Advertisement

Lew Ayres, Star of Dr. Kildare Movie Series, Dies

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Actor Lew Ayres, who starred in the Academy Award-winning classic “All Quiet on the Western Front"--and who was a reluctant warrior in life as well as on film--died Monday. He was 88.

Ayres died in his sleep after being in a coma for several days, said Diana Ayres, his wife of 31 years.

A personable if unspectacular leading man, Ayres was perhaps best known for his title roles in a series of Dr. Kildare movies in the late 1930s and early ‘40s.

But the critical success of his life was the 1930 classic “All Quiet on the Western Front,” in which he played a German schoolboy drawn with increasing disillusionment into the horrors of soldiering in World War I.

Advertisement

It was a role that profoundly influenced his life.

Twelve years later, Ayres refused to venture as a combatant onto another battlefield--a real one, this time--in World War II.

Requesting an exemption from military service on religious grounds, he incurred the wrath and scorn of the movie industry and some of the public by accepting classification as a “conchie"--a conscientious objector to war.

Ayres went on to serve with distinction under fire as an Army medic and chaplain’s assistant in the Pacific.

Advertisement

He returned from the war to a public grown more tolerant of unconventional views. His film career resumed, and while it never flourished as it had before, it meshed with a burgeoning commitment to religion that became the passion of his contemplative life.

Born in Minneapolis and reared in San Diego, Ayres was a 20-year-old dropout from the University of Arizona, working as a banjo, guitar and piano player in Los Angeles, when a talent agent spotted him in a band at the Coconut Grove nightclub and wrangled him a spot as a bit player in the 1929 movie “The Kiss.”

Legend has it that when Greta Garbo spotted the handsome young actor before the camera, she picked him from a score of aspirants to be her leading man in the film.

A year later, Ayres was selected for the leading role of Paul Baum in “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

Advertisement

The film was a technical masterpiece, depicting the violence of the battlefield in graphic terms never before seen on the screen. Young Baum, recruited along with his German classmates by a fanatical schoolteacher, slogs painfully through an ever-grimmer war, watching his classmates fall one by one until he himself is shot dead while reaching beyond the protective lip of his trench for a butterfly.

Despite the critical acclaim awarded the film--and general approval of his performance in it--Ayres soon found himself wallowing in “B” pictures. His marriage in 1931 to sometime-actress Lola Lane ended in divorce, and his second marriage in 1934, to film star Ginger Rogers, ended a few years later.

Ayres’ career languished until 1938, when movie mogul Louis B. Mayer cast him as Dr. Kildare in what was to become a series of nine successful motion pictures.

Although the Kildare movies did not win any Oscars, the studios and the public loved them. Ayres, as the crusading young physician, became a household symbol across the nation, embodying everything that was good and decent and upstanding--and American.

Advertisement

It thus came as a shock to many when Ayres--drafted in January 1942 to do battle for his country--announced calmly that he would not fight.

“In my opinion, we will never stop wars until we individually cease fighting them, and that is what I propose to do,” he explained in prepared statements.

“I was willing and wanted to go into the Medical Corps and I told the draft board that,” he said. “However, they wouldn’t take me, so I applied for admission to the conscientious objectors’ camp and they granted it . . . “

Several theater chains, explaining that they were reacting to public outrage, said they would no longer show any of Ayres’ films, and politicians denounced him.

Advertisement

But the news of the war was bigger than the news about the unwilling warrior, and the controversy about Ayres was soon largely forgotten.

All but unnoticed, he won the Medical Corps status he had sought earlier, and two years later, reporters found him a war-worn, mud-soaked medic, tending the wounded under fire and serving as a chaplain’s aide in New Guinea and the Philippines.

After the war he told Hollywood gossip queen Hedda Hopper that war was “even more horrible than I had ever imagined it.”

Hollywood soon accepted him back, but the films that followed--"The Dark Mirror” in 1946, “The Unfaithful” in 1947--were unremarkable until “Johnnie Belinda,” a 1948 movie in which he once again played a sympathetic physician and which won him an Academy Award nomination for best actor. His co-star, Jane Wyman, won an Oscar for her role as a deaf-mute victim of a brutal rape.

Advertisement

Ayres then began putting his motion picture experience behind a project that meant much more to him--an ambitious effort “to acquaint the people of the Western world to what the rest of the world believes.”

To accomplish this, Ayres and a cameraman toured the Far and Near East for the better part of two years, covering more than 40,000 miles in their quest for images of Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Sikhism, Judaism and the Islamic religions.

The result was “Altars of the World,” a massive, three-part film dissertation finally edited down to a 2 1/2-hour movie. While never a general-run, box-office smash, the movie received critical acclaim and won a Golden Globe Award.

There were other honors--he was named to the national commission for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1957. And other movies--he acted in “Advise and Consent” in 1962, “The Carpetbaggers” in 1964, “The Battle for the Planet of the Apes” in 1973 and “Battlestar: Galactica” in 1979.

Advertisement

But for the most part, Ayres retired to a private life that he vastly preferred. It was a quiet, around-the-house kind of life that he shared with his third wife, former airline flight attendant Diana Hall, whom he married in 1964, and their son, Justin, born in 1969.

In 1980, the late Times columnist Jack Smith asked Ayres if the depiction of war’s ugliness and horror in “All Quiet” had made him the man he had become.

“It wasn’t so much that,” Ayres responded. “It showed the ugliness and horror of war, but it was the first time we had ever come to understand the enemy as someone with the same views, values, needs as ours . . .

“When any man dies, you are dying a little yourself.”

Advertisement

A memorial service will be held Jan. 14 at the Westwood Presbyterian Church. The family requests that donations be made to the ASPCA, Actors and Others for Animals, and the Motion Picture Country Home.

Associated Press contributed to this report.


Advertisement