The melodramas that were later labeled “film noir” needed a special sort of actor. The genre depended upon pathos, overwrought emotion and moral polarization (extreme good vs extreme evil). Noir stories are often related to Hard Boiled Detectives, but the characters were usually not so hard boiled. They were ordinary people doing the best that they could in an indifferent world.
Dana Andrews has been called the “face of Noir”, and he worked in some of the greatest examples of the genre. Like the characters he played, Andrews faced his share of personal demons. Through the strength of his character, he was able to defeat them.
Carver Dana Andrews was born in Don’t, Mississippi, one of the local Baptist minister’s thirteen children. He studied business administration and landed a job in the oil industry, but when the Great Depression hit he began to question if there might be more to life. Armed with what he thought was a winning baritone voice, he packed a grip and lit out for Hollywood. The movie industry was already over-flowing with attractive singing leading men, and Andrews wound up pumping gas in Van Nuys.
One of his employers was well enough impressed with Andrews to sponsor his studies at the Pasadena Playhouse. The Playhouse was an old fashioned drama school where the players were expected to start at the bottom and earn their way to better roles. At this time, Andrews chose to drop “Carver”, feeling that Dana was a snappier stage name (some biographers, recognizing that Dana could be a masculine or feminine name, have questioned this decision. Would Andrews have known more success as “Carver Andrews, scourge of the Pacific”?)
Andrews finally landed a contract with MGM,but his first job had little to do with acting. The studio was planning to shoot Raffles(1940) starring the dashing David Niven, but Niven was holding out for more money. Sam Goldwyn assigned Andrews with the job of wearing a tuxedo and being around Niven. Seeing Andrews photographed in Raffle’s costumes was enough to intimidate Niven into signing.
Andrews finally made it to the screen in a series of supporting roles such as The Westerner(1940), The Lucky Cisco Kid(1940), Kit Carson(1940), Tobacco Road(1941), Berlin Correspondent(1942), Crash Dive(1943) and others. His role in The Ox-Bow Incident(1943) as the victim of a lynching is considered one of his best.
Playing an obsessed detective in Laura(1944), Andrews became the Noir star we remember him as. In the 1946 post-War classic The Best Years Of Our Lives, he played a bombardier trying to return to a world which has changed beyond his understanding while he was at War.
As a preacher’s son during Prohibition and a budding young businessman, Andrews had rarely, if ever, touched a drop of liquor. However, when he got to Hollywood, he found that booze was an important social lubricant. Deals and career moves were negotiated and sealed over drinks. It was a way for actors and crews to unwind after endless hours on the set, and it was a prominent feature of the night-life where reputations were made and preserved. Eventually, the gentle relief that a drink provided became an obsessive need for Andrews. Knowledge of his drinking problem spread through the movie industry, and producers began rolling their eyes when his name was mentioned.
The movies were not the only way for a hard working actor to pay the bills, and radio syndicator Frederic Ziv was willing to take a chance on Andrews’ All-American persona. Andrews had appeared on Lux Radio Theater and other shows in support of his movie. Ziv was offering steady work.
I Was a Communist For the F.B.I. began as a series in the Saturday Evening Post chronicling the case of Matt Cvetic, the informant who would provide the FBI with information on the inner workings of the Communist Party in America and eventually testify before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. The Post stories were developed as a movie for Warner Brothers, released in 1951 starring Frank Lovejoy.
Ziv realized that there was more mileage to be found in the Cvetic tale as the era of McCarthyism was beginning. Frank Lovejoy was busy with other radio and movie projects, but Dana Andrews carried the right combination of sincerity and toughness for the role. 72 episodes were recorded for syndication, each with Andrews’ ominous tagline :”I walk alone”.
Andrews’ alcoholic reputation continued to dog him with movie casting directors. In a magazine interview soon after Ronald Reagan gained the Presidency of the United States, Andrews revealed that it was Reagan’s example which helped Andrews defeat the bottle. While Reagan was president of the Screen Actors Guild, Andrews knew him as a man who “knew when to say when”. Andrews was determined to show the same strength of character, and was also elected president of SAG in 1963.
Dana Andrews continued to act into the 1980s, but spent the last years of his life at the Douglas French Center for Alzheimer’s Disease in Los Alamitos. In 1992, Andrews succumbed to congestive heart failure and pneumonia at the age of 83.