Best known for playing Dr. Kildare in nine movies.
East Is West
The Doorway to Hell
The Silk Hat Kid
Murder with Pictures
Panic on the Air
That Navy Spirit
Hold ’em Navy
Young Dr. Kildare
King of the Newsboys
Rich Man, Poor Girl
The Ice Follies of 1939
Calling Dr. Kildare
These Glamour Girls
The Secret of Dr. Kildare
Dr. Kildare Goes Home
Dr. Kildare’s Crisis
The Golden Fleecing
Maisie Was a Lady
The People vs. Dr. Kildare
Dr. Kildare’s Wedding Day
Dr. Kildare’s Victory
Fingers at the Window
The Dark Mirror
The Way of Peace
The Biscuit Eater
Battle for the Planet of the Apes
Damien: Omen II
The World of Don Camillo
Lew Ayres was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in Johnny Belinda (1948).
To me, war was the greatest sin. I couldn’t bring myself to kill other men. ~ Lew Ayres
Lew Ayres was born Lewis Frederick Ayres III on December 28, 1908 in Minneapolis, Minnesota to Irma Bevernick and Louis Ayres, who divorced when he was four. Louis, an amateur musician and court reporter, remarried soon afterwards. As a teen, Lew and his mother moved with his step-father, William Gilmore, and half brother and sister to San Diego, California.
Leaving high school before graduating, he started a small band which traveled to Mexico. He returned months later to pursue an acting career, but continued working full-time as a musician. He played banjo and guitar for big bands, including the Henry Halstead Orchestra. He recorded one of the earliest Vitaphone movie shorts called Carnival Night in Paris (Warner Brothers, 1927).
Ayres was discovered at a night club by talent agent Ivan Kahn. He was cast to play opposite Greta Garbo in The Kiss (1929), but it was his leading role in the original version of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) that made him a star, secured him a contract with Universal. He made many mostly forgotten B movies for Universal, with the exception of Iron Man (1931), with Jean Harlow. His most successful movies at this time were those he made on loan to other studios, including The Doorway to Hell (1930) with James Cagney in a supporting role, and as Janet Gaynor’s leading man in both State Fair (1933) and Servants’ Entrance (1934), which featured a combination of live action and Walt Disney animation in a musical dream sequence, both for Fox Films.
Ayres left Universal to sign with Fox Films. In 1934 he was listed as one of Fox’s second tier stars.
He moved to poverty row studio Republic Pictures to pursue a second career as a director, including the film Hearts in Bondage (1936), starring James Dunn and Mae Clarke. He moved to Paramount Pictures before finally being signed to MGM in 1938. At this time, he was loaned from Paramount to play the role of Ned in Holiday (1938). The role earned him considerable critical attention, including interest from MGM to put him under contract specifically for the role of Dr. James Kildare in an upcoming film series. Ayres played the role in nine films from 1938 to 1942 (and again in a 1950s radio series) while also appearing in light comedies for MGM, including Spring Madness and Rich Man, Poor Girl (both 1938), The Ice Follies of 1939 (1939), and Fingers at the Window (1942).
His final film as Dr. Kildare, Born to Be Bad, was re-edited after he was drafted and declared himself a conscientious objector in March 1942. This stance almost destroyed Ayres’ reputation until it was revealed that he had served honorably as a non-combatant medic from 1942 to 1946. He donated all the money he had earned as a serviceman to the American Red Cross. Serving for three and a half years in the Medical Corps, he was awarded three battle stars.
He returned to acting in the films The Dark Mirror (1946) with Olivia de Havilland and The Unfaithful (1947) with Ann Sheridan. For his role in Johnny Belinda (1948) he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, while co-star Jane Wyman won Best Actress.
Ayres gradually moved to television, appearing in several anthology series in guest roles. In the summer of 1958, he hosted eleven original episodes of a CBS Western anthology television series called Frontier Justice, a production of Dick Powell’s Four Star Television. He was offered the part of Dr. Kildare in an NBC series but his prescient request that the show have no cigarette advertising led to the offer being withdrawn, and the part going, in 1961, to Richard Chamberlain. He appeared as the Vice-President in Advise & Consent (1962), and in The Carpetbaggers (1964), but he was by then primarily a television actor, with only occasional film work.
Ayres was married three times. He was married to actress Lola Lane from 1931 to 1933, and to actress Ginger Rogers from 1934 to 1940, whom he met while starring in the film Don’t Bet on Love (1933). He was separated from both women considerably earlier than their legal divorces. His third marriage, to Diana Hall, lasted from 1964 until his death in 1996. They had one son, Justin, born in 1968.
Lew Ayres died December 30, 1996, just two days after his 88th birthday. His body was buried under a simple headstone at Westwood Memorial Park in Westwood, Los Angeles, California.