William Bendix made a career out of playing lovable big lugs, although he also occasionally got to play sinister and tragic roles with equal success. He was born in New York City, in a cold-water flat at Third Avenue and 45th Street in 1906, the only son of Oscar Bendix and the former Hilda Carnell. Oscar Bendix was a musician who played in local bands, including one led by Arthur Pryor, while an uncle, Max, was a violinist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra -- but William's interest in music was solely as a listener. He was raised in the Bronx, and graduated from P.S. 5, later attending Townsend Harris High School, where his main interests lay in sports, especially baseball. He was later a bat boy at the Polo Grounds, at a time when both the New York Giants and the New York Yankees played there, and his job only ended when the Yankees, in a dispute with their landlords the Giants, pulled up stakes to build Yankee Stadium as their new home.
Acting was in Bendix's background, however -- he'd started at age five, when his father, while working as a handyman at the Vitagraph Studios, got the boy a job in a silent production. Bendix fit occasional acting work in between odd jobs, including work as a singing waiter, but it was only after visiting the Henry Street Settlement on New York's Lower East Side that he began taking acting seriously, and he became a member of the Henry Street Players. In his early twenties, with help from his new father-in-law, he became manager of a grocery store in Newark, NJ, and this was how Bendix earned his living for the next few years. He later worked in the Federal Theater Project in New Jersey, and it was through that association that he was seen by Cheryl Crawford, who got him into a half-dozen of the Theater Guild's productions. Those were short-running plays that didn't do Bendix any direct good, but then he was cast in the role of Policeman Krupp in William Saroyan's play The Time of Your Life. That production ran for two years on Broadway and gave Bendix an acting career -- he was subsequently signed by producer Hal Roach to a film contract.