Lew Ayres (1908-1996)

Lew Ayres
Lew Ayres

Lew Ayres was an American actor who had a long career of about 65 years which peaked at the very outset with his starring role as the German soldier Paul Bäumer in the classic anti-war film 'All Quiet on the Western Front' in 1930. He is also remembered for playing Dr. Kildare in nine movies. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in 'Johnny Belinda' in 1948. Jane Wyman, who co-starred in the film, won the Oscar for Best Actress.


He was born Lewis Frederick Ayres III on December 28, 1908, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His father, Louis Ayres was a court reporter and a talented amateur musician. When his parents divorced in 1912, Lew remained with his mother and after her remarriage, they moved with his step-father, William Gilmore, and half brother and sister to San Diego, California.

After High School in San Diego he studied Medicine at the University of Arizona, where he played in the university jazz band. He eventually abandoned his youthful ambition to be a doctor and dropped out of college. He was a talented musician and earned a living by playing banjo and guitar for big bands, including the Henry Halstead Orchestra. He recorded one of the earliest Vitaphone movie shorts called 'Carnival Night in Paris' (Warner Brothers, 1927).

Deciding to pursue a full time career as an actor whilst continuing to work as a musician, he was discovered at a nightclub by talent agent Ivan Kahn and was cast to play opposite Greta Garbo in 'The Kiss' in 1929. The movie, MGM's last silent picture, was a great success and Lew became a star almost overnight. His next film would make him a household name.

All Quiet on the Western Front 1930

'All Quiet on the Western Front' is a classic anti-war movie. It was a major commercial success and only the third film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Ayres, at 21 years old, became an international star for his beautifully natural performance as Paul Baumer, the schoolboy eager to serve his country, but who becomes disillusioned by the futility and horror of war.

The film secured him a contract with Universal Studios—and later would cause him to become a conscientious objector to World War II.

His career during the 1930s was generally mediocre. His most successful movies were 'Iron Man' in 1931 with Jean Harlow, 'State Fair' in 1933 and 'Servants' Entrance' in 1934. He changed studios several times during this period, moving to Fox Films, Republic Pictures, and Paramount. Whilst working for Paramount he received critical acclaim for his performance in 'Holiday' with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in 1938. After this he signed with MGM who wanted him specifically for the title role of their upcoming Dr. Kildare film series.

Ayres played Dr Kildare in nine films from 1938 to 1942 (and again in a 1950s radio series) and during this period appeared in several light comedies for MGM, including 'Spring Madness' and 'Rich Man, Poor Girl', both in 1938, 'The Ice Follies of 1939' in 1939, and 'Fingers at the Window' in 1942.

World War II

With America's entry into WWII after Pearl Harbour in December, 1941, Ayres was identified as a 4E conscientious objector and sent to a CO camp. When he announced his pacifism, which had a religious basis, he was shunned by the studios, and in some cities exhibitors refused to show his movies. He said that to bear arms would cause him ''to live in a nightmare of hypocrisy.''

His stance became a source of public outcry and debate. It was not generally known until later that he requested to serve as a non-combat medic. In April, 1942 his request was granted by the US military and the following month he was allowed to enlist in the US army.

He served as a First Aid instructor before requesting a drop in rank in order to serve as a medic and chaplain's assistant in the Pacific. He was one of 16 medics who arrived under fire during the invasion of Leyte in the Philippines, to set up evacuation hospitals, and to provide care to soldiers and civilians in the Philippines and New Guinea. After three and a half years he was awarded three battle stars for his service. It was not generally known until later that he donated all his earnings as a serviceman to the American Red Cross.

Post War Career

After the war, when it became known that Ayres had served honourably, his public reputation was restored. He resumed his career and made scores of movies, although he never reached the peak of his early Hollywood stardom.

His return to film after the war was at first undistinguished, appearing with Olivia de Havilland in 'The Dark Mirror' in 1946 and with Ann Sheridan in 'The Unfaithful' the following year. In 1948 his role as the sympathetic physician treating the deaf-mute Jane Wyman in 'Johnny Belinda' won him an Academy Award nomination as Best Actor.

After this, movie roles became fewer and fewer. A handful of roles in the 1950s and playing the US President in 'Advise and Consent' in 1962. During these decades Ayres forged a new career for himself on television.

Television Career

Lew first appeared on television in 1954 in the 'Omnibus' series and for the next forty years made regular appearances on the small screen, becoming, in effect, a television rather than a movie actor. He appeared in numerous series such as 'The Ford Television Theatre' in 1956, 'The Barbara Stanwyck Show' in 1961 and 'The Big Valley' in 1967 and in 1958, he hosted eleven original episodes of a Western anthology series called 'Frontier Justice'.

In 1961 Lew turned down an opportunity to play Dr. Kildare again in a new television series when his request for no cigarette sponsorship was turned down. The role was given to Richard Chamberlain.

As he aged he seemed to become more in demand in popular series such as 'The Doris Day Show' in 1970, 'McMillan and Wife' in 1975 and 'Hawaii Five-O' from 1968 to 1976. He guest-starred in an episode of 'The Bionic Woman' in 1977 and his last role was in the made-for-TV film 'Hart to Hart' in1994 starring Robert Wagner.


Ayres was married three times, firstly to actress Lola Lane from 1931 until 1933, and then to actress Ginger Rogers from 1934 until 1940, whom he met while starring in the film 'Don't Bet on Love' in 1933. He was separated from both women considerably earlier than their legal divorces. His third marriage, in 1964, was to Diana Hall, a former flight attendant, and lasted until his death 32 years later. They had one son, Justin, born in 1968.

Lew Ayres died on December 30, 1996 after being in a coma for several days. He was buried at Westwood Memorial Park in Westwood, Los Angeles, California. He was 88 years old.

Lew Ayres Academy Awards

No Wins:
One Unsuccessful Nomination:
Best Actor ... Johnny Belinda (1948)

Lew Ayres Filmography

Compromised (uncredited)
Big News (uncredited)
The Kiss
All Quiet on the Western Front
Common Clay
A Handful of Clouds
East Is West
Many a Slip
Iron Man
Up for Murder
The Spirit of Notre Dame
Heaven on Earth
The Impatient Maiden
The Cohens and Kellys in Hollywood
Night World
The Penalty of Fame
State Fair
Don't Bet on Love
My Weakness
Cross Country Cruise
Millionaire for a Day
She Learned About Sailors
Servants' Entrance
Lottery Lover
Spring Tonic
Silk Hat Kid
The Leathernecks Have Landed
Panic on the Air
Lady Be Careful
Murder with Pictures
The Crime Nobody Saw
The Last Train from Madrid
Hold 'Em Navy
Scandal Street
King of the Newsboys
Rich Man, Poor Girl
Young Dr. Kildare
Spring Madness
The Ice Follies of 1939
Broadway Serenade
Calling Dr. Kildare
These Glamour Girls
The Secret of Dr. Kildare
Dr. Kildare's Strange Case
The Golden Fleecing
Dr. Kildare Goes Home
Dr. Kildare's Crisis
Maisie Was a Lady
The People vs. Dr. Kildare
Dr. Kildare's Wedding Day
Dr. Kildare's Victory
Fingers at the Window
The Dark Mirror
The Unfaithful
The Way of Peace (Short)
The Capture
New Mexico
No Escape
Donovan's Brain