Day 12 of Noirvember: Stranger than Fiction
More likely to be seen portraying a wise and sympathetic paternal figure or upstanding military leader, Leon Ames proved during the film noir era that he could be as dark and menacing as the toughest villain. In two first-rate noirs, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and Angel Face (1953), he portrayed calculating attorneys whose façade of compassion masked an implacable core of steel. He was also a memorable contributor to three additional noirs: Lady in the Lake (1947), The Velvet Touch (1948), and Scene of the Crime (1949).
Toward the end of the noir cycle, Ames was seen in only a handful of feature films; instead, he divided his talents between the stage and the small screen, portraying Clarence Day, Sr., in the television series Life With Father, playing a featured role in a road tour of The Moon Is Blue, and appearing on Broadway in the short-lived comedy, Howie. In addition to performing, his energies were focused on his duties as national president of the Screen Actors Guild, member of the board of directors of the Motion Picture Health and Welfare Fund, and honorary mayor, for two terms, of Studio City, California. The actor also owned and operated a profitable Ford franchise that he’d launched in 1945 with a single Studio City dealership and expanded into one of the largest automobile franchises in the west.
But in the midst of Ames’s varying activities, the actor experienced a bizarre, real-life encounter that, in terms of sheer drama, eclipsed the plot of any of his movies.
The incident began during the breakfast hour on February 12, 1964, when 21-year-old Lynn Wayne Benner rang the doorbell at Ames’s home, forced his way inside, and held Ames and his wife, Christine, at gunpoint. Aware of Ames’s thriving automobile dealerships, Benner, an unemployed mechanic and father of three, demanded $50,000 from the actor. “I pretended to be sick, thinking maybe I could get the gun, but then I realized that was silly,” Ames later told the press. Instead, he instructed a business associate to withdraw the money from the bank and bring it to the home. Meanwhile, a houseguest visiting the Ames family, Herbert F. Baumgarteker, was held captive as well.
“[Benner] drank six cups of coffee and he smoked all my cigarettes,” Ames recalled. “[And my] bulldog just sat there licking the guy’s hands.”
When the manager of Ames’s Encino dealership, Ralph Williams, arrived with the money, Benner forced Williams to bind Ames’s wrists, feet, and mouth with surgical tape, then locked Williams and Baumbarteker in the trunk of Ames’s car and drove off in his own car, with Christine Ames as a hostage. But what Benner didn’t know was that Williams had tipped off a bank manager, who’d notified police. By the time Benner left with Christine Ames, the house was surrounded by cops, including one in a helicopter overhead. A few blocks away, when the car stopped at a traffic light, seven police cars moved in. Also arrested was Benner’s wife, Patricia Louise, who was waiting in a car nearby. In the vehicle with her was the Benners’s three-year-old daughter.
“I was frightened,” Christine Ames said later. “When he saw the police closing in, he pushed the gun into my side. I said, ‘Please don’t do that.’ He dropped it and put his hands up. He was very handsome. He didn’t look like the type at all. I told him so.”
Benner later pleaded guilty to the robbery-kidnapping and was sentenced to life in prison. His probation report indicated that Ames and his wife had promised to communicate with Benner in prison “in order to encourage him to become a useful citizen.”
By the way, a few hours after the harrowing incident came to an end, Leon Ames was able to laugh it off, telling reporters: “I’ve played a lot of these parts before.”
Join me tomorrow for Day 13 of Noirvember!