Chandler was born Ira Grossel in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, the only child of Anna and Phillip Grossel. He was raised by his mother after his parents separated when he was a child.
He attended Erasmus Hall High School, the alma mater of many stage and film personalities, where he acted in school plays; his school mates included Susan Hayward. Chandler's father was connected with the restaurant business and got his son a job as a restaurant cashier. Chandler said he always wanted to act, but courses for commercial art were cheaper, so he studied art for a year and worked as a layout artist for a mail order catalogue at $18 a week.
Eventually he saved up enough money to take a drama course at the Feagin School of Dramatic Art in New York. He worked briefly in radio, then got a job in a stock company on Long Island as an actor and stage manager. He worked for two years in stock companies, including a performance of The Trojan Horse opposite Gordon MacRae and his wife, who became good friends.
Chandler formed his own company, the Shady Lane Playhouse, in Illinois in the summer of 1941. This toured the Midwest with some success, presenting such plays as The Bad Man, Seventh Heaven, The New Minister and Pigs. When America entered World War Two Chandler enlisted in the army. He served for four years, mostly in the Aleutians, finishing with the rank of lieutenant.
After being discharged from the Army, Chandler moved to Los Angeles in December 1945 with $3,000 he had saved. Shortly after his arrival he was involved in a serious car accident on the way to a screen test, which resulted in a large scar on his forehead.
Chandler initially struggled to find work in Hollywood and had spent all his savings when he got his first job as a radio actor in May 1946. He went on to appear in episodes of anthology drama series such as Escape and Academy Award Theater, and became well known for playing the lead in Michael Shayne. Chandler was the first actor to portray Chad Remington in Frontier Town.
Chandler had appeared on air in Rogue's Gallery with Dick Powell, who was impressed by the actor and put pressure on Columbia to give Chandler his first film role, a one-line part as a gangster in Johnny O'Clock (1947). He tested for Columbia's The Loves of Carmen and did not get it but went on to play small roles as gangsters in Roses are Red and The Invisible Wall, and a policeman in Mr Belvedere Goes to College. He received more attention playing Eve Arden's boyfriend on radio in Our Miss Brooks, which debuted in July 1948 and became a massive hit.
Chandler's performance in Our Miss Brooks brought him to the attention of executives at Universal, who were looking for someone to play an Israeli leader in Sword in the Desert (1948).
He was cast in February 1949. Chandler impressed studio executives so much with his work that shortly into filming Universal signed him to a seven-year contract. His first movie under the arrangement was a supporting role in Abandoned (1949).
Writer-director Delmer Daves was looking for an actor to play Cochise in a Western, Broken Arrow (1950), over at 20th Century Fox. The part was proving tricky to cast; in Chandler's words, "Fox were looking for a guy big enough physically to play the role and unfamiliar enough to moviegoers to lend authenticity." Chandler's performance as a similar resistance-leader-type in Sword of the Desert brought him to the studio's attention and he was borrowed from Universal for the role in May 1949. As part of the arrangement Chandler signed a deal with Fox to make a movie a year with them for six years. He also had to be written out of his radio shows Michael Shayne and Our Miss Brooks for several weeks.
Broken Arrow turned out to be a considerable hit, earning Chandler an Oscar nomination and establishing him as a star. He was the first actor nominated for an Academy Award for portraying an American Indian.
Even before Broken Arrow was released, Chandler was upped to leading man status back at Universal. He was meant to make Death on a Sidestreet and The Lady Count but neither ended up being made. Instead he took over a role originally meant for Dana Andrews, a Lucky Luciano-style gangster in Deported, for producer Robert Buckner, who cast him in Sword in the Desert. "I don't know why I got it," Chandler joked at the time, "maybe it's because I'm saving them money." The movie was shot on location in Italy, although Chandler's radio commitments meant some of it had to be filmed in Hollywood.
It was back to Fox for his second film for them, as an embittered Union cavalryman in Two Flags West for director Robert Wise. Chandler replaced Lee J. Cobb and it was one of his least typical roles, a character part rather than a leading man. Once again, location work required him to regularly commute back and forth to Hollywood throughout the shoot.
Returning to Universal, Chandler played an adventurer in Smuggler's Island, a role he liked because he said was close to his real personality. However Hollywood tended to cast him in different nationalities. According to one profile, "he has unusual face, with taut, bony features which seem to fit neatly into any sort of role."
He was reunited with Fox and Delmer Daves to play a Polynesian chief in Bird of Paradise (1951), which Chandler admitted was a variation of his performance as Cochise. It would be the last film he made outside Universal for a number of years.
