Victor Mature was larger than life. With an expansive personality as oversized as his physical frame, he was the biggest male star of Hollywood’s Golden Age to hail from Kentucky. (Irene Dunne, also born in Louisville, took the female honors.) In his youthful prime in the 1940s, the 6-foot-2, 204-pound Mature had all the equipment needed to become an exotic matinee idol: muscular build, rumbling voice, shock of wavy black hair, dark hooded eyes with sardonic brows, a noble Roman nose and full, sensuous lips. He established his identity as the original “hunk” on Broadway in Lady in the Dark and in the movie One Million B.C. (both 1940), and then went on to make more than 50 other films, most of them in leading roles.
Along the way, Mature established himself as an always dependable, sometimes excellent and often underrated actor. Although now mostly remembered for such campy costume epics as Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949), in which he plays the Biblical strongman opposite Hedy Lamarr’s temptress, Mature gave subtle and touching performances in such films as the John Ford Western My Darling Clementine (1946), playing the consumptive Doc Holliday to Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp; and the documentary-like crime drama Kiss of Death (1947), in which he brings an element of poetic tragedy to the role of reformed gangster Nick Bianco. A reviewer for The New York Times wrote that his performance in the latter film had “depth and nobility.”
In The Robe (1953), the film version of the Lloyd C. Douglas novel about incidents revolving around a garment supposedly worn by Christ at the time of the crucifixion, Mature plays the pious Greek slave Demetrius and takes the honors from no less an actor than Richard Burton as the Roman soldier Marcellus. “Against him I looked like an amateur,” Burton later declared of his co-star. “We had a scene where the robe falls onto me and I scream like a girl before being overcome with religious fervor. And all the time Victor just stands there gazing into heaven with great conviction. I asked him, ‘How do you do it? What are you thinking?’ He said, ‘I’m thinking of the money they’re paying me.’ What a wonderful man!”
As late as 1966, Mature was stealing a movie—Vittorio De Sica’s After the Fox—from its star, the formidable Peter Sellers. He delivers a flamboyant performance as Tony Powell, an over-the-hill matinee idol hired to star in a movie that’s really a front for gold smugglers. The New York Times felt “the film is effortlessly stolen by Victor Mature, who is unbearably funny as a vainglorious has-been Hollywood star.”
This writer dealt extensively with Mature in 1984 to create a profile of him for The Courier-Journal Magazine, and the thing I most remember about him was his irrepressible and mischievous sense of humor. He enjoyed telling goofy, sometimes off-color jokes, and teasing his friends and associates. At the time, I was a freelance writer with a 9-to-5 day job, and Mature delighted in making me run late from lingering luncheon interviews at Louisville’s old Hasenour’s Restaurant: “Oh, come on, now, you can have a cocktail!” He was in town to visit his cousins, Julia and Anna Marie “Annie” Mature, and to play in the Foster Brooks Pro-Celebrity Golf Tournament, an event in which he participated often. (Annie Mature died in 2012; her sister, Julia, in her mid-90s, survives.)
Mature was a performer to the marrow, a fact he quickly proved during our time together. When we settled into intensive interview time during weekend afternoons at the Audubon Park home of his cousins, he regaled me with anecdotes from his colorful Hollywood past, enthusiastically acting out all the parts, from DeMille and Lamarr to Burton and De Sica, with Marilyn Monroe thrown in for good measure. I became a captive one-man audience, with Mature insisting that I forgo the tape recorder and even my notepad: “Don’t write! It makes me lose my train of thought. Just listen; write later!”
