The Minneapolis born actor found his way to California during the late 1920's where he found work in the movies as a bit player. One of his first on screen appearances came in 1929 in a Greta Garbo vehicle, "The Kiss". Of course it was Greta's co-star Conrad Nagel who was getting kissed but the small part led to Lew being cast in the Academy Award winning blockbuster "All Quiet On the Western Front" the following year.
with Greta Garbo in "The Kiss" 1929
in "All Quiet On the Western Front" 1930
Lew starred in his first comedy at the beginning of 1931 opposite Joan Bennett titled "Many a Slip". (I hadn't heard of the film nor can I find any info on it other than a short description so if anyone has seen it please share). Next up for Lew was the drama "Iron Man" where he plays the prize fighter Kid Mason who loses his girl to Hollywood. Jean Harlow plays the heart breaker of course. Lew also played a college football hero in "The Spirit of Notre Dame" that year as well as in two other dramas. He would also find love off of the set in 1931, marrying Lola Lane. A former vaudeville and silent screen actress who was most famous for appearing opposite her equally talented sisters Rosemary and Priscilla.
with Joan Bennett in "Many a Slip" 1931
in "Iron Man" 1931
Lew started out 1932 with the romantic drama "The Impatient Maiden" co-starring Mae Clarke, Una Merkel and Andy Devine. Interestingly the film was directed by the great horror film director, James Whales. Next up for Ayres was "Night World" co-starring Mae Clarke and Boris Karloff and taking on the era of prohibition and nightclubs. Lew's final film of 1932 was his biggest hit that year "Okay, America!" which was loosely based on the life and career of Walter Winchell, co-starring Maureen O'Sullivan, Louis Calhern and Edward Arnold. Lew would divorce his first wife Lola at the beginning of 1933 while continuing to hold on to his leading man status.
with Jean Harlow in "Iron Man" 1931
click on autograph from my collection or photos for a larger view
Lew starred in the best picture nominated film "State Fair" in 1933 opposite Janet Gaynor and Will Rogers. He would follow it up with the comedy drama "Don't Bet on Love" co-starring Ginger Rogers. Even though he doesn't have the best of luck in the film he fell in love with his beautiful co-star, marrying Ginger the following year. Even though Lew starred in four pictures during 1934 the only two that stand out to me are the comedy drama "She Learned About Sailors" which he co-starred with Alice Faye then "Servants Entrance" , a successful comedy which co-starred Janet Gaynor. The film was unique in that it featured live action combined with Walt Disney animation.
with Janet Gaynor in "Servants Entrance" 1934
with Alice Faye in "She Learned About Sailors" 1934
Lew continued to play the handsome boy next door type in dramas and musicals during 1935- 1937 which he felt typecast in. The two most notable pictures he appeared in during this time were "Lady Be Careful" 1936, a comedy musical that co-starred the adorable Mary Carisle and the salty Buster Crabbe. Then there was "The Last Train from Madrid" co-starring Dorothy Lamour and Gilbert Roland, another mediocre drama.
with wife Ginger Rogers enjoying some down time
1938 would be a much more successful year for Ayres as he was cast opposite Cary Grant and Kathryn Hepburn in "Holiday", a very funny George Cukor vehicle. It would be followed up with "Rich Man, Poor Girl" which co-starred Robert Young, Ruth Hussey and Lana Turner. Next would be "Young Dr. Kildare" with Ayres playing the lead and the character in which he would be most known for. The first film starred Lionel Barrymore and would lead to Lew reprising his role in seven other feature films over the next five years.
