He was a new type of leading man. Dana Andrews — TCM’s Star of the Month for July — could go from a suave, handsome leading man to film noir detective who kept his emotions intact. Often mistakenly called a “wooden actor,” Andrews could calmly underplay his film characters.
Actress Joan Crawford called her Daisy Kenyon (1947) co-star “underestimated,” saying he “wasn’t fully appreciated because his style was to underplay, which is so difficult.”
Today, Andrews is often discussed in tandem with his alcoholism struggles. His drinking often overshadows discussions about his career. Andrews showed great courage when he publicly entered recovery for his alcoholism in the 1970s.
Born Carver Dana Andrews, he came from a modest upbringing starting in Mississippi and then on to Texas. You can hear a hint of his southern roots in his smooth speaking voice. Andrews was one of 13 children and the son of a Baptist preacher, Charles Forrest Andrews, and his wife Annis.
It was working in a movie theater in the late-1920s that drew Andrews to acting, especially while watching his favorite actors (like Ronald Colman) on the screen, according to his biographer, Carl Rollyson. He thought that line of work didn’t look that difficult. Managing the local movie theater, Andrews became interested in every aspect of the film industry — he promoted the films for the theater, created his own soundtracks for the film and sometimes performed the sound effects in the silent films. His father disapproved of the acting profession and moving pictures, but Andrews later discovered the only time he felt happy was when he was acting, according to his biographer, Carl E. Rollyson in Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews. Before trekking west, Andrews acted in college plays and in community theater.
Andrews’s journey to stardom was a long one, not making his first film until he was 30-years-old. He left Texas and moved to California around 1930, but he wasn’t signed to a film contract until 1938. As he tried to break into films, Andrews found unsteady work during the Great Depression. “I worked at 21 jobs before the movies paid me regularly,” his biographer quotes him. Andrews worked jobs like ditch digging or driving buses to make ends meet. He also took vocal lessons — though after breaking into films, he didn’t let anyone know he was a trained singer, not wanting to end up in musical pictures.
His first film role was in Lucky Cisco Kid (1940). As his career progressed, he continued in small roles that slowly provided more exposure including The Westerner (1940), Tobacco Road (1941) and as gangster Joe Lilac in Ball of Fire (1941).
Still early in his career, Andrews starred with newcomer Farley Granger in The North Star (1943), a film about a Ukrainian family under Nazi occupation. Granger and Andrews are brothers in the film, but Granger wrote in his autobiography that he didn’t feel any brotherhood with Andrews when the cameras weren’t rolling. “On set he was always line-perfect and always there for me, but I never felt a connection to him as I would with a brother who loved me,” Granger wrote.
This changed when the two co-starred again in the wartime drama, The Purple Heart (1944), about the Army Air Force crewmen who were shot down following Doolittle’s Raid on Tokyo. Granger said director Lewis Milestone wanted the men to share a large dressing room so they would form a bond. “He (Andrews) warmed up a bit more this time, our second film together, particularly as the day wore on. As usual, Millie (Lewis Milestone) was right. We quickly became a band of brothers. I was the youngest. Sam Levene became my father and Dana Andrews my big brother,” Granger wrote.
Andrews’s breakthrough role would come as playing Detective Lt. Mark McPherson in Laura (1944), the detective who falls in love with the portrait of a woman and gets entangled in an unusual murder mystery. Twentieth Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck was developing a new male lead that was “less conventionally romantic than Tyrone Power,” such as Dana Andrews, Victor Mature and Richard Widmark, wrote Fox historian Scott Eyman. Laura is now one of the best-known film noirs of the 1940s. But when filming began, it was viewed only as a B-picture, actress Gene Tierney wrote in her autobiography. Dana Andrews and his co-star Clifton Webb were both selected by director Otto Preminger. “Both were gambles. Andrews was unproven as a leading man,” Tierney wrote.
Otto Preminger, originally the producer, took over directing the film and didn’t like the painting by Azadia Newman, and instead, blew up a portrait of Tierney, modifying it to look like a painting. Preminger also wanted to use Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” in the film, but instead David Raksin and Johnny Mercer collaborated on the haunting tune of “Laura.” Jennifer Jones was also initially approached for the role of Laura before Tierney.
“We were a mixture of second choices—me, Clifton (Webb), Dana (Andrews), the song, the portrait. If it worked, it was because the ingredients turned out to be right. Otto (Preminger) held us together, pushed and lifted what might have been a good movie into one that became something special,” Tierney wrote.
A trained singer, Dana Andrews did appear in a few musicals but never sang. The first was the wartime comedy Up in Arms (1944), where he plays the straight man to Danny Kaye’s zany antics. The other was the role of reporter Pat Gilbert in the candy-coated Technicolor film version of State Fair (1945), with music by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein specifically written for the musical film. Andrews’s character has a brief moment where he sings “It’s a Grand Night For Singing,” but he never told anyone that he could sing and was dubbed. He later said someone else could use the work.
