugitive (1935) then was second billed in It Happened in Hollywood (1936). Donlevy had support parts in Goldwyn's Strike Me Pink (1936) and Paramount's 13 Hours by Air (1936).[11]

"B" leading man

Donlevy had his first lead, in a "B" at Fox, in Human Cargo (1936), playing a wisecracking reporter opposite Claire Trevor. Donlevy followed it with other "B" lead roles: Half Angel (1936), High Tension (1936), 36 Hours to Kill (1936), Crack-Up (1936) with Peter Lorre, and Midnight Taxi (1937).[14]

He supported in an "A", This Is My Affair (1937), with Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck and Victor McLaglen. He went back to starring in a "B", Born Reckless (1937). He was in In Old Chicago (1938) and was teamed with Victor McLaglen in Battle of Broadway (1938) and We're Going to Be Rich (1938). Donlevy starred in Sharpshooters (1938) and was the lead villain in the studio's prestigious Jesse James (1939).


Paramount used Donlevy in a key role in Cecil B. De Mille's Union Pacific (1939), stepping in for Charles Bickford.[15] He stayed at that studio for Beau Geste (1939). His performance in the latter, as the ruthless Sergeant Markoff, earned him an nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Donlevy went to Columbia to star in a "B film", Behind Prison Gates (1939), and went to RKO for a support part in Allegheny Uprising (1939). He was the villain at Universal's Destry Rides Again (1939).

Donlevy was then given the title role in The Great McGinty (1940) at Paramount, the directorial debut of Preston Sturges. The film was not a large hit but was profitable and received excellent reviews, launching Sturges' career as a director. Donlevy would reprise the role several times on radio, and on television.[16] At Universal Donlevy was in When the Daltons Rode (1940) then he went into Fox's Brigham Young: Frontiersman (1940). Donlevy was fourth billed in I Wanted Wings (1941) then MGM borrowed him to support Robert Taylor in Billy the Kid (1941). At Universal, Donlevy was top billed in South of Tahiti (1941) and he supported Bing Crosby in Birth of the Blues (1942).

Paramount gave him a star part in The Remarkable Andrew (1942), playing Andrew Jackson, then Columbia teamed him with Pat O'Brien in Two Yanks in Trinidad (1942). Edward Small hired him to play the lead in A Gentleman After Dark (1942) and he supported Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck in Paramount's The Great Man's Lady (1942). In 1942, Donlevy starred in Wake Island with William Bendix and Robert Preston, playing a role based on James Devereux. The film, directed by John Farrow, was a huge big success. So too was the adaptation of Dashiell Hammet's classic The Glass Key (1942). At Universal, Donlevy starred in Nightmare (1942), and MGM borrowed him to support Taylor again in Stand by for Action (1942). Donlevy had the lead role in Fritz Lang's Hangmen Also Die! (1943), made for United Artists and co-written by Bertold Brecht. He had a cameo as McGinty in Sturges' The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944).

Donlevy was given the lead role in An American Romance (1944), directed by King Vidor for MGM, in a role intended for Spencer Tracy. It was a prestigious production but the film was a box office and critical disappointment. He had a cameo as himself in Duffy's Tavern (1945), and he was Trampas to Joel McCrea's The Virginian (1946). After playing the male lead in Our Hearts Were Growing Up (1946) he was borrowed by Walter Wanger for Canyon Passage (1946).

At Paramount he was in Two Years Before the Mast (1946) although top billing went to Alan Ladd. Donlevy was originally going to play the sadistic captain but wound up giving that role to Howard da Silva and played Richard Dana instead.[17] At Paramount Donlevy supported Ray Milland in The Trouble with Women (1947) then he went to Fox to play a heroic DA in Kiss of Death (1947) with Victor Mature and Richard Widmark. For UA, he supported Robert Cummings in Heaven Only Knows (1947) and then went to MGM for the Killer McCoy (1947), a hit with Mickey Rooney; A Southern Yankee (1948) with Red Skelton; and Command Decision (1948) with Clark Gable. Donlevy supported Dorothy Lamour in The Lucky Stiff (1949) then starred in Arthur Lubin's Impact (1949).


