Brian Donlevy was born in 1901 in Northern Ireland. His parents moved to the U.S. when he was an infant. His breaththrough film role came in 1935 when he was cast with Edward G. Robinson in “Barbary Coast”. He went on to star in “Beau Geste”, “The Great McGinty”, “An American Romance” and “The Miracle of Morgans Creek”. He died in 1972 at the age of 71.
It seems that Brian Donlevy started out life as colorfully as any character he ever played on the stage or screen. He lied about his age (he was actually 14) in 1916 so he could join the army. When Gen. John J. Pershing sent American troops to invade Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa–Mexican rebels under Villa’s command raided Columbus, NM, and killed 16 American soldiers and civilians–Donlevy served with that expedition and later, in WW I, was a pilot with the Lafayette Escadrille, a unit of the French Air Force comprised of American and Canadian pilots. His schooling was in Cleveland, OH, but in addition he spent two years at the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, MD. However, he gave up on a military career for the stage. After having landed several smaller roles, he got a part in “What Price Glory” and established himself as a bona fide actor. Later such roles on stage as “Three for One”, “The Milky Way” and “Life Begins at 8:30” gave him the experience to head off to Hollywood. Donlevy began his Hollywood career with the silent film A Man of Quality (1926) and his first talkie was Gentlemen of the Press (1929) (in which he had a bit part). There was a five- to six-year gap before he reappeared on the film scene in 1935 with three pictures: Mary Burns, Fugitive (1935), Another Face(1935) and Barbary Coast (1935), which was his springboard into film history. Receiving rave reviews as “the tough guy all in black”, acting jobs finally began to roll his way. In 1936 he starred in seven films, including Strike Me Pink (1936), in which he played the tough guy to Eddie Cantor‘s sweet bumpkin Eddie Pink. In all, from 1926 to 1969 Donlevy starred in at least 89 films, reprising one of his Broadway roles as a prizefighter in The Milky Way (1940), and had his own television series (which he also produced), Dangerous Assignment (1952). In 1939 he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of the sadistic Sgt. Markoff in Paramount’s Beau Geste (1939), its remake of an earlier silent hit. The Great McGinty (1940), a Preston Sturges comedy about a poor homeless slob who makes it to Governor of a state with the mob’s help, is a brilliant character study of a man and the changes he goes through to please himself, those around him and, eventually, the woman he loves. A line in the film, spoken by Mrs. McGinty, seems a fitting description of the majority of roles Brian Donlevy would play throughout his career: “. . . You’re a tough guy, McGinty, not a wrong guy.” Donlevy’s ability to make the roughest edge of any character have a soft side was his calling card. He perfected it and no one has quite mastered it since. He later, in 1944, reprised that role in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944). By 1935 Donlevy was working for 20th Century-Fox and had just completed filming 36 Hours to Kill (1936) when he became engaged to young singer Marjorie Lane, and they married the next year. The marriage produced one child, Judy, but ended in divorce in 1947. It was 19 years before he remarried. In 1966, Bela Lugosi‘s ex-wife Lillian became Mrs. Brian Donlevy, and they were married until his death in 1972. Donlevy had always derived great pleasure from his two diverse interests, gold mining and writing poetry, so it was fitting that after his last film, Pit Stop (1969), he retired to Palm Springs, CA, where he began to write short stories and had his income well supplemented from a prosperous California tungsten mine he owned. Having gone in for throat surgery in 1971 he re-entered the Motion Picture County Hospital in Woodland Hills, CA, on March 10th, 1972. Less than a month later, on April 6, he passed away from cancer.
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