Another 1940s film would provide a role that he is best known for — Fred Derry in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). While soldiers were away fighting in World War II, they dreamed of home. But the film shows that returning home isn’t quite as happy and easy as they hoped. Of the three men returning home together — Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), Fred Derry (Andrews) and Al Stephenson (Fredric March) — Fred has the highest military rank but the lowest socioeconomic status back home. Fred had a quick wartime romance and marriage to Marie (Virginia Mayo), a woman he barely knows who married him for the way he looked in a uniform. Fred and his pals are disillusioned and lost in the world they left behind. Many historians and reviewers note one of the best scenes in the film features Andrews in the abandoned B-17 reliving the war in his mind.
There were times Andrews came on set after a late night of drinking or held up production, because he couldn’t be located, according to his biographer. Director William Wyler calmly addressed the issue with Andrews. “When you have had as much to drink as you had last night, before you come to work, do me a favor. Just call in sick so you don’t have to come in and we can do it some other day,” Andrews recalled the conversation with Wyler to interviewer Clyde Williams. “You don’t have to worry about that. We’ll get you another day.” Wyler said that while they could use the takes from a day prior when Andrews had a “long night,” it wasn’t his best work.
After that conversation, Andrews said he didn’t drink while making The Best Years of Our Lives. “I never had another drink while we did that picture. I mean the way he did it. No criticism or anything. Just ‘Do me a favor,’” Andrews told Williams.
When Andrews later saw the film, his wife Mary Todd, said he had tears in his eyes and said, “If I had known how good this was going to be, I could have been much better.”
While Andrews acted steadily through the late 1940s and into the 1950s, his other films never captured the same magic as The Best Years of Our Lives and Laura. In the late 1940s he starred in Boomerang! (1947), Night Song (1947), My Foolish Heart (1949) and Sword in the Desert (1949). After co-starring with Gene Tierney five times, the last time they were teamed was in Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), again with director Otto Preminger. Tierney, who suffered from mental health issues, notes in her autobiography that the film marked the beginning of Andrews’s “own serious personal problem,” with alcoholism.
Granger and Andrews later co-starred again in Edge of Doom (1950) and the Korean War drama I Want You (1951). Producer Samuel Goldwyn told Granger that I Want You would be his next The Best Years of Our Lives, and Andrews again played Granger’s older brother. Unfortunately the film fell flat with audiences, according to Granger’s autobiography.
Sometimes Andrews’s demons interfered with his work. While filming Elephant Walk (1954), producer Irving Asher recalled Andrews’s drinking being so heavy, that he sometimes had to be filmed from behind and Elizabeth Taylor would assist him during a scene, according to Taylor’s biographer, Kitty Kelley.
Often working with Hollywood’s top directors, Andrews had the opportunity to work with Fritz Lang twice in 1956: While the City Sleeps (1956) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). Of the latter, Lang wasn’t thrilled with the script because of how Andrews’s’ character shifts drastically, but he was contractually bound to shoot the producer’s original script, Lang said in an interview.
Outside of filmmaking, Andrews was the fifteenth president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1963 to 1965. In the 1960s, Andrews was often cast as stalwart, high brass in military films like In Harm’s Way (1965), Battle of the Bulge (1965) and The Devil’s Brigade (1968). Like most Hollywood stars, he also found himself in sci-fi films, like The Satan Bug (1965) and The Frozen Dead (1966). One unique film for Andrews was a small role in The Loved One (1965), a farce on the Los Angeles funeral business. Andrews plays a military official, and while a brief part, Andrews loved the film and the role, according to his biographer.
Andrews battled with alcoholism for many years, which sometimes plagued his onset behavior. "In the beginning, it seemed daring to drink. I started drinking during Prohibition with friends, and it was pleasant. I said to myself: 'I can take it or leave it.' The truth was that drinking had become unmanageable. I couldn't leave it. I drank too much, too often,” Andrews is quoted in a June 21, 1985, South Florida Sun Sentinel article. Andrews became what he called “a conditioned drinker” and was jailed in 1940 for driving while intoxicated.
"I was making people unhappy. My agent was unhappy. My wife was unhappy. My boss (Darryl F. Zanuck) was unhappy,” Andrews said in the 1985 interview. “He (Zanuck) wanted me declared incompetent. I was losing my value as an actor. I went to the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn., under psychiatric care and stayed there for two months. When I left, the doctor warned, 'Don't drink.' But I started drinking again. I was always promising to go on the wagon. I went to AA meetings and admitted I was addicted. Then I started drinking again. And then I quit again. That is the actual, classic story of the alcoholic. Quitting and going after a drink again.”
In the 1970s, Andrews was one of the few actors to discuss his struggles openly.
“Finally, one day, I said to myself: 'You're a miserable man. Whether or not you want to remain miserable is up to you.' So I quit. Not forever. But just for a week. At the end of the week, I said: 'You've made it!' Then I quit for another week. And another. And the week became a month. And the month became several months. And that became a year. Now I haven't had a drink for 18 years,” he said in 1985.
Andrews made a public service announcement in the 1970s stating, “I’m Dana Andrews and I am an alcoholic. I don’t drink anymore, but I used to all the time …” and warned about the dangers of driving while intoxicated. Andrews remained sober for the remainder of his life until his death in 1992. “I admire him for doing so, as I admire anyone who rids himself of an addiction,” Tierney wrote.
While much of his life and career seem to be colored by his struggles, Dana Andrews also is an inspiration for eventually overcoming them and trying to use his own experiences to help others.