with Robert Young and Ruth Hussey in "Rich Man, Poor Girl" 1938
with Lana Turner in "Rich Man, Poor Girl"
Lew starred with Joan Crawford and James Stewart in the campy drama "Ice Follies of 1939". A film where we are to believe the two main characters are a successful ice skating couple. (Stay tuned for more on this film at a later date). Lew followed it up with another musical, "Broadway Serenade" co-starring Jeannette MacDonald, a not so memorable picture. He also turned out two more Dr. Kildare pictures that year, "Calling Dr. Kildare" which has Lionel Barrymore reprising his role as Dr. Gillespie. (I really enjoyed Barrymore in this role but then again I feel he was one of the great character actors who took any part and made it brilliant). Lew starred in the comedy "These Glamour Girls" with Lana Turner before finishing up 1939 with "The Secret of Dr. Kildare".
with Lana Turner in "These Glamour Girls" 1939
with Jeannette MacDonald in "Broadway Serenade" 1939
Newly divorced from Ginger Rogers in 1940, Ayres stayed busy filming three more of his Dr. Kildare series with his co-stars Barrymore and Larraine Day. 1941 was another busy year with "Maisie Was a Lady", a comedy starring Ann Sothern, C. Aubrey Smith and Maureen O'Sullivan then another three of Lew's Dr. Kildare pictures. I can't think of any film series today where a character could appear in three films a year that would draw such box office success but in the early 1940's the studio was drawing an audience to see Lew in his most famous role.
with Lionel Barrymore in "Calling Dr. Kildare"
in "Young Dr. Kildare"
In 1942 Lew starred in the film-noir action movie "Fingers at the Window" opposite Larraine Day and Basil Rathbone. He plays an unemployed actor who protects the girl from an Axe wielding murderer on the lose in Chicago. He would appear in another film-noir thriller "The Dark Mirror" opposite Olivia de Havilland four years later which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Lew spent his four year absence from acting serving in the Armed Services Medical Corp during WWII. He served with distinction in the Pacific theater and in New Guinea.
with Olivia de Havilland in "The Dark Mirror" 1946
Lew's only picture during 1947 was another film-noir drama titled "The Unfaithful" which co-starred the beautiful Ann Sheridan. A great script which would be remade in 2002 as "Unfaithful" starring Diane Lane and Richard Gere as the couple caught up in the murder of the wifes lover. (Both versions are a must see). Lew starred in only one film in 1948, "Johnny Belinda" opposite Joan Crawford. His role would garner him an Oscar nod for Best Actor. Though he would lose out to Laurence Olivier for his brilliant portrayal as "Hamlet" that year, a tough break.
Lew would take a part in an occasional B film throughout the 1950's like the western "New Mexico" 1951 then the lead in the horror film "Donovan's Brain" before he turned to an occasional guest appearance on television throughout the 1950's and 60's. He would marry for a third time to flight attendant Diana Hall in 1964 and remain married until his death. They had one son together, Justin in 1968. Lew passed away from complications while in a coma at the age of 88. He appeared in over 80 films and over 80 television shows during his long career that spanned six decades. Mr. Ayres was laid to rest at Westwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, CA. His grave site can be viewed HERE.
Lew Ayres Fun Facts:
Jane Wyman, his co-star in "Johnny Belinda" fell in love with him prompting her to leave her husband Ronald Reagan. Of course Lew did not return her affections so her pursuit was in vain.
He was a conscientious objector at the beginning of WWII which made him very unpopular at the studio and with fans. Of course the opinion of him changed after his stellar military service from 1942-1946. All was forgiven upon his return to Hollywood and his career continued unscaved.
He was in talks to bring his character, Dr. Kildare to television but the project fell through when the network refused to honor his request to not allow cigarette companies as the show's sponsor. The part went to Richard Chamberlain in 1961.
He appeared in the first episode of "Hawaii Five-0" and was offered a regular guest role which he turned down due to not wanting to relocate full time to Hawaii.
He had wanted to become a doctor and even attended pre-med classes at the University of Arizona. Classes that would help him in his role as Dr. Kildare. (At least he got to play a doctor on film)!
with Jane Wyman on the set of "Johnny Belinda"
Thanks for joining me for a look back at Lew Ayres life and career and please enjoy the below clip of Lew giving his memorable speech in "All Quiet On the Western Front"