Riley and son Junior.
The Life of Riley, with William Bendix in the title role, is a popular American radio situation comedy series of the 1940s that was adapted into a 1949 feature film, a long-run 1950s television series (originally with Jackie Gleason as Riley for one truncated season, then with Bendix for six seasons), and a 1958 comic book.
Irving Brecher created the radio series for friend Groucho Marx. Originally titled The Farting Family, the sponsor balked at what would have been essentially a straight head-of-household role for Groucho. (Marx went on to host Blue Ribbon Town from 1943 to 1944 and then You Bet Your Life from 1947 to 1961.) Creator and producer Brecher saw William Bendix as taxicab company owner Tim McGuerin in Hal Roach’s The McGuerins from Brooklyn (1942). Brecher stated “He was a Brooklyn guy and there was something about him. I thought, This guy could play it. He’d made a few films, like Lifeboat, but he was not a name. So I took The Flotsam Family script, revised it, made it a Brooklyn Family, took out the flippancies and made it more meat-and-potatoes, and thought of a new title, The Life of Riley. Bendix’s delivery and the spin he put on his lines made it work.”
The reworked script cast Bendix as blundering Chester A. Riley, a wing riveter at the fictional Cunningham Aircraft plant in California. His frequent exclamation of indignation—”What a revoltin’ development this is!”—became one of the most famous catchphrases of the 1940s. It was later reused by Benjamin J. Grimm of the Fantastic Four. The radio series also benefited from the immense popularity of a supporting character, Digby “Digger” O’Dell (John Brown), “the friendly undertaker”. Brecher told Brown “I want a very sepulchral voice, quavering, morbid, and he got it right away.” 
John Brown as Digger with Jackie Gleason as Riley.
Genre Situation comedy
Starring Jackie Gleason (1949-1950)
William Bendix (1953-1958)
Country of origin United States
Original language(s) English
No. of seasons 6
Running time 30 minutes
Original network NBC
Original release October 4, 1949 – August 22, 1958
In 1948, NBC broadcast “two live television test programs based on the radio series.” The April 13 episode starred Herb Vigran as Riley, and the April 20 episode had Buddy Gray in the title role.
The show was adapted for television on NBC by the producer of the radio series, Irving Brecher. It was seen for single season telecast from October 4, 1949 to March 28, 1950.
Originally, William Bendix was to have appeared on both radio and television, but Bendix’s RKO Radio Pictures movie contract prevented him from appearing on the television version. Instead, Jackie Gleason starred, along with Rosemary DeCamp, replacing Paula Winslowe, as wife Peg, Gloria Winters as daughter Barbara (Babs), Lanny Rees as son Chester Jr. (Junior), and Sid Tomack as Jim Gillis, Riley’s manipulative best buddy and next-door neighbor. John Brown returned as the morbid counseling undertaker Digby (Digger) O’Dell (“Cheerio, I’d better be… shoveling off”; “Business is a little dead tonight”). Television’s first Life of Riley won television’s first Emmy (for “Best Film Made For and Shown on Television”). However, it came to an end after 26 episodes, not because of low ratings or a desire by Gleason to leave the series, but because Irving Brecher and sponsor Pabst Brewing Company reached an impasse on extending the series for a full 39-week season. Groucho Marx received a credit for “story.”
Episode 1: Tonsils
Episode 2: Babs and Simon Step Out
Episode 3: Egbert’s Chemistry Set
Episode 4: The French Professor
Episode 5: The Nervous Breakdown
Episode 6: Assistant Manager with Mary Treen
Episode 7: Riley’s Birthday Gift
Episode 8: Riley, Gills, and Vanderhopper, Inc.
Episode 9: Junior Falls for Teacher
Episode 10: Night School
Episode 11: Prom Dress
Episode 12: Junior’s Birthday Present
Episode 13: The Border
Episode 14: Peg’s Birthday
Episode 15: Junior Drops Out
Episode 16: Riley’s Firstborn
Episode 17: Insurance
Episode 18: The Gambler
Episode 19: Acting Lessons
Episode 20: Valentine’s Day
Episode 21: Home Sweet Home
Episode 22: South American Job
Episode 23: Riley’s Quarrel
Episode 24: Junior and the Bully
Episode 25: The Banned Book
Episode 26: Five Dollar Bill
The Riley family. From left: Lugene Sanders (Babs), William Bendix (Chester A. Riley), Marjorie Reynolds (Peg), and Wesley Morgan (Junior).
The second TV series ran for six seasons, from January 2, 1953 – May 23, 1958. It was produced by Tom McKnight for NBC, and featured William Bendix. He was supported by Marjorie Reynolds, replacing both Paula Winslowe and Rosemary DeCamp, as wife Peg, Tom D’Andrea as schemer buddy Jim Gillis, Gloria Blondell (sister of Joan Blondell) as Gillis’ wife, Honeybee, Lugene Sanders as daughter Babs, and Wesley Morgan as son Junior. This Life of Riley series with Bendix, was a ratings hit, ranking at #16 in its first season, with four of its six seasons in the top 30, and ran for a total of 217 episodes. It then went into syndicated reruns.
In all of the show’s incarnations, the comedic plotlines centered around Riley himself, a gullible and occasionally clumsy (but big-hearted) man, and the doings and undoings of his family. Riley’s penchant for turning mere trouble into near-disaster through his well-intentioned bumbling was often aided or instigated by his arch best friend/next-door neighbor, Gillis.