The Well-Lived Life of Victor Mature
By Tom Morrow
One of my favorite interviews was with the noted movie star Victor Mature, who for the last 30 years of his retired life lived in Rancho Santa Fe here in North San Diego County.
Victor John Mature, born Jan. 29, 1913, in Louisville, KY, was one of Hollywood’s most successful actors who starred in a variety of musical, suspense, western, and comedy films.
Those under 50 probably aren’t acquainted with Mature’s work, but, to movie buffs he was a top star of more than 70 films. Some of his best known roles include: “My Darling Clementine” (1946), “Kiss of Death” (1947), “Samson and Delilah” (1949), and “The Robe” (1953). He also appeared in many musicals opposite such luminaries as Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable.
Mature studied acting at the Pasadena Community Playhouse and for three years he lived in a tent in the back yard of a fellow student. In 1939 he was spotted by an agent for Hal Roach while acting in a PCP stage play. He made 10 films before World War II.
In July 1942, Mature enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard and was assigned to the Cutter Storis, which was part of the Greenland Patrol. After 14 months Mature was promoted to chief petty officer. He was discharged in November 1945.
The first film he did after the War was John Ford’s “My Darling Clementine,” in 1946 playing Doc Holliday opposite Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp. The film was produced by 20th Century Fox, whose head of production, Darryl F. Zanuck, was delighted Ford cast Mature, telling the director: “Personally, I think the guy has been one of the most under-rated performers in Hollywood.”
In 1978, Mature told me “Clementine” was his favorite movie. “It was a great script and I got to work with a great cast,” he said.
It wasn’t the only time Mature was cast with great actors. During the ‘30s, 40s, and 50s, he worked with a number of Hollywood’s finest.
The 1947 film noir, “Kiss of Death,” was developed specifically for Mature. The movie wasn’t “boffo” but it earned Mature some of his best critical reviews.
Mature was famously self-deprecating. Once, after being rejected for membership in a L.A. country club because he was an actor, Mature cracked, “Hell, I’m no actor … I’ve got 64 films to prove it!” He was quoted in 1968 commenting on his acting career: “… I never was an actor. Ask anybody, particularly the critics.”
And, he had a great sense of humor telling Hollywood stories. During the filming of “Demetrius & the Gladiators” Mature put to use his quick wit between takes when he and a fellow actor walked across the street to a bar for a drink. They were still costumed in battle dress as Roman Centurions. The bar was crowded and the two actors went unnoticed. After a few minutes being ignored, Mature got up and in a loud voice: “Well, it’s obvious this joint doesn’t cater to service personnel.”
When Mature died of leukemia in 1999, his long-time golfing buddy, the late John Mamaux of Carlsbad, told me a side of Mature few people knew about. It had to do with Marine Sergeant John Basilone. After the Marine was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism on Guadalcanal, he was brought back home to sell war bonds with Mature and a number of other celebrities. They became close friends.
Mature worried about his buddy, fearing the Marine had a death wish. At nearly every war bond show Basilone would go on stage and angrily address the audience, yelling he shouldn’t be wasting his time trying to entertain them, rather, he should be “over in the Pacific killing (the enemy)!”
The Marine Corps did it’s best to keep Basilone out of harm’s way. When Basilone wasn’t selling bonds, the Corps had him working in Special Services as a beach lifeguard at Camp Pendleton. But the sergeant complained enough about sitting around and wanting to go back into combat, he finally was issued orders to return to the Pacific.
Chief Petty Officer Mature nearly got in trouble because of his loud protests to the Marines for sending Basilone back into combat.
“Vic was certain Basilone had a death wish saying he shouldn’t be sent back,” Mamaux recalled. “Vic talked about Basilone countless times over the years I knew him. He did his damnedest to save Basilone. He raised so much hell with the Marine general who was Basilone’s commander that Vic almost got a court martial.”
In February 1945, Basilone landed on Iwo Jima, charged and captured a Japanese bunker single-handedly, but soon after was killed by a mortar round. He received the Silver Star posthumously.
Mature may not have earned an Oscar in Hollywood, but he should always be remembered for the role he played trying to save an American hero.