He appeared on television in The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre, and made two for Universal, Shakedown (1950) and Kansas Raiders (1950) (playing William Quantrill opposite Audie Murphy's Jesse James). He did Pulitzer Prize Playhouse on TV then went to Republic for Fighting Coast Guard (1951), Ride the Man Down (1952), Hoodlum Empire (1952) and Woman They Almost Lynched (1953) and RKO for Slaughter Trail (1952).

In 1952 he starred in and produced a TV series Dangerous Assignment which he had performed on radio from 1949 to 1954.[18]

Donlevy focused on television: Robert Montgomery Presents, The Motorola Television Hour, Medallion Theatre, Star Stage,Climax!, Damon Runyon Theater, Kraft Theatre, Studio One in Hollywood, Crossroads, The Ford Television Theatre, The DuPont Show of the Month and Lux Video Theatre.[19]

He had a support role in The Big Combo (1955) and played the lead in the British science-fiction horror film The Quatermass Xperiment (called The Creeping Unknown in the US) for the Hammer Films company, playing the lead role of Professor Bernard Quatermass. The film was based on a 1953 BBC Television serial of the same name.[20] The character had been British, but Hammer cast Donlevy in an attempt to help sell the film to North American audiences. Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale disliked Donlevy's portrayal, referring to Donlevy as "a former Hollywood heavy gone to seed". Nonetheless, the film version was a success and Donlevy returned for the sequel, Quatermass 2 (Enemy From Space in the US), in 1957, also based on a BBC television serial. This made Donlevy the only man ever to play the famous scientist on screen twice, although Scottish actor Andrew Keir would later play him both on film and on radio.[21]

In between the films Donlevy was in A Cry in the Night (1956). He had the lead in a "B" Western, Escape from Red Rock (1957) and a support part in Cowboy (1958). He announced he had formed his own company for whom he would make a Western The Golden Spur, but it appears to have not been made.[22] Donlevy guest starred on TV in Rawhide, Wagon Train, Hotel de Paree, The Texan, The DuPont Show with June Allyson, Zane Grey Theater, and The Red Skelton Hour. He had support roles in Juke Box Rhythm (1959) and Never So Few (1959) and the lead in Girl in Room 13 (1960). Donlevy toured on stage in a production of The Andersonville Trial.[23] He supported Jerry Lewis in The Errand Boy (1961) and Charlton Heston in The Pigeon That Took Rome (1962) and guested on Target: The Corruptors, Saints and Sinners, and The DuPont Show of the Week.

Later career

He had the lead in Curse of the Fly (1965) for Robert L. Lippert and supported in How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965).[24] In 1966 in one of the final episodes of Perry Mason, "The Case of the Positive Negative", Donlevy played defendant General Roger Brandon.

Donlevy's last performances included The Fat Spy (1966), Waco (1966), an episode of Family Affair, Gamera the Invincible (1966), Five Golden Dragons (1967), Hostile Guns (1967), Arizona Bushwhackers (1968), and Rogue's Gallery (1968).

His last film role was in Pit Stop, released in 1969.[25]

Personal life

Donlevy was married to Yvonne Grey from 1928 to 1936. She divorced him on grounds of cruelty and he agreed to pay $5,000 a month in alimony.[26] He married actress Marjorie Lane in 1936. They had one child together and divorced in 1947.[27] He was married to Lillian Arch Lugosi (the former wife of Bela Lugosi) from 1966 until his death in 1972.[28]


Donlevy was operated on for throat cancer in 1971,[29] died from the disease on April 6, 1972 at the Motion Picture Country Hospital in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, California. He was 71 years old.[30] He was survived by his wife, Lillian, and a daughter, Judy Donlevy, by his second wife. His ashes were scattered over Santa Monica Bay.[31]


In December 2016, a biography, Brian Donlevy, the Good Bad Guy by Derek Sculthorpe was published by McFarland & Company of North Carolina.

