- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
Jimmy Lydon, who portrayed William Powell’s oldest son in Life With Father and the trouble-prone high schooler Henry Aldrich in a rapid series of Paramount “B” movies, has died. He was 98.
Lydon died peacefully March 9 at his home in San Diego, his daughter Julie Lydon Cornell announced.
Lydon said he gave Elizabeth Taylor her first onscreen kiss when they both starred in Cynthia (1947), and he starred from 1950-52 in what is considered to be the first network TV daytime soap opera, CBS’ The First Hundred Years, performed live five days a week.
Starting in the 1960s, Lydon worked as a producer on movies and TV shows including the famed ABC detective series 77 Sunset Strip and an NBC adaptation of Mister Roberts, both starring Roger Smith; the ABC comedy McHale’s Navy; and the NBC Westerns Wagon Train and Temple Houston.
In Life With Father (1947), directed in three-strip Technicolor by Michael Curtiz, Lydon played Clarence Day Jr., the first of four redheaded sons of a stubborn well-to-do stockbroker in 1880’s New York City. Irene Dunne portrayed his mom, and Lydon’s character, bound for Yale University, was taken with the beautiful Mary Skinner, played by Taylor, then 14.
The film was an adaptation of a Broadway play that starred Howard Lindsay and ran for more than 3,200 performances, from 1939 to 1947.
“We worked for four and a half months on that picture,” Lydon told Nick Thomas in a 2016 interview. “Mr. [Jack] Warner wanted to spend all the money in the world on it and take his time to produce a prestige piece for Warner Bros. He paid a million dollars just for the rights to the story, which was a lot of money in the 1940s. It was the most expensive picture Warner Bros. had made at the time, costing around $4.5 million.”
After Jackie Cooper starred as Henry in What a Life (1939) and Life With Henry (1941), Lydon took over for the final nine films in the farcical series, from Henry Aldrich for President (1941) to Henry Aldrich’s Little Secret (1944).
The character with the high-pitched voice had begun on Broadway in 1938 before becoming the centerpiece of a long-running radio series known for his mom calling out, “Hen-reeeeeeeeeeeee! Hen-ree Al-drich!” at the start of each program, followed by Henry’s reply, “Coming, Mother!”
James Lydon was born on May 30, 1923, in Harrington Park, New Jersey, the fifth of nine children (he had six brothers and two sisters) in an Irish-Catholic family. He described his father as a violent alcoholic who came to the dinner table one evening in 1937 and announced that he was quitting his job in New York’s financial district and retiring.
“And he did, he never worked again,” Lydon said in a 2013 interview with Alan K. Rode of the Film Noir Foundation. “We were living on the edge of disaster.”
A family friend who had a couple of kids working in the theater suggested Lydon’s mother turn one of her children into an actor. “If you open your mouth on the Broadway stage, you make $25 a week,” he said. “In the ’30s, that was a fortune.”
The freckle-faced Lydon had zero acting experience but lied about being in three plays and was hired for a role opposite Van Heflin in the 1937 Broadway drama Western Waters. “I learned how to be an actor by being paid to learn,” he said. For years, he was the only one in the family with a job.
After stints in four other Broadway plays, Lydon and his family headed to Hollywood in September 1939, and he appeared in Back Door to Heaven and Two Thoroughbreds that year. Signed by RKO, he got the biggest break of his young career, getting cast as the title character in Tom Brown’s School Days (1940), the studio’s second-ever $1 million picture (Gunga Din was the first).
He signed with Paramount and noted that he worked just 63 days a year at the studio, making three films at 21 days apiece. The rest of the time he attended classes at studio school and learned how to make movies watching pros on dubbing stages and in editing rooms. That would come in handy when he segued into producing.
After Henry Aldrich’s Little Secret, Lydon knew he was going to be typecast. “It was the kiss of death when you finish up a series,” he said. “It sticks to you like glue.”
Still, he appeared in Edgar Ulmer’s Strange Illusion (1945), with James Cagney in The Time of Your Life (1948), opposite Joan Fontaine and Joseph Cotton in September Affair (1950), in John Sturges’ The Magnificent Yankee (1950) and with John Wayne in Island in the Sky (1953).
He also played Skeezix in three Gasoline Alley films at Columbia, all released in 1951 and based on a newspaper comic strip.
In notable television roles in the 1940s and ’50s, Lydon portrayed Simon Vanderhopper, who dated the daughter of Jackie Gleason’s character, on the NBC comedy The Life of Reilly and was a regular on the syndicated sci-fi show Rocky Jones, Space Ranger and on ABC’s Love That Jill, starring real-life husband and wife Robert Sterling and Anne Jeffreys.
He went on to appear on Wanted: Dead or Alive, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Wagon Train, The Twilight Zone, Cannon, Adam-12, Lou Grant and St. Elsewhere and direct an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man.
On the short-lived 1973-74 CBS comedy Roll Out, created by M*A*S*H legends Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds, Lydon produced and played an Army captain named Henry Aldrich.
He became great friends with Robert Armstrong, and when the King Kong star died at age 82 in 1973, Lydon become the legal guardian of his wife, Louise, as per his will.
Lydon served as vice president of SAG under Ronald Reagan in the late 1940s, co-creating the actors’ pension and health plan. The golden age star also was a member of the DGA.
He married actress Betty Lou Nedell, who also was on The First Hundred Years, in 1952. Her mother, Olive Blakeney, portrayed his mom in many of the Aldrich movies. Lydon and Nedell were married for almost 70 years until her death two months ago.
Survivors include his daughters, Julie and Cathy, and granddaughters, Keara and Taryn.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day
More from The Hollywood Reporter
‘Shazam! Fury of the Gods’ Writers Talk ‘Fast’ Joke, New DC Leadership and That Major Cameo
‘Boston Strangler’ Stars Carrie Coon and Keira Knightley on Playing the Working Mothers Who Pursued One of America’s Most Notorious Serial Killers
‘Everything Everywhere’ Filmmakers Daniels Working on ‘Star Wars’ Series ‘Skeleton Crew’
Taron Egerton on Why He’s Not the Right Fit for Bond and Whether Straight Actors Should Be Able to Play Gay Roles
‘This Closeness’ Review: A Couple and Their Airbnb Host Get Acquainted in an Astute Dramedy of Awkwardness