Family & Companions
Standing 6'3" with a head of curly black hair and famously broad shoulders, Victor Mature seemed born to fill the expanding motion picture screen of the postwar era. He received 20,000 fan letters from his film debut in the Hal Roach comedy "The Housekeeper's Daughter" (1939), which led to his promotion to leading man for the dinosaur romp "One Million Years, B.C." (1940). After the war, Mature came into his own as an actor at 20th Century Fox, partnering with Henry Fonda for John Ford's mythic oater "My Darling Clementine" (1946) and going head to head with Richard Widmark in Henry Hathaway's steely noir "Kiss of Death" (1947). The advent of CinemaScope and the standardization of Technicolor thrust Mature into a clutch of chromatic biblical epics and he soldiered shirtless through "Samson and Delilah" (1949), "The Robe" (1950), "Demetrius and the Gladiators" (1954) and "The Egyptian" (1954) with professional aplomb, never taking himself too seriously. With no need for shoulder pads, shoe lifts, a hairpiece, or studio-mandated secrecy regarding his private life, Mature proved his worth to the film industry as a low risk, reliable, scandal-free leading man. Savvy investments in real estate and the booming television market allowed the actor to retire at age 44, though he returned for roles in a handful of films before his death in 1999 denied moviegoers the company of a Hollywood star who stood every inch a king.
Victor John Mature was born on Jan. 29, 1913, in Louisville, KY. The only surviving child of an Italian immigrant and a native Kentuckian of Swiss origin, Mature was a high-spirited but undisciplined youth who was expelled from a number of public and parochial schools - among them the Kentucky Military Institute, where his fondness for partying and disdain for regimentation earned him the nickname Cadet Slob. Dropping out of school at 14, Mature joined the workforce as his father's assistant in a refrigeration business before breaking out on his own to labor as an elevator operator and a salesman for a candy wholesaler. Relying on his native charm and innate abilities as a performer, Mature did well in sales, using his profits to buy a restaurant - which he promptly sold at a profit. In 1935, Mature alighted on the idea of traveling west to Hollywood to become an actor. Packing a reserve of candy with which he could barter for food and gas while on the road, Mature arrived in Los Angeles with eleven cents to his name and pointed himself immediately toward the Hollywood casting agents.
Advised that he would better his chances by gaining experience, Mature attended an open audition at the Pasadena Playhouse, whose founder, Gilmore Brown, allowed the Hollywood hopeful a work-study program and a place to live - a tent on Playhouse property. Additional manual labor included stints as a YMCA janitor and car waxer-polisher, while Mature learned to speak and move onstage, to fence, and even to box. Never one for books, Mature began reading scores of plays and novels. He made his Pasadena Playhouse debut in "Paths of Glory" in November 1936, later winning a scholarship that allowed him to devote more time to acting. In 1939, he was spotted in a production of Ben Hecht's "To Quito and Back" by Frank Ross, vice president of Hal Roach Studios. Impressed with the strapping Mature's physical presence, Ross brokered the newbie actor his feature film debut in "The Housekeeper's Daughter" (1939), as a lovelorn gangster named Lefty. Though Mature's screen time amounted to mere minutes, he received over 20,000 pieces of fan mail, prompting Hal Roach to beef Mature up to leading man status for the campy prehistoric adventure "One Million Years, B.C." (1940), co-starring an equally impressive specimen and fellow newcomer, Carole Landis.
