Life of Riley, The


The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation Presents

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About

The Life of Riley, an early U.S. television sitcom filmed in Hollywood, was broadcast on NBC from 1949-50 and from 1953-58. Although the program had a loyal audience from its years on network radio (1943-1951), its first season on television, in which Jackie Gleason was cast in the title role, failed to generate high ratings. William Bendix portrayed Riley in the second version and the series was much more successful, among the top twenty-five most watched programs from 1953-55. Syndicated in 1977, the series was telecast on many cable systems.

The Life of Riley was one of several blue-collar, ethnic sitcoms popular in the 1950s. Chester A. Riley was the breadwinner of an Irish-American nuclear family living in suburban Los Angeles. Although most of the program took place within the Riley household, his job as an airplane riveter sometimes figured prominently in weekly episodes. Riley's fixed place in the socio-economic structure also allowed for occasional barbs directed at the frustrations of factory employment and at the pretensions of the upper classes. After The Life of Riley was canceled, blue-collar protagonists like Riley would not reappear until premiered in the 1970s. A pilot for The Life of Riley starred Herb Vigran and was broadcast on NBC in 1948. Six month later, the series appeared on NBC with Riley played by Gleason; however, Riley's malapropisms and oafish behavior were poorly suited to Gleason's wisecracking nightclub style. Bendix, who had played Riley on radio and in a movie version, was originally unable to play the part on television due to film obligations. When he did assume the role, however, he became synonymous with the character.

Bendix played Riley in a manner that resembled many of his supporting roles in Hollywood films of the 1940s--as a heavy-handed, obstinate, yet ultimately sensitive lummox. Each week, Riley first became flustered, then overwhelmed by seemingly minor problems concerning his job, his family, or his neighbors. These small matters--once Riley became involved--escalated to the verge of disaster. Riley's catch phrase--"What a revoltin' development this is!"--expressed his frustration and became part of the national idiom. His patient wife, Peg (originally played by Rosemary DeCamp, then by Marjorie Reynolds), managed to keep the family in order despite her husband's calamitous blunders.

Other central characters included Riley's studious and attractive daughter, "Babs" (Gloria Winters, Lugene Sanders), and his younger, respectful son, "Junior" (Lanny Rees, Wesley Morgan). Riley also had several neighbors, friends, and co-workers. The most significant of these was Jim Gillis (Sid Tomack, Tom D'Andrea), Riley's smart-aleck neighbor whose schemes often instigated trouble.

The narrative structure of the series was much like that of any half-hour sitcom: Each week, stasis within the Riley household would be disrupted by a misunderstanding on Riley's part or by Riley's bungled efforts to improve his or his family's status. Catastrophe was ultimately averted by a simple solution, usually the clarification of a fact by Peg or another character besides Riley. Order was thus restored by the end of the episode.

The postwar suburban lifestyle conditioned much of the program's content. Mirroring trends established during the postwar economic boom, the Riley family lived comfortably, though not lavishly, aided--and sometimes baffled--by many of the latest household consumer gadgets. Gender roles typical of the era were also represented with Chester earning the family's single paycheck while Peg maintained the household. Similarly, Babs' problems typically concerned dating, while Junior's were related to school. Most of the problems in the Riley household occurred when the private and public realms merged, usually when Riley interfered with Peg's responsibilities.

Like many sitcoms of the 1950s, The Life of Riley reinforced the promise of suburban gratifications open to hard working, white Americans. Even so, Riley's incompetence set him apart from his television counterparts. More so than Ozzie of Ozzie and Harriet, Riley's ineptitude called into question the role of the American father and therefore of the entire family structure, thus preceding some 1960s sitcoms such as Green Acres and Bewitched which carried that theme even further.

-Warren Bareiss

CAST (1949-1950)

Chester A. Riley..................................... Jackie Gleason

Peg Riley........................................ Rosemary DeCamp

Junior........................................................ Lanny Rees

Babs...................................................... Gloria Winters

Jim Gillis.................................................... Sid Tomack

Digby "Digger" O'Dell................................... John Brown

PRODUCER

Irving Brecher

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

26 Episodes

DuMont

October 1949-March 1950   Tuesday 9:30-10:00

CAST (1953-1958)

Chester A. Riley..................................... William Bendix

Peg Riley........................................... Marjorie Reynolds

Junior................................................... Wesley Morgan

Babs Riley Marshall.............................. Lugene Sanders

Jim Gillis (1953-1955, 1956-1958).............. Tom D'Andrea

Honeybee Gillis (1953-1955, 1956-1958)..... Gloria Blondell

Egbert Gillis (1953-1955)...................... Gregory Marshall

Cunningham ......................................Douglas Dumbrille

Dangle................................................. Robert Sweeney

Riley's Boss ............................................Emory Parnell

Waldo Binney..................................... Sterling Holloway

Otto Schmidlap.......................................... Henry Kulky

Calvin Dudley (1955-1956).....................George O'Hanlon

Belle Dudley (1955-1956)................. Florence Sundstrom

Dan Marshall (1957-1958)........................... Martin Milner

PRODUCER

Tom McKnight

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

212 Episodes

NBC

January 1953-September 1956   Friday 8:30-9:00

October 1956-December 1956   Friday 8:00-8:30

January 1957-August 1958   Friday 8:30-9:00

FURTHER READING

Brooks, T., and E. Marsh. The Complete Directory To Prime Time Network TV Shows; 1946-Present. New York: Ballantine Books, 1988.

Hamamoto, D. Y. Nervous Laughter: Television Situation Comedy and Liberal Democratic Ideology. New York: Praeger, 1989.

Lipsitz, G. "The Meaning of Memory: Family, Class, and Ethnicity in Early Network Television Programs." In, Time Passages. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.

Terrace, V. Fifty Years of Television; A Guide to Series and Pilots, 1937-1988. New York: Cornwall, 1991.

__________. Television; 1970-1980. San Diego: Barnes, 1981.

Who talked about this show

Ruth Engelhardt

View Interview
Ruth Engelhardt on packaging the first version of The Life of Riley, starring Jackie Gleason
03:44

Larry Rhine

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Larry Rhine on writing for the radio versions of "The Life of Riley" and the radio version of "Duffy's Tavern"
12:41

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