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Victor Mature dies at 86

Thesp had leading roles in over 50 films

Victor Mature, the beefy leading man of the ’40s and ’50s whose films included “Kiss of Death” and “Samson and Delilah,” died Wednesday in Rancho Santa Fe following a three-year battle with cancer. He was 86.

Announcement of his death, funeral arrangements and other information were delayed at his widow’s request, Encinitas Mortuary spokesman Joe Reynolds said.

Though he admitted to being a better golfer than actor, Mature, who had leading roles in almost 50 films, came along at a time when inscrutable leading men with muscular physiques were in fashion. Never averse to publicity, he played up his sobriquet “the Hunk,” which gave him needed visibility to compete with some of his more talented contemporaries like Charlton Heston and Robert Mitchum.

Biblical to noir

He is best remembered for Biblical spectacles including Cecil B. DeMille’s “Samson and Delilah” and “The Robe,” but turned in some of his best work in films noir like “Kiss of Death” and “Cry of the City” as well as John Ford’s classic Western “My Darling Clementine.”

But since the late ’50s, except for occasional small roles as in the early ’80s TV remake of “Samson and Delilah,” Mature rarely worked in the business. He never took acting too seriously, he confessed. Nor marriage, to some extent: He was wed five times.

Born in Louisville, Ky., Mature left school in his teens and became a successful candy wholesaler. With that money he started a restaurant in 1935 only to sell it a short time later to head to California where he intended to become an actor.

He studied at Pasadena Playhouse’s drama school and in 1936 made his debut there in “Paths of Glory.” Odd jobs sustained him over the next couple of years until he landed a fellowship at the Playhouse and a leading role in “Autumn Crocus.”

First film role

A year later while acting in Ben Hecht’s “To Quito and Back,” he was spotted by producer Hal Roach, who gave him a small role in “The Housekeeper’s Daughter” with Joan Bennett. The brief appearance resulted in a deluge of fan mail, and he was thrown into a leading role in “One Million B.C.,” a subpar caveman tale.

The poorly reviewed film gave him a profile as a brawny, he-man type, and he capitalized on the attendant publicity. In 1940, Roach sold half of Mature’s $250-a-week, seven-year contract to RKO, which put him in the film version of “No, No Nanette.” He continued in a musical vein, moving on to Broadway in Moss Hart’s play with music “Lady in the Dark” opposite Gertrude Lawrence. It was here that the description “hunk” was ascribed to him. And it stuck.

Of his early films, the thriller “I Wake Up Screaming,” co-starring Betty Grable, was one of his better efforts, but not “Shanghai Gesture,” also in 1941. At this point, Fox took over his contract and paid him $1,200 a week while casting him in musical vehicles with Grable and Rita Hayworth such as “Song of the Islands” and “My Gal Sal.”

War years

During the war, Mature signed up with the Coast Guard and was assigned to duty patrolling the North Atlantic. His only acting work during the period was the musical “Tars and Spars” for recruitment purposes.

After the war, he landed a plum role in “My Darling Clementine.” Other strong vehicles included “Moss Rose” in 1947 and the noir “Cry of the City.”

His biggest success would be as Samson in DeMille’s 1950 version of “Samson and Delilah,” for which he was paid $50,000. Neither he nor co-star Hedy Lamarr were right for the roles, but DeMille worked his usual unintentionally campy magic.

Mature worked in a range of films throughout the ’50s, from musical comedies like “Wabash Avenue” and “Million Dollar Mermaid” to Westerns like “Chief Crazy Horse” and action films such as “Dangerous Mission” and “Betrayed.” But he is best remembered for beefcake spectacles like “Androcles and the Lion,” “The Robe,” “Demetrius and the Gladiators” and “The Egyptian.”

After such a spate, it was hard to see him in anything else, which is why by the early ’60s he’d joined the exodus of American actors to Italy, where he starred in “Hannibal” and “The Tartars.”

But by the end of the decade he was reduced mostly to cameos, some spoofing his persona such as “After the Fox,” a comedy with Peter Sellers, and the Monkees’ “Head.”

Appropriately, he came out of retirement in 1983 to play Samson’s father in a TV remake of “Samson and Delilah.”

Survivors include his wife, Lorey, a former Chicago opera singer, and their daughter, Victoria, 24, who recently graduated from an opera program at the U. of California, San Diego.

A funeral service will be held today in Louisville.

(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)

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