Hedging his bet, Roach limited Mature's dialogue in "One Million Years, B.C.," and costumed his newly-minted leading man in loincloths that showcased his muscular build. Mature fared slightly better in the swashbuckler "Captain Caution" (1940). The declining fortunes of Hal Roach necessitated a merger with RKO Radio Pictures, for whom Mature appeared in select films prior to his contract being bought out by 20th Century Fox. It was at Fox that Mature came into his own, starring as a wrongly accused man in the noir thriller "I Wake Up Screaming" (1941), co-starring the studio's biggest asset, Betty Grable. World War II put Mature's career on hold as he served with the United States Coast Guard as a seaman second class, seeing action on a convoy ship in the North Atlantic and the Philippine Islands. Having already weathered two short-lived marriages, Mature proposed wedlock to his "My Gal Sal" (1942) co-star Rita Hayworth, only to have the red-headed bombshell marry filmmaker Orson Welles while he was at war. Discharged in November 1945, Mature returned to Fox, where John Ford cast him as the consumptive Doc Holliday in "My Darling Clementine" (1946) opposite Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp.
If Mature had been derided by critics for his early bare-chested film roles, he proved his dramatic mettle in "Clementine," holding his own against a cast of veteran troupers and drawing respectful notices from Variety and The New York Times. His scored high marks as well in complex roles in Gregory Ratoff's Victorian melodrama "Moss Rose" (1947) opposite Vincent Price and Peggy Cummins, and in Henry Hathaway's "Kiss of Death" (1947), playing a widowed ex-con desperate enough to win back the custody of his young daughters to betray underworld comrade Richard Widmark. With the advent of widescreen and the standardization of Technicolor, Mature was able to broaden his palate from crime and cowboy films to biblical epics. Success as the brawny half of "Samson and Delilah" (1949) for Cecil B. DeMille put Mature in the frame with esteemed British leading man Richard Burton in Henry Koster's CinemaScope production "The Robe" (1950). Mature reprised the role of the Greek slave Demetrius in "Demetrius and the Gladiators" (1954) and was the hunky pharaoh Hormeheb in Michael Curtiz' "The Egyptian" (1954) opposite Gene Tierney and Jeanne Simmons.
Having amassed a fortune from investments in real estate and television sales, Mature began to enjoy himself more by playing golf than by playing characters. He brokered lucrative profit-sharing deals abroad, traveling to Kenya to star in Terence Young's "Safari" (1956), to Cuba for Jerry Hopper's "The Sharkfighters" (1956), and to England for Ken Hughes' "The Long Haul" (1957). In Italy, his "Hannibal" (1960) co-star was his one-time romantic rival Orson Welles, by this point long divorced from Rita Hayworth. Pushing 50 and veteran of nearly as many features, the oft-married Mature retired in 1962, though he would break his idyll for cameos in Vittorio de Sica's "After the Fox" (1966), written by Neil Simon, and Bob Rafelson's "Head" (1968), a film vehicle for the pop group The Monkees. Mature's last credit was as Samson's father in a 1984 TV remake of "Samson and Delilah." He died of cancer on Aug. 4, 1999, at his ranch near San Diego, CA, which he had built to overlook the ninth hole of the Rancho Santa Fe Golf Course.
By Richard Harland Smith
Cast (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
With confectionary profits became co-owner of a restaurant (date approximate)
Sold restaurant interests and went to Hollywood to pursue acting career
Stage debut in "Paths of Glory" at Pasadena Playhouse
Signed contract with Hal Roach Studio; film debut in "The Housekeeper's Daughter". opposite Joan Bennett
Starred in "One Million B.C."
Signed with RKO
Broadway debut in the musical "Lady in the Dark"; played a movie star opposite Gertrude Lawrence
Signed long-term contract with 20th Century-Fox
Served with US Coast Guard, first in Atlantic Ocean, then Pacific
Delivered strong performance as Doc Holliday in John Ford's "My Darling Clementine"
Had what many consider his best role in the noir classic "Kiss of Death"
Hired to replace Tyrone Power in "Samson and Delilah"
"Retired" from acting
Returned to film acting spoofing his screen image in Vittorio De Sica's "Caccia alla Volpe/After the Fox"
Again spoofed his image as 'The Big Victor' in Bob Rafelson's "Head", starring The Monkees
Last feature film "Firepower"
Final acting assignment, played Samson's father in the ABC movie "Samson and Delilah"