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Senior World Magazine: Dennis James

by James MacArthur

In 1997, Dennis James will celebrate his 59th year in show business. I will celebrate my 59th birthday! I have known Dennis casually for 20 years or more, played in many a golf tournament with and against him. He always has a new joke and a warm smile. In the middle of October I went to have lunch with him at Lake Golf Club in the San Fernando Valley, where he has been a member for 40 years.

We were walking with our Senior World photographer to a spot near the clubhouse to take Dennis’s cover photo when a gentleman carrying clubs crossed our path. It was Kevin Costner, and Dennis stopped his fellow member and said, “Kevin, I have a photographer right here with me and I would love to have a shot of you and me for my wall.” Kevin said he would be delighted and a photo was taken. Then we all had a nice chat. Of course, the walls of Lakeside are covered with pictures of their famous members, from W.C. Fields to Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, and a thousand others.

Dennis was dressed in a sports jacket and looked very fit as always. We sat in a quiet corner of the dining room as he reminisced about his life in show business. Typically, Dennis, who will be 80 on his next birthday, was looking forward, not back. He told me proudly and with great enthusiasm that his contract to be spokesman for Physicians Mutual of Omaha had just been renewed for three years. Nice to know that you are still in demand at 80!

Looking backward, Dennis wryly notes that he has been before a television camera for a longer period of time than any other person. Noting my reaction to this Guinness Book of Records comment, he went on patiently, “You see, it started in New York when Dr. Dumont wanted to start broadcasting television. He wanted someone who could do it all. I was a radio actor, announcer, MC, and commentator, so I got into TV. As it turns out, I have a lot of firsts: First to MC a variety show, first to MC a game show, first to star in a dramatic show, first to do a commercial on TV, and many other firsts.” After he finished, I had to agree I was sitting with a champ.

There is not much Dennis has not done. As a sportscaster, he did football, basketball, and boxing. He was voted Outstanding Sportscaster of the Year three years in a row. He also did a most unusual wrestling commentary with a variety of sound effects. This effort was so successful it earned him an Emmy Award. At the same time, this graduate of The Theater School of Dramatic Arts in Carnegie Hall was acting on television in such shows as 77 Sunset Strip, Batman, Fantasy Island, and on the Dick Powell Theater, he performed with Mickey Rooney, Robert Morley, and Joan Blondell. I thought making 250 hours of Hawaii Five-O had been a lot of TV time. Well, not compared to Dennis.

He has also toured in the theater, summer stock and dinner theater. Interestingly, Dennis and I played the same role at different theaters. The play was Murder at the Howard Johnson’s, a wonderfully funny love triangle in which nobody gets murdered excepted almost the audience from laughing so hard.

I asked him how he got involved with so many things. He said, “Jim, early on I decided to always try to keep three things going at once. One - always have a commercial running; two - have a daytime show; three - do sportscasting.” In this, Dennis succeeded admirably.

In his private life, he is equally successful with three children, Dennis, Jr., a lawyer in Washington, DC; Randy, an actors manager with many successful clients; and Bradley, a graduate of Loyola-Marymount University who is now in production in Hollywood.

Being aware of Dennis’s involvement in charitable causes, I asked him to tell me about his work on their behalf. He said, “I have been involved with United Cerebral Palsy for over 46 years, and in that time we have raised over 675 million dollars.” What an incredible amount of money! In 1965, he received the Humanitarian Award from President Eisenhower. Well deserved, Dennis, as is the honorary degree he just received from St. Peter’s College in New Jersey.

My final question was, “Dennis, what’s next?” Dennis smiled and said, “I’m putting on a show for opening the new Air Museum of Palm Springs on November 10th with Peter Marshall, Norm Crosby, and Howard Keel. Then on December 7th, I am hosting a celebrity golf tournament in the desert for Cerebral Palsy, and I hope you will be there.” I said, “You can count on it.” And, of course, I will be there and when I see Dennis, I will think of what a wonderful and productive life he has led. Many thanks, Dennis, from a lot of people.

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