One Samson and Delilah story concerned the famous scene in which Samson supposedly kills a lion with his bare hands. DeMille has assured his star that Jacky, the lion who roared in the famous MGM logo, is miscast as a man killer. “DeMille thinks it will be very dramatic if there is a scene in which I put my head in the lion’s mouth,” Mature recalled. “ ‘Don’t worry, Victor,’ he calls out. ‘Jacky is harmless. He’s a very old lion and all his teeth have been pulled.’ I yell back, ‘That’s fine, Mr. DeMille, but I don’t want to be gummed to death, either!’ ”
His Marilyn story has Monroe and Mature being presented to Queen Elizabeth in a ceremony at the Odeon Theatre in London in the mid-1950s. Monroe is wearing “a strapless gown that fit her so tightly she had to be sewn into it ... Just as the queen is approaching, I glance down to see that Marilyn’s breasts have fallen out of her dress.” Mature gallantly tries to correct the situation by reaching behind the actress to “gather up the fabric,” but to no avail. In his story, Monroe remains unperturbed about her exposure and chats at length with the queen.
Much of Mature’s humor was self-deprecating. He loved telling of an exclusive golf club in Los Angeles that denied his application for membership because he was an actor. “Hell, I’m no actor,” he told them. “And I’ve got 60 movies to prove it!”
Victor John Mature was born in Louisville on Jan. 29, 1913, the son of Marcellus George Mature (birth name Maturi), an Italian-speaking immigrant from what is now Trentino, Italy, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His mother, Clara P. (Ackley) Mature, was a Kentucky-born doctor’s daughter of French/Swiss heritage. Victor grew up in a two-story brick house at the corner of Camp and Jackson streets in the Germantown neighborhood of Louisville. A sister, Isabelle, died in infancy and an older brother, Marcellus Paul, died at age 11 in 1918 from osteomyelitis.
“My dad was a real go-getter, had great drive and ambition,” Mature told me in 1984. “He came over in steerage from Innsbruck as a young man [and] started out in a scissors-grinding business, then got into commercial refrigeration and made a great success of it.” Young Victor helped out in both enterprises, going door to door with his dad to help sharpen the scissors and knives of neighborhood housewives. As a child, he also sold magazines, and as a teen worked as an elevator operator at Louisville’s The Brown Hotel.
He remembered his mother as “a saint ... She practically dedicated her life to charity works, ran the St. Joseph’s orphanage, that sort of thing.” Clara Mature also was active in Red Cross work and the Elks auxiliary, and was a member of the Altar Society of St. Paul Catholic Church. She had her hands full with young Victor, who proved to be an unruly student. On his first day at the George H. Tingley School, he was sent home because he bit the finger of a teacher who tried to make him share his lunch with another student. Mature went on to attend St. Paul and St. Xavier Roman Catholic schools, where he remained a discipline problem. He claimed, “My mother showed up so often at St. X the other kids thought she worked there!”
He also attended the Kentucky Military Institute in Lyndon, St. Joseph Academy in Bardstown, and what was then Spencerian Commercial College in Louisville. A close friend and fellow student at KMI, actor Jim Backus (Mr. Magoo, Gilligan’s Island), would recall: “Vic and I weren’t very successful cadets ... We were always in trouble about something, but nothing really serious.”
Victor was always more interested in business than schooling. At 15, fibbing that he was older, he got a job as a salesman with Bradas & Gheens, a candy-manufacturing company. It was around this time that he dropped out of school. Later, he went independent in his candy operation, selling product made by “an old Italian candy-maker.” By age 17, he had earned enough to buy a restaurant, the College Corner, at Brook and Oak streets in Louisville.
In August 1935, Mature sold the restaurant and took off for California to “do something different.” He was accepted as an apprentice at the Pasadena Community Playhouse, where he made his acting debut in Paths of Glory on Nov. 16, 1936. He would perform in almost 50 plays at the Playhouse, which served as a training ground for many other young actors including Robert Young, Dana Andrews and Robert Preston. On Jan. 30, 1938, Mature married Frances Charles, a member of the acting company. The marriage was annulled in 1940.
In the meantime, as legend has it, producer Hal Roach happened to fish a poster from the Playhouse out of his wastebasket and was so stunned by the masculine beauty of a young man pictured that he offered him a film role. And so Victor Mature was cast in his first movie part, a bit in The Housekeeper’s Daughter (1939), directed by Roach. Although his role lasted barely five minutes, the studio reportedly received more than 20,000 fan letters pleading for more Mature.
