Born Harold Ribotsky to Polish-Jewish emigres in Brooklyn, New York, Hal E Chester, the youngest of seven children, took his stepmother’s maiden name as a young actor and carved a niche for himself playing disadvantaged and usually discontented teenagers. In Sidney Kingsley’s 1935 Broadway play Dead End, he caught the attention of film producer Sam Goldwyn and travelled to Hollywood to appear in the 1937 film adaptation.
A slew of similar juvenile delinquent roles followed until Chester’s last onscreen appearance in 1941, after which he turned his hand, aged 25, to producing low-budget ‘B-movie’ dramas, including seven films in four years featuring the popular comic-strip character Joe Palooka. In 1953, he produced The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, one of the first hits for stop-motion animation pioneer Ray Harryhausen.
In 1955 Chester moved to London, where he launched his own production company for which he produced the 1956 Mickey Rooney war film The Bold and the Brave. Rooney was the first of several Hollywood stars imported to appear in Chester’s British-made films, including Yul Brynner (The Double Man, 1967), Paul Newman (The Secret War of Harry Frigg, 1968), and Dana Andrews, with whom he made the cult horror Night of the Demon in 1957.
Chester gave Michael Caine an early film role in The Two-Headed Spy (1958), and enjoyed a short spell of popularity with a series of English comedies that began auspiciously with School for Scoundrels in 1960. A decade later, he made his last film, an adaptation of Kingsley Amis’s Take a Girl Like You, scripted by George Melly and directed by Jonathan Miller.
Born on March 6, 1921, Chester was partly paralysed by a stroke in 2003 and died in London just weeks after his 91st birthday on March 25, 2012. He is survived by two sons.