Brad Dexter, an actor whose first film credit, “The Asphalt Jungle” in 1950, set the course of his career as a menacing villain on screen, died Thursday in Rancho Mirage. He was 85 and had been hospitalized with emphysema.
Burly and handsome, he was often cast as a tough guy in supporting roles beside the superstars of their day: Burt Lancaster and Clark Gable in “Run Silent, Run Deep” in 1958, Frank Sinatra in “None but the Brave” in 1964. He is probably best known as one of “The Magnificent Seven,” the 1960 movie that included a cast of heartthrobs from Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson to Yul Brynner and James Coburn.
Dexter said he preferred supporting roles to any other kind. “I love playing heavies,” he told The Times in 1965. “It’s the best-written character. The hero is always bland.”
He was born Boris Milanovich in Goldfield, Nev. His parents were natives of Yugoslavia and he spoke Serbo- Croatian. His friend and fellow actor Karl Malden shared Serbian roots with Dexter.
“We got to know each other in the Air Force,” Malden told The Times on Friday. During World War II, both performed in “Winged Victory,” a Broadway film touring unit. They remained friends and worked together again after that.
Dexter studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse and changed his name to Barry Mitchell. After the war he worked on radio dramas and appeared in plays, always as Barry Mitchell. But when director John Huston cast him in his first movie, “The Asphalt Jungle,” he changed his name to Brad Dexter.
Through the 1950s, Dexter made guest appearances in some of the most popular television series of the day, including “Zane Gray Theater,” “Death Valley Days” and “Wagon Train.”
Hollywood gossip devotees found his personal life at least as fascinating as his acting career. In January 1953, he married singer Peggy Lee. Their garden wedding at her Los Angeles hilltop home was fully reported by the press, along with details of her pink taffeta wedding dress. Eight months later, Lee filed for divorce.
“I doubt if I’ll ever get married again,” Dexter said in an interview several years later. “I can’t put up with ‘What are you doing?’ and ‘Where have you been?’ ” He did remarry, in 1992 to Mary Bogdonovich, who died, and in 1994 to June Deyer-Dexter.
Soon after his divorce from Lee, Dexter’s name was linked to Marilyn Monroe as a confidant. In 1954 when she planned to divorce her husband, Joe DiMaggio, Dexter tried to persuade her to stay with her husband. She didn’t take his advice.
Another close friendship, with Sinatra, took on legendary proportions during the filming of “None but the Brave” in 1964. On location in Hawaii, Sinatra nearly drowned and Dexter saved his life.
Dexter described the incident to author Kitty Kelley for her book on Sinatra, “His Way.”
Early news reports were that Sinatra had drowned. He did come close, Dexter told Kelley, when a powerful undertow pulled him away from shore while he was swimming. Ruth Koch, whose husband, Howard, was producing the movie, was swimming with him.
Dexter dove in and reached them when they were nearly unconscious. He kept their heads above water until lifeguards arrived, he told Kelley. Sinatra and Koch were brought to shore on surfboards. Dexter was left to take care of himself.
At the time of the incident, he resisted talking about it to reporters. “I don’t like to discuss it,” he told The Times. “I consider Frank one of my closest friends.” But when Kelley interviewed him, he and Sinatra were no longer on speaking terms.
“I realize now that my rescue efforts probably severed the friendship then and there,” he told Kelley. It seemed to him that Sinatra did not like feeling indebted to anyone. “He never thanked me, then or later,” Dexter said. “I didn’t see the love-hate relationship all that clearly at the time, but it certainly became obvious later on.”
Before their final break, they always seemed to be together, Malden recalled. In 1965 Sinatra starred in “Von Ryan’s Express” with Dexter in a supporting role. He had named Dexter vice president of Sinatra Enterprises, and in 1966 they made “The Naked Runner,” a Sinatra Enterprise movie with Dexter as producer and Sinatra as the star.
They were shooting in London when Sinatra announced his plans to marry Mia Farrow. She was 20, he was 49. Dexter told him not to do it. (“Brad was always outspoken,” Malden said.)
Their conversation led to the end of business dealings and friendship. Sinatra never returned to the set. Dexter finished the film without him and returned to Los Angeles to be told that he was fired.
About that time, Dexter told The Times, he was tired of acting and wanted to do more producing.
His biggest movie credit as a producer is “Lady Sings the Blues,” the Billie Holiday story starring Diana Ross in 1972. He produced “Skag” a television series with Malden as the star, in 1980.
Much as he disliked TV, he continued to make guest appearances on popular shows, including “Mission Impossible” in 1966 and “Kojak” in 1973.
He once said his personal life was a bit like his acting career. He was happy playing the supporting role, even off-screen.
“I don’t involve myself in the world of competition they’re involved in,” he said of his leading-man friends. “We have fun together.”
Along with his wife, Dexter is survived by a stepson and three grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. today at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, 47535 Highway 74, Palm Desert.