The Life of Riley

Riley and son Junior.

The Life of Riley, with William Bendix in the title role, is a popular American radio situation comedy series of the 1940s that was adapted into a 1949 feature film, a long-running 1950s television series (originally with Jackie Gleason as Riley for one truncated season, then with Bendix for six seasons), and a 1958 comic book.

Irving Brecher created the radio series for friend Groucho Marx. Originally titled The Flotsam Family, the sponsor balked at what would have been essentially a straight head-of-household role for Groucho. (Marx went on to host Blue Ribbon Town from 1943 to 1944 and then You Bet Your Life from 1947 to 1961.) Creator and producer Brecher saw William Bendix as taxicab company owner Tim McGuerin in Hal Roach's The McGuerins from Brooklyn (1942). Brecher stated, "He was a Brooklyn guy and there was something about him. I thought, This guy could play it. He'd made a few films, like Lifeboat, but he was not a name. So I took The Flotsam Family script, revised it, made it a Brooklyn Family, took out the flippancies and made it more meat-and-potatoes, and thought of a new title, The Life of Riley. Bendix's delivery and the spin he put on his lines made it work."[1]

The reworked script cast Bendix as blundering Chester A. Riley, a wing riveter at the fictional Cunningham Aircraft plant in California. His frequent exclamation of indignation—"What a revoltin' development this is!"—became one of the most famous catchphrases of the 1940s. It was later reused by Benjamin J. Grimm of the Fantastic Four. The radio series also benefited from the immense popularity of a supporting character, Digby "Digger" O'Dell (John Brown), "the friendly undertaker." Brecher told Brown, "I want a very sepulchral voice, quavering, morbid, and he got it right away." [2]

Source of the title

The expression "living the life of Riley" suggests an ideal contented life, possibly living on someone else's money, time, or work. Rather than a negative freeloading or golddigging aspect, it implies that someone is kept or advantaged.

The expression is of uncertain origin and is first attested from around World War I, particularly in American servicemen. Various theories exist as to the origin, for example from James Whitcomb Riley's poems in the 1880s depicting the comforts of a prosperous home life,[3] but it could have an Irish origin: After the Reilly clan consolidated its hold on County Cavan, they minted their own money, which was accepted as legal tender even in England. These coins, called “O'Reillys” and “Reillys,” became synonymous with a monied person, and a gentleman freely spending was therefore “living on his Reillys.”


The Life of Riley (radio)

William Bendix as Chester A. Riley
Genre Situation comedy
Running time 30 minutes
Country United States
Language(s) English
Syndicates ABC
TV adaptations The Life of Riley
Starring William Bendix
John Brown
Grace Coppin
Paula Winslowe
Announcer Ken Niles
Ken Carpenter
Jimmy Wallington
Created by Irving Brecher
Written by Alan Lipscott
Reuben Ship
Produced by Irving Brecher
Sponsored by Prell Shampoo
Pabst Blue Ribbon
American Meat Institute

An unrelated radio show with the name Life of Riley was a summer replacement show heard on CBS from April 12, 1941, to September 6, 1941. The CBS program starred Lionel Stander as J. Riley Farnsworth and had no real connection with the more famous series that followed a few years later.[4]

The radio program starring William Bendix as Riley initially aired on the Blue Network, later known as ABC, from January 16, 1944, to June 8, 1945. Then it moved to NBC, where it was broadcast from September 8, 1945, to June 29, 1951.

The supporting cast featured Paula Winslowe as Peg (Riley's wife) and as Riley's mother-in law; John Brown as undertaker "Digger" O'Dell and as Riley's co-worker Jim Gillis; Francis "Dink" Trout as Waldo Binny; Tommy Cook, Bobby Ellis and Scotty Beckett, each playing Junior during the show's run; Sharon Douglas playing Babs, Riley's daughter; and, in one episode, Henry Morgan voicing Riley's father. Alan Reed was a regular on the show as multiple characters, including Riley's boss (Mr. Stevenson) and Peg's father; Shirley Mitchell played Honeybee Gillis; and Hans Conried was Uncle Baxter.

Whereas Gillis gave Riley bad information that got him into trouble, Digger gave him good information that "helped him out of a hole," as he might have put it. Brown's lines as the undertaker were often repetitive, including puns based on his profession; but thanks to Brown's delivery, the audience loved him. The program was broadcast live with a studio audience, most of whom were not aware Brown played both characters. As a result, when Digger delivered his first line, it was usually greeted with howls of laughter and applause from surprised audience members.

The series was co-developed by the nonperforming Marx Brother turned agent Gummo. The American Meat Institute (1944–45), Procter & Gamble (Teel dentifrice and Prell shampoo) (1945–49), and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer (1949–51) took turns as the radio program's sponsor.[5]


William Bendix starred in the 1949 film version of The Life of Riley. This prevented him from starring in the TV series that began in 1949. He took over the starring role in the TV series' second run, which started in 1953. Bendix and Rosemary DeCamp (who starred as Riley's wife in Gleason's version of the TV series) repeated the roles when an hour-long radio adaptation of the feature film was presented on Lux Radio Theater in May 1950.