Then came One Million B.C., with Mature returning to Louisville in glory for the movie’s world premiere on July 6, 1940, at Loew’s Theatre (now The Louisville Palace). The word “hunk” was invented for him in the Broadway musical Lady in the Dark when a female cast member would cry, “My God, girls, what a beautiful hunk of man! And he’s got a voice that goes through you like a pound of cocaine!”
On June 17, 1941, as his Broadway run came to an end, Mature married Martha Stephenson Kemp; they divorced in 1943. By that time Mature had been signed to a lucrative contract at 20th Century Fox with loan-out provisions to RKO. He appeared in a series of popular films including musicals with Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth, two of many famous beauties with whom he would be romantically linked over the years; others included Lana Turner, Veronica Lake, Elizabeth Taylor and Esther Williams.
Mature enlisted in the Coast Guard Temporary Reserve in 1942 and later that year transferred to the regular Coast Guard. He had been particularly serious about his romance with Hayworth and was “shocked, surprised and grieved” when, on Sept. 7, 1943, she married actor/director Orson Welles. At his request, he was transferred to Boston and served 14 months aboard a Coast Guard cutter in the North Atlantic. After World War II ended in Europe, he served aboard the U.S.S. Admiral Mayo. He left the service in November 1945.
As he resumed his film career, Mature did more than his share of junk, but there were some good vehicles, too. Other postwar films in which he acquitted himself admirably included the Western Fury at Furnace Creek and the film noir Cry of the City (both 1948). After Samson and Delilah and The Robe came other costume epics including Demetrius and the Gladiators and The Egyptian (both 1954). Mature would remain active in films of varying quality through the 1970s, and then made a brief comeback in 1984 with his final acting project, a TV version of Samson and Delilah in which he played Manoah, father of Samson (Anthony Hamilton).
In his private life there had been two more marriages and divorces—to Dorothy Stanford Berry (1948-55) and Adrienne Joy Urwick (1959-69). Always a shrewd businessman, Mature settled into comfortable retirement in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. On Feb. 22, 1974, he wed Lorette “Lorey” Sebena, a singer who performed with the American Opera Company and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The two were happily married until Mature’s death from leukemia on Aug. 4, 1999. He is buried in Louisville’s St. Michael Cemetery with his parents and siblings.
Victoria, his daughter with Lorette and his only child, was the apple of Mature’s eye during our time together in 1984, when she was 9. Today a beautiful brunette with her father’s coloring and her mother’s musical talent, she is a performer, a graduate of the opera program at the University of California at San Diego.
In January 2013, Mature joined the list of celebrities appearing in huge photographic murals on Louisville buildings when one labeled “Victor’s Louisville” was dedicated at 1303 South Shelby Street, near the old Mature residence at 500 Camp Street. Mature’s image is the 20th in the “Hometown Heroes” banner program founded by The Greater Louisville Pride Foundation, which began in 2001. His mural was produced and installed through support from the Shelby Park Neighborhood Association. Oddly, the photograph chosen to represent Mature gives equal prominence to British actress Jean Simmons in a publicity still from Androcles and the Lion (1952).
Now mostly remembered as a flamboyant hero in toga or loincloth, Mature could act with subtlety and conviction when the occasion demanded. Although he sometimes seemed inexpressive, he could establish a rapport with the camera that provides instant audience empathy. The composer William Alwyn, when lecturing at film society meetings, liked to screen a clip from a Western in which Mature played a settler who finds that his family has been massacred by Indians. The actor had been the joke of the set because, despite numerous takes and instructions from the director, he appeared to be showing no emotion at all. However, when his close-up was seen in movie theaters, audiences wept. Alwyn’s deduction: “That man knew something about film acting that we didn’t.”
Roger Fristoe, retired film critic and entertainment writer for The Courier-Journal, now writes for Turner Classic Movies.