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Dana Andrews Dies; Actor Was a Success but Not a Star

December 18, 1992|From a Times Staff Writer

Dana Andrews, whose film portrayals ranged from a sensitive, tough-talking detective in the 1944 movie "Laura" to a bombardier returning to a troubled civilian life in the post-World War II classic "The Best Years of Our Lives," died Thursday.

His brother, actor Steve Forrest, said Andrews had been in failing health for several weeks and was 83 when he died at Los Alamitos Medical Center of congestive heart failure and pneumonia.

Despite the critical and public acclaim he drew with his "Laura" and "Best Years" performances and a third in a supporting but significant role in "The Ox-Bow Incident," Andrews generally starred in moderate-budget films, making more than 70 of them. Eventually he turned to real estate development when he grew too old to be cast as a hero.

One of the reasons his acting career did not blossom into full-fledged stardom, he admitted later in his life, was his propensity for liquor.

He not only admitted the problem but went public with his alcoholism, becoming a member of the National Council on Alcoholism and making numerous appearances to talk about his struggle with the disease.

"No one ever said anything to me about my drinking," he once told an interviewer. "But word gets around, and the pictures dried up. It was (Samuel) Goldwyn who finally said to me, 'Look, young man, you're drinking far too much. You'd better cut it out'."

He became part of a national movement to make people aware of the pitfalls of drink. In 1981, when the news media and then-Los Angeles County Coroner Thomas Noguchi were being roundly criticized for reporting that the deaths of film stars Natalie Wood and William Holden were alcohol-related, Andrews held a news conference to say that to "soft-pedal" such tragedies would be a tragedy of its own.

"There is every likelihood Bill (a former drinking companion of Andrews) and Natalie would be alive today if it were not for alcohol," he said.

Unlike some years of his private life, on the screen Andrews always appeared to be in perfect control of himself, delivering his lines in a resonant baritone that had been his ticket to Hollywood.

He was born Carver Dana Andrews in Dont, Miss., one of 13 children of a Baptist minister. He majored in business administration at Sam Houston State Teachers College in Huntsville, Tex., but left school in 1929 to take a job with a Texas oil company.

In 1931, with the Depression at its height, he quit, spending all his money for a black alpaca trench coat, a white silk scarf and a homburg hat. He then hitchhiked to Los Angeles to try to break into the movies.

"When I got there," he was to recall, "the most glamorous job I could get was driving a school bus for $10 a week. I wound up pumping gas in Van Nuys. Hell, everyone wanted to be an actor then. Everyone wanted to get into those studio gates."

He worked at other jobs--driving a truck, digging ditches, picking oranges and working in a department store stock room. He was turned down by all the film studios and by the Pasadena Playhouse, then a prime training center for aspiring actors and actresses.

He borrowed money from friends to take opera lessons, but an agent heard him sing and advised him to stick with acting. Andrews applied to Pasadena Playhouse again and, for reasons no longer clear, was accepted. He began as a spear carrier in a Shakespearean drama.

In 1932, he married Janet Murray. They had a son, David, who was to become a pianist, organist, composer and radio announcer. He died in 1964 at age 30 of a cerebral hemorrhage. The actor's wife died in 1935.

It was not until 1938 that Andrews got a film contract, with Goldwyn. But he was given no roles until two years later, when he was cast in a minor part in "The Westerner," starring Gary Cooper.

On the strength of that, Andrews married another Pasadena Playhouse student, Mary Todd. They were to have two daughters, Katherine and Susan, and a son, Stephen, who survive him along with three grandchildren and three other brothers.

Goldwyn sold half of Andrews' contract to 20th Century Fox and for three years he went back and forth between the two studios, in secondary roles in such films as "Sailor's Lady" (1940), "Tobacco Road" (1941), "Belle Starr" (1941), "Swamp Water" (1941), "The North Star" (1941) and "The Ox-Bow Incident" (1943).

In 1943 he suddenly won the romantic lead in the Danny Kaye comedy "Up in Arms" and a starring role in "The Purple Heart," about the Jimmy Doolittle raid on Tokyo. In 1944, he played the lead in still another war movie, "Wing and a Prayer."

Then came his big break--"Laura." It was important, too, in the careers of co-star Gene Tierney and of actors Clifton Webb and Vincent Price. The story of a cynical detective falling in love with a portrait of a supposed murder victim became a classic and seemed to vault Dana Andrews to a level of stardom that he would inhabit for the rest of his career.

Price reflected on "Laura" Thursday after being told of his old friend's death:

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