His sniveling, deliberately taunting demeanor and snarling flat, nasal tones set him apart from other slimeball villains of the 40s and 50s. From his very first picture, the highly-acclaimed The Little Foxes (1941), wherein he played the snotty, avaricious nephew Leo who would easily sell his own mother down the river for spare change, lean and mean Dan Duryea had film audiences admitting his vile characters were guilty pleasures, particularly in film noir, melodrama and westerns.
Born in White Plains, New York, on January 23, 1907, the son of a textile salesman, Dan expressed an early interest in acting and was a member of his hometown high school's drama club. Majoring in English at Cornel University and president of his university's drama society, he abruptly changed the course of his career after deciding that the advertising business was perhaps a more level-headed pursuit. The frantic pace in such a cut-throat field, however, triggered an unexpected, thankfully mild heart attack in his late 20s, and he gave it all up to return to his first love -- acting.
Following some summer stock experience, he made his Broadway debut in a bit part in the Depression-era play "Dead End" in 1935. He progressed to a leading part, the role of Gimpy, later in the show's year-long run and never had to look back. His yellow-bellied varmint in Broadway's "Missouri Legend" led to his assignment as Leo in the 1939 stage drama "The Little Foxes" starring Tallulah Bankhead. Playing the part for the entire Broadway run, he then capped it off by joining the national tour. When Samuel Goldwyn bought the film rights, Duryea was not excluded, making his auspicious film debut in The Little Foxes (1941) with the formidable Bette Davis replacing Ms. Bankhead.
Broadway became a distant memory following his move to film. He never returned. He seldom ventured into the "nice guy" arena either. Filmgoers continued to revel in his perpetual mean streak and waited anxiously for his character to receive his comeuppance by film's end whether by gunshot, poison or even the electric chair. Co-starring in "A" quality films at the onset, he played a henchman in Billy Wilder's Ball of Fire (1941) opposite Gary Cooper, then played Cooper's nemesis again as a snide reporter in The Pride of the Yankees (1942) and as a gunslinger in Along Came Jones (1945). A promising movie fixture by this time, he continued to harass other stars, none more so than Edward G. Robinson in the dark and superb Fritz Lang films The Woman in the Window (1944) (again a blackmailer) and Scarlet Street (1945) (an art forger).
At the peak of his villainy, he signed with Universal but the move brought about a lack of quality films, participating in such standard "B" outings as Black Bart (1948) and River Lady (1948). His talents didn't connect well with light comedy either, as proof by the mediocre The Swindlers (1946). Once a scoundrel, always a scoundrel was his motto and his unsavory work in Another Part of the Forest (1948), this time playing Oscar Hubbard in a prequel to The Little Foxes (1941), and in Criss Cross (1949), where he offs both Burt Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo, continued to be singled out.
While the bulk of his 50s films were merely average, more of his sympathetic roles surfaced during this period in the form of Chicago Calling (1952), Thunder Bay (1953), Battle Hymn (1957) and Kathy O' (1958), but they were, for the most part, overlooked. The 50s also saw an assured direction into TV with a brief series "The New Adventures of China Smith" (1954) to star in, guest appearances on such popular series as "Wagon Train," and an Emmy nomination in 1957 for one of his few "nice guys" in an episode of "G.E. Theatre", among his offerings. His last acting work came in the recurring form of shady conman Eddie Jacks on the night-time soap serial "Peyton Place" (1964).
Duryea's celluloid reputation as a heel did not extend into his personal life. Long married (from 1932) to Helen Bryan and a family man at heart (he was once a scoutmaster and PTA parent!), the couple had two children. Peter Duryea became an actor for about a decade in the mid 60s; father and son, in fact, appeared together in a couple of western films: Taggart (1964) and The Bounty Killer (1965). Second son Richard became a talent agent. Duryea found the pickings slim in his twilight years and even went overseas to drum up some work in European lowbudgets. In 1967, he appeared in a TV mini-movie remake of one of his most popular 50s western films Winchester '73 (1950). Wife Helen died early that year of heart problems and Dan followed her the following year beset by cancer. He is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles.