Richard Denning, the actor who played Lucy’s "favorite husband" on her popular CBS Radio series (1948-1951) passed away on October 11, 1998. Considered a "classically handsome" movie and television actor, Denning was perhaps best known for his role as the governor of Hawaii in the long-running Jack Lord television series, Hawaii Five-O. Denning was 85. He had suffered from emphysema for many years -- and was forced to turn down an invitation to attend our Loving Lucy ‘98 recreation of My Favorite Husband in July of that year, when his doctors felt it not wise for him to travel from his home in Escondido, California.
Born Ludwig A. Denninger in Poughkeepsie, NY, in 1914, Denning studied accounting at Woodbury University and was expected to take over his father’s garment business. After graduation he did just that -- but he also dabbled in acting. He entered a contest on the radio show, "Do You Want to Be an Actor?" and won a screen test at Warner Bros. The studio refused to sign him to a contract, however, claiming he looked too much like their biggest male heartthrob, actor Errol Flynn. The screen test did land Denning an agent, who in turn obtained him a seven-year contract at Paramount Studios. Two months later he made his motion picture debut in "Hold ‘Em Navy." The year was 1937.
Parts in dozens of mostly "B" movies followed -- films that were not all that different from the "B" flicks that Lucille Ball was making the same time in the neighboring RKO Studios. Casting directors did not know what to do with him -- Denning was too boyish to be a leading man, yet too manish to be a leading boy. As a result, when he worked, he often played pretty-boy gangster roles.
In 1942, after marrying actress Evelyn Ankers, Denning enlisted in the Navy -- which promptly shipping him to the South Pacific as part of their submarine service. He served out the war there, receiving an honorable discharge in October, 1945.
Back in Hollywood, Denning became a "free-lance" actor not tied to any one studio. He worked at Paramount, Republic, RKO and Fox -- but, again, in pictures better left forgotten. In July, 1948, Lucille Ball starred in a one-shot radio program entitled, "My Favorite Husband," based on the book, "Mr. and Mrs. Cugat," by Isabel Scott Rorick. Movie actor Lee Bowman played her husband. CBS was in dire need of new product, and when the reviews to "Husband" turned out to be glowing, the network wanted to turn the property into a weekly series immediately. Bowman was not available -- but Richard Denning was.
My Favorite Husband went on the air July 23, 1948 -- with Lucille Ball appearing as scatter-brained Liz Cugat, and Denning as her long-suffering husband George, the fifth vice president of a local bank. In the three years that followed, the show lost one producer-director (Gordon Hughes), added another (Jess Oppenheimer), attracted some remarkable writers (Bob Carroll Jr. and Madelyn Pugh), picked up some interesting cast members (including Gale Gordon) -- and, by 1951 seemed poised to make the transition into that new thing called television. CBS was especially interested in the show, and wanted the package intact. Denning was eager -- but Lucy balked. She wanted to try television all right, but she wanted to do a show with her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz. Arnaz would never be believable as a mid-western bank vice-president, so a whole new format would have to be conceived.
"She said it would help her marriage," Denning recalled later, "Also the show...And, of course, she was right."
CBS did not lose interest in Denning, however, and quickly cast him as the male lead in a man-and-wife whodunit called Mr. and Mrs. North. It ran for two seasons. Now highly regarded by motion picture and television producers alike, Denning spent the rest of his career straddling both media. Features like "An Affair to Remember" and "Some Like it Hot" made him a familiar face (if not a household name), as did the cult classic, "Creature From the Black Lagoon." For the small screen, Denning starred in Flying Doctor, Michael Shayne, and Karen, before landing his twelve-year stint on Hawaii Five-O.
Evelyn Ankers died in 1985. Later that year, Denning married the former Patricia Leffingwell. He was survived by his wife, daughter and two granddaughters.
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