by Dave the Spazz
“Don’t ever let them operate on your back. That’s how we lost Jeff Chandler.”
--Don Van Vliet 1
Today’s Hanukkah’s Jew answers to the name of 1950s movie star Jeff Chandler. My Aunt Penny used to swear that Chandler was her cousin from the old neighborhood; however, his absence from any and all family functions caused some concern at the time that Aunt Penny might be full of shit. Claiming familial ties to Jeff Chandler was just schlubby enough to be true so I believed her. Aunt Penny’s son David changed his name from Abramson to Chandler so you can count him as another believer. 2
Jeff Chandler was one of the biggest box office leading men of the 1950s but any enduring fame seems locked into that nervous decade. After serving in World War II, the East New York native sharpened his acting chops in radio comedies and dramas (most notably as doofus biology teacher Philip Boynton on Our Miss Brooks). By the early fifties the former Ira Grossel reinvented himself into the tall, dark and Semitic matinee hero Hollywood had apparently been searching for.
Chandler was generally typecast as the affable, prematurely gray, leading man sort of chap--a stack of good looks with the charisma of a goldfish. He was Cary without the Grant, Gregory sans Peck, he was more Clark Kent than Clark Gable. Tanned and bland, Chandler was just a yutz with a granite chin.
In the seventies I remember he would occasionally pop up on Channel 9's Million Dollar Movie or whenever the Mets got rained out. Unfortunately, Chandler's movies were unremarkable and predictable affairs. If it sucked, he was in it: turgid romances, drab military dramas, sword and sandal epics, crappity-crap horse operas. If Warhol ever sat through a Jeff Chandler epic then maybe his eight hour Empire State Building movie might have seemed unnecessary.
For a blank sheet of paper, Chandler surprisingly shared the screen with a litany of leading lady goddesses of the 1950s: Kim Novak, Liz Taylor, Carol Lynley, Susan Hayward, Lana Turner, Julie London, Joan Crawford, Jane Russell, Dorothy Malone, and Anne Baxter were among the lucky gals who kissed up on ol' Jeff. At one point he was romantically linked with M-G-M swimming star Esther Williams until the day she allegedly caught him in a dress. In her 1999 autobiography Williams recalled telling him at the time "Jeff, you're too big for polka dots."
In or out of polka dots, Chandler was well-liked and he swung with the swingingest chums that Hollywood had to offer. When good pal Sammy Davis, Jr. lost his left eyeball after a horrific car wreck on Route 66, Chandler famously offered him one of his own. (A few years later Sammy served as a pallbearer at Chandler’s funeral.) Jeff's generous offer, along with constant noodging from Eddie Cantor and Tony Curtis are likely responsible for Sammy turning to the Jewish faith.
Chandler had a singing career as well--who didn’t back then? He released a few tuneless LPs and in 1955 opened at The Riviera in Vegas to celebrity-studded crowds and tepid reviews. Comedienne/singer Rose Marie was at the opening and remarked "Jeff Chandler was a great guy, but he was no singer… he came with a conductor, a piano player, light man, press agent and manager. None of it helped."
On the set of his last film Merrill's Marauders (1961), Chandler herniated his spinal disc while playing baseball with U.S. Army soldiers who served as extras in the movie. He entered a Culver City Hospital on May 13, 1961 and due to a botched surgery he never checked out.
At age 42 Jeff Chandler joined the lost-in-time stars of Hollywood's last golden era, remembered today for nobody knows-quite-what, except from this point on for being my Aunt Penny's cousin from the old neighborhood.
"I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm" mp3
by Jeff Chandler, 1955.
available on Spotlight on Jeff Chandler
1. The Book of Changes: Interviews by Kristine McKenna, Fantagraphics Books
2. My first cousin removed, David Abramson (hailing from East New York) could pass for Italian and frequently did. He changed his name to David Roya and eventually David Roy Chandler in a nod to his movie star cousin once removed. He did walk-on bits (usually as an Italian American thug) on Mission Impossible, The Rookies, Black Sheep Squadron and other TV shows. He abandoned his Fonzie image to play an Apache savage who tries to kill Henry Gibson in a very special episode of F Troop. Returning to his bad-ass roots, David found enduring psychotronic fame as Bernard Posner, the spoiled Sheriff’s son in the extremely dated hit Billy Jack (1971). David is currently a 4th degree black belt Tae Kwon Do instructor in Rockaway Beach.