Arthur Lake, who portrayed Dagwood Bumstead in more than two dozen “Blondie” films between 1939 and 1950, died Friday after a heart attack at his home in Indian Wells, where he had been living in quiet retirement. He was 81.
Lake reportedly suffered the fatal seizure early Friday afternoon while at home with his wife, Patricia. Paramedics said that when they arrived, his son, Arthur Lake Jr., was trying to revive him. He was in full cardiac arrest when taken to the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage. He died in the emergency room at 1:48 p.m.
Deputy Riverside County Coroner Nancy Traver said the apparent cause of the heart failure was arterial disease.
Lake, who was born Arthur Silverlake, became famous throughout the world as the bumbling, dumb husband of Blondie, as played by Penny Singleton in the successful string of Columbia Pictures films based on the Chic Young comic strip characters.
The studio was struggling financially when it cast Lake and Singleton in the first “Blondie” film it made for a mere $85,000. The picture grossed $9 million and led to the string of sequels that included “Blondie Meets the Boss,” “Blondie Brings Up Baby” and all the other features of interest to no one but the movie-going public.
Don Miller, a filmologist, called the signing of Lake as Dagwood “the greatest piece of casting in the history of movies.” Lake, said Miller, “made Dagwood a bit more dumb than he was in the funnies and etched the characterization more broadly. He was Dagwood Bumstead.”
Millions of Americans could not see a photograph of Lake without hearing his high pitched call for help: “Blonnnndie!”
Still Got Fan Mail
More than 30 years after the series ended, “Dagwood” was still getting fan mail from around the world. Lake enjoyed being identified with the character and continued to appear at benefits where he invariably would be given a mountainous Dagwood sandwich.
Lake and Singleton also played the parts for the first seven years that “Blondie” ran on the radio.
In the 1950s and the 1960s, there were attempts to bring “Blondie” to television--the first time in a series starring Lake and Pamela Britton, and the second time with two other actors in the roles. Neither effort was successful.
Lake was born April 17, 1905, in Corbin, Ky. His father and uncle were touring with a circus as an aerial act called “The Flying Silverlakes.” At the age of 3, Arthur and his sister, Florence, joined his parents in a family vaudeville act that played throughout the South and Southwest.
Debuts as Actor
His mother brought the children to Hollywood when Lake was 12 years old. As a child actor, he made his debut in “Jack and the Beanstalk” in 1917. He performed in westerns and by 1925 got a good part in “Skinner’s Dress Suit.”
He was signed to a contract by Universal Pictures, which changed his name to Lake because studio head Carl Laemmle Sr. thought Silverlake sounded too Jewish. Universal featured him in its “Sweet Sixteen” comedies. In 1928, National Pictures borrowed him to play the comic strip character Harold Teen.
Later, he signed with RKO, where he made “Dance Hall” in 1929 and “Cheer Up and Smile” in 1930.
Other pictures included “Indiscreet” (1931) with Gloria Swanson; “Silver Streak” (1934); “Orchids to You,” (1935) and “Topper,” (1937).
But when he heard that Columbia was looking for someone to play Dagwood Bumstead, Lake was determined to get the part. He had become friendly with the sons of publisher William Randolph Hearst, whose newspapers ran the Blondie strip.
“I had a couple of people rooting for me named Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst,” Lake recalled later. He got the part.
He also married Patricia Van Cleve, the niece of Marion Davies, whom he met at the latter’s beach house.
He and his wife co-starred in a TV series, “Meet the Family,” during the 1950s. Lake was known to be a careful investor and was able to live well with his family after the “Blondie” films ended. In addition to their son, he and his wife had a daughter, Marion.
For years the Lakes spent much of their time traveling.