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Kentucky by Heart: KY native Victor Mature overcame humble start to appeared in over 50 motion pictures

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

To say that Kentuckian Victor Mature got through life on his looks might be a stretch, but the thought is worth considering. He admitted he wasn’t good at his chosen profession, acting, though he was quite successful.

Born in Louisville in 1913, he was the son of an immigrant knife sharpener. Mature left school — though likely not on his own terms — as a teen and developed a successful candy dealership. He used the money he made to open a restaurant, then sold it and headed west to Pasadena, California, to attempt to realize his acting ambitions. While there, he studied and acted in the Pasadena Community Playhouse, where reportedly he lived in a tent in the backyard of a fellow student’s mother.

Victor Mature publicity picture (Photo from Wikipedia Commons)

Mature rose from those humble circumstances to be a part of more than 50 motion pictures, along with a handful of theatre and television performances stretching from 1939 to 1984.

His first lead role was in One Million B.C. in 1940. One of Mature’s most recognized roles was in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1949 classic movie, Samson and Delilah, playing Samson. According to James Claypool in his book, Our Fellow Kentuckians: Rascals, Heroes and Just Plain Uncommon Folks, Mature angered DeMille when he refused to wrestle a tame lion for a scene, insisting rather on a dummy. Mature won out on the issue, and though critics described the movie’s acting as “not good,” the movie was a box office success.

DeMille apparently forgave Mature for his previous defiance because, in 1953, he cast Mature in another hit motion picture, The Robe. Other well-known movies he appeared in were My Darling Clementine, playing Doc Holliday alongside Henry Fonda’s role of Wyatt Earp; Androcles and the Lion (with Ann Sheridan), and Million Dollar Mermaid, with Esther Williams.

Mature’s physical appearance was impressive. He was well-built with broad shoulders, was dark-haired and had a handsome face. Not surprisingly, he was popularly known as “the Handsome Hunk,” perfect for playing alongside such starlets as Hedy Lamarr and Jane Russell. Life magazine mentioned that three hundred New York models had chosen him as “the man they would most like to be marooned with on a desert island.”

Claypool, though, wrote that Mature was always “casual about his acting abilities and roles.” The actor, himself, made light of it. After being turned down from membership into a country club in Louisville (some sources reported in California), he responded that he WASN’T an actor, and explained “I’ve got a scrapbook of reviews to prove it.”

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Ernie Stamper)

Mature possessed a lackadaisical, anti-authority attitude showing itself early in life. He was anything but “mature.” According to the website of the Kentucky Military Institute (KMI), he was basically kicked out of several schools as a youth. They are as follows: the George H. Tingley Public School, St. Paul and St. Xavier parochial schools — all in Louisville — and a school in Bardstown, St. Joseph Academy. At KMI, also in Louisville, he was also dismissed from the military school.

From his days at KMI, a corroborating story is told by another future actor and KMI classmate, Jim Backus. Both were called, not affectionately, “Cadet Slob,” and they later acted together in films.

Backus’ comments from the KMI site.

One day we were both on the brink of expulsion and we were called up before the Colonel. Vic, when cornered by the authorities, had a way of infuriating them even further by becoming excessively military. He would click his heels, salute every word, and agree with every charge hurled at him.

Soon, Jim writes, the Colonel was enraged. “Cadet Mature,” he shouted, “I’m never wrong about one of my cadets and I predict you will wind up in the gutter. With this disgraceful record, what actually are your plans when you get out of here?”

“Sir,” said Mature eagerly, with great clicking and saluting, “I’m going out to Hollywood and becoming a movie star.”

Mature died of leukemia at his California home at age 86 — some references say younger — in 1999. He is buried in his native Kentucky at the St. Michael’s Cemetery, in Louisville.

A book by James McKay was released in 2013 called The Films of Victor Mature. A list of Mature’s movies is available at www.tvguide.com

Sources: nytimes.com; Our Fellow Kentuckians: Rascals, Heroes and Just Plain Uncommon Folks (book), by James C. Claypool; The Kentucky Encyclopedia; imdb.com; tvguide.com; variety.com; kmialumni.org

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