Peter Lawford is famous for being a member of the “Rat Pack” along with Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Joey Bishop. But he carved his own, often controversial niche as well. He was a handsome, sauve Briton, who often seemed to be smoking and drinking 24/7 (the latter of which would later catch up with him). But it is for traveling in famous circles, being an on-again, off-again movie star and, generally, an all-around playboy, that keeps the Lawford legend alive.
Born to a knighted World War I general on September 7, 1923, in London, Lawford was educated in private schools and made his screen debut as a boy of eight in the British film “Poor Old Bill” in 1931. During a visit to California in 1938, he played a supporting role as a Cockney boy in “Lord Jeff,” but it wasn’t until 1942 that his Hollywood career began in earnest.
Following a period of maturation playing minor supporting roles, Lawford became an established, breezy, romantic star of MGM movies in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s in such films as “It Happened in Brooklyn” (1947), “Royal Wedding” (1951) and “It Should Happen to You” (1954).
Capitalizing on his clipped accent, social poise, athletic good looks, and natural charm, he was an audience favorite. Offscreen, he developed a reputation as a playboy and jet-setter. For years he hung out in the Frank Sinatra-developed “Rat Pack.” During this period, his most famous role was in the cult classic “Oceans 11” (1960). He gained additional social prestige in the 1960’s when he became the brother-in-law of President John F. Kennedy. He was divorced from Patricia Kennedy in 1966, after twelve years of marriage. In 1971, Lawford married the daughter of “Laugh-In” star Dan Rowan, who was 27 years his junior.
From the 1960’s on he played mainly character roles. In addition to his film performances, he was seen on numerous TV shows such as “Dear Phoebe” (1954-55), “The Thin Man” (1957-59), and later appeared regularly on “The Doris Day Show” during the 1971-72 seasons, playing Day’s romantic foil. His production company, Chrislaw, turned out several feature films in the 60’s. He was credited as executive producer on “Johnny Cool” (1963), “Billie” (1965), “Salt and Pepper” (1968), and “One More Time” (1970), the last two in partnership with Sammy Davis, Jr.
Lawford suffered from deteriorating health after the 1972 removal of a pancreatic tumor. He was often hospitalized for liver and kidney ailments and problems associated with alcoholism. He died at 61 of cardiac arrest. Still, Lawford will be remembered for his easygoing style and natural charm.