The Life of Riley (television)

John Brown as Digger with Jackie Gleason as Riley.
Genre Situation comedy[6]
Starring Jackie Gleason (1949-1950)
William Bendix (1953-1958)
Country of origin United States
Original language(s) English
No. of seasons 6
Running time 30 minutes[6]
Original network NBC
Original release October 4, 1949 – August 22, 1958

In 1948, NBC broadcast "two live television test programs based on the radio series."[7] The April 13 episode starred Herb Vigran as Riley, and the April 20 episode had Buddy Gray in the title role.[7][8]

Jackie Gleason

The show was adapted for television on NBC by the producer of the radio series, Irving Brecher. It was seen for single-season telecast from October 4, 1949, to March 28, 1950.

Originally, William Bendix was to have appeared on both radio and television, but Bendix's RKO Radio Pictures movie contract prevented him from appearing on the television version. Instead, Jackie Gleason starred, along with Rosemary DeCamp, replacing Paula Winslowe, as wife Peg, Gloria Winters as daughter Barbara (Babs), Lanny Rees as son Chester Jr. (Junior), and Sid Tomack as Jim Gillis, Riley's manipulative best buddy and next-door neighbor. John Brown returned as the morbid counseling undertaker Digby (Digger) O'Dell ("Cheerio, I'd better be... shoveling off"; "Business is a little dead tonight"). Television's first Life of Riley won television's first Emmy (for "Best Film Made For and Shown on Television"). However, it came to an end after 26 episodes, not because of low ratings or a desire by Gleason to leave the series, but because Irving Brecher and sponsor Pabst Brewing Company reached an impasse on extending the series for a full 39-week season. Groucho Marx received a credit for "story."

Episode List:

William Bendix

The Riley family. From left: Lugene Sanders (Babs), William Bendix (Chester A. Riley), Marjorie Reynolds (Peg), and Wesley Morgan (Junior).

The second TV series ran for six seasons, from January 2, 1953, to May 23, 1958. It was produced by Tom McKnight for NBC and featured William Bendix. He was supported by Marjorie Reynolds, replacing both Paula Winslowe and Rosemary DeCamp, as wife Peg; Tom D'Andrea as schemer buddy Jim Gillis; Gloria Blondell (sister of Joan Blondell) as Gillis' wife, Honeybee; Lugene Sanders as daughter Babs; and Wesley Morgan as son Junior. This Life of Riley series with Bendix was a ratings hit, ranking at #16 in its first season, with four of its six seasons in the top 30, and ran for a total of 217 episodes. It then went into syndicated reruns.

In all of the show's incarnations, the comedic plotlines centered around Riley himself, a gullible and occasionally clumsy (but big-hearted) man, and the doings and undoings of his family. Riley's penchant for turning mere trouble into near-disaster through his well-intentioned bumbling was often aided or instigated by his arch best friend/next-door neighbor, Gillis.


In several ways, Riley was a prototype for later blue-collar sitcom protagonists such as blustery, get-rich-quick schemer Ralph Kramden (played, perhaps not coincidentally, by Jackie Gleason) and his animated stone-age counterpart Fred Flintstone; blustery bigot Archie Bunker; benign, bighearted Dan Conner; and King of Queens Doug Heffernan. Perhaps the greatest tribute to The Life of Riley was paid by Married... with Children: Ed O'Neill's language and manner of speaking as Al Bundy are remarkably similar to Bendix's, and Al's wife, like Riley's, is named Peg. Bendix's Riley, especially, was perhaps too guileless to be the true prototype for this group, but for making blue-collar characters as operable on television as on radio or in film, Chester Riley earned his place in broadcasting history.

The latter portion of the fifth season, broadcast between April and June 1957, was filmed and originally broadcast in color, although only black-and-white film prints of those episodes were syndicated. For the final season, filming reverted to black-and-white.

Sponsors of the TV show included Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer (1949–50), Gulf Oil (1953–58) and Lever Brothers (1957–58).

A comic book adaptation of the show was produced by Dell Comics in 1958 as part of their Four Color series of one-shots.


  1. Nachman, Gerald (1998). Raised on Radio, p. 246. Pantheon Books, New York. ISBN 037540287X.
  2. Nachman, Gerald (1998). Raised on Radio, p. 247. Pantheon Books, New York. ISBN 037540287X.
  3. James Whitcomb Riley: The Life of Riley
  4. Dunning, John. (1998). On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-507678-3. Pp. 396-397.
  5. Sies, Luther F. (2014). Encyclopedia of American Radio, 1920-1960, 2nd Edition, Volume 1. McFarland & Company, Inc. ISBN 978-0-7864-5149-4. P. 397.
  6. 1 2 Brooks, Tim & Marsh, Earle (1979). The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows: 1946-Present. Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-25525-9. P. 351.
  7. 1 2 Terrace, Vincent (1999). Radio Programs, 1924-1984: A Catalog of More Than 1800 Shows. McFarland & Company, Inc. ISBN 978-0-7864-4513-4. P. 199.
  8. Terrace, Vincent (2011). Encyclopedia of Television Shows, 1925 through 2010. McFarland & Company, Inc. ISBN 978-0-7864-6477-7. P. 602.
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