Selected filmography

Radio appearances

1942Philip Morris PlayhouseThe Great McGinty[32]
1943Burns and Allen"Brian Donlevy Guest Star"
1946Suspense"Out of Control"[33]
1946Suspense"Lazarus Walks"[33]
1949–1953Dangerous Assignment

Television appearances

1949-1954Dangerous AssignmentMain Role, Secret Agent Steve Mitchell


  1. "Sheboygan Press, January 29, 1931". Retrieved June 4, 2012.
  2. "California Death Records". Archived from the original on June 3, 2013. Retrieved June 4, 2012.
  3. "Dangerous Assignment". Retrieved January 10, 2013.
  4. "Full cast and crew for "Dangerous Assignment"". Retrieved January 10, 2013.
  5. "Brian Donlevy – A Famous Film Tough Guy". The Times. April 7, 1972. p. 16.
  6. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on March 3, 2016. Retrieved March 22, 2015.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  7. "Year: 1920; Census Place: Sheboygan Falls, Sheboygan, Wisconsin; Roll: T625_2017; Page 26B; Enumeration District 148; Image: 431". 1920 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Retrieved June 4, 2012.
  8. Mank, Gregory (2009). Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration, with a Complete Filmography of Their Films Together. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland & Co., Inc. p. 658. ISBN 0786434805.
  9. "Tough-guy movie actor Brian Dunlevy was born in Castle Street". Retrieved August 28, 2017.
  10. ""Milwaukee Journal", August 10, 1944". Google News Archive. Retrieved June 4, 2012.
  11. FOOTNOTE ON BRIAN DONLEVY New York Times 26 Jan 1936: X4.
  12. BRIAN DONLEVY: All His Adventures Aren't on the Screen Davis, Charles E, Jr. Los Angeles Times, September 8, 1963.
  13. Brian Donlevy, Film Tough Guy, Dies New York Times 6 Apr 1972: 46.
  14. Brian Donlevy Climbs Toward Top of Ladder: Former Leyendecker Model Is Perfect Movie Type The Washington Post 30 June 1936: X16.
  15. Donlevy Dares 'Deadly' Role; Escapes Hurts The Washington Post 3 Jan 1939: 14.
  16. James Curtis, Between Flops: A Biography of Preston Sturges, Limelight, 1984 p. 135
  17. Astaire, Kelly Will Vie in 'Ziegfeld' Number Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif], April 11, 1944: A10.
  18. BRIAN DONLEVY RETURNS TO AIR AS ADVENTURER Chicago Daily Tribune 5 Feb 1950: SW10.
  19. Donlevy to Star on 'Climax' The Christian Science Monitor 9 Feb 1955: 4
  20. The Quatermass Xperiment Archived August 9, 2016, at the Wayback Machine;; retrieved June 19, 2016.
  21. IMDB Enemy from Space (1957) U.S. name for Quatermass II; retrieved June 19, 2006.
  22. Brian Donlevy Will Do 'Golden Spur' on Own Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times 14 June 1957: A9.
  23. Brian Donlevy Signed for Role New York Times, August 12, 1960, pg. 9.
  24. Weaver, Tom (February 19, 2003). Double Feature Creature Attack: A Monster Merger of Two More Volumes of Classic Interviews. McFarland. p. 335.
  25. "Pit Stop",; retrieved June 19, 2016.
  26. Brian Donlevy Divorced. New York Times, February 2, 1936, pg. 17.
  27. Brian Donlevy Seeks Court Order Los Angeles Times, October 5, 1947, pg. A2.
  28. Brian Donlevy Marries, New York Times, February 26, 1966, pg. 14
  29. Actor Brian Donlevy Dies of Cancer at 71 Chicago Tribune, April 7, 1972, pg. A13.
  30. "Brian Donlevy Dies Of Cancer". Bangor Daily News. Bangor, Maine. Associated Press. April 7, 1972. p. 5. Retrieved August 16, 2010.
  31. Movie 'Tough Guy' Brian Donlevy Dies Kistler, Robert. Los Angeles Times, April 6, 1972.
  32. "Johnny Presents". Harrisburg Telegraph. January 23, 1942. p. 15. Retrieved July 28, 2015 via
  33. "Suspense". Retrieved August 28, 2017.
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