Back at Universal, he played a boxer in Iron Man (1951), a remake of an old Lew Ayres movie. He was announced for another film with Buckner, The Wild Bunch, which wasn't made; instead he played an Arab chief in Flame of Araby (1951), opposite Maureen O'Hara.
Around this time Chandler expressed his dissatisfaction with acting in film as opposed to radio:
Radio actors have to make their roles come alive, and they only have their voices with which to do it. But in pictures the technique is quite different. The actor is only a small part of the performance. He lends his intelligence and personality to the role, but the greatest part of the performance belongs to the producer, who puts him in a certain type of part; the director, who tells him how to play it; and the cutter, who edits what's done. That's why I find being a movie actor not particularly gratifying. I want to eventually branch off into writing and directing.
Chandler reprised his role as Cochise in another Western, The Battle at Apache Pass, for Universal. He then went on to make a war film, Red Ball Express, and a swashbuckler, Yankee Buccaneer. He made a cameo in Meet Danny Wilson and had a change of pace when he supported Loretta Young in Because of You - which a few years later he called his favorite role. Young later said Chandler "was more of a personality than an actor... a charming man."
In 1952 exhibitors voted Chandler the 22nd most popular star in the US. 20th Century-Fox was
keen to use Chandler again and offered him roles in The Day the Earth Stood Still, Lydia Bailey, Les Misérables and The Secret of Convict Lake. However, Universal refused to loan him out as he was now one of their biggest stars.
Our Miss Brooks transferred to television but Chandler was not permitted to do TV under his contract; his part was taken by Robert Rockwell. On Peggy Lee's radio show he had demonstrated a talent for singing and he pursued this through the decade.
In July 1952 Chandler signed a fresh contract with Universal which doubled his salary. His first movie under this was a Western, The Great Sioux Uprising. It was followed by more adventure fare: East of Sumatra and War Arrow with Maureen O'Hara.
This meant Chandler missed out on the part of Demetrius in The Robe (1953) at Fox, for which he had been considered and which eventually went to Victor Mature. He also missed out on the lead in the remake of Magnificent Obsession, for which he had been mooted; the part was taken by Rock Hudson who had supported Chandler in Iron Man. Both The Robe and Magnificent Obsession became big hits. Chandler played Cochise for the third time, a cameo in Taza, Son of Cochise, starring Hudson, who soon overtook Chandler as Universal's biggest male star.
Universal announced him for Chief Crazy Horse but the role ended up being played by Victor Mature. Instead he appeared in Yankee Pasha and started singing in nightclubs. He left the radio show Our Miss Brooks after five years "to get a rest," he said. "Although it didn't take long to do the show, it tied up all my Sundays".
Chandler appeared in an expensive (for Universal) epic, playing the Emperor Marcian in Sign of the Pagan and co-starred against Jane Russell in Foxfire (1955) which he enjoyed because "I don't have to be so darned monosyllabic in this one." He then made Female on the Beach with Joan Crawford and began releasing records.
In 1954 Chandler was starting to gripe about his workload:
You just can't call your time your own. When you're trekking the country - as I am now for my Decca records "I Should Care" and "More Than Anyone" and for Universal International, my home studio - every hour of the day, from the morning disc jockeys to the midnight program is filled. And in Hollywood, if you're not working on a picture or getting ready for one, you have to keep studying. I make a point of answering all my mail and when anyone asks me for an autograph I'm not just flattered. I see that as the least I can do for the people who have given me the fruits of this world.
In May Chandler refused to play the lead in Six Bridges to Cross and Universal put him on suspension. He was replaced in the role by George Nader. Chandler spoke of making Young Moses and a Western with friends Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, but neither was made. He announced "being a movie star isn't worth it", complaining that:
I can't go anywhere as an ordinary individual. There was a time I could walk around Times Square in New York (my home town) and look into shop windows or go into a cafe and eat in peace. But no more. I can't go anywhere unnoticed. Movie fans seem to think that actors belong to them but we like to feel we belong to ourselves. Don't get me wrong - I wanted fame and money when I decided to take up acting. I like being recognized - it's flattering. But there's always one character who spoils anything... I walk into a restaurant and get a ringside table- but you remember I also have to leave the biggest tip. If I don't, I'm labeled the tightest guy in town. And let's face it, acting is the easiest way I know to make a buck. But I think I'm a fairly bright boy - I figure I could have made as much in some other business... Anyone in the world with imagination and initiative can become a success. Me? I like to push buttons. I was born to be an executive - an idea man. An executive is a guy who thinks things up and has other people execute them. I'd quit work immediately if I had the money, and travel for a while. I'd like to do some writing. I marked two radio scripts and have finished synopses and five movie stories.
Chandler made up with Universal who cast him in Lady Godiva of Coventry. Chandler refused the role and was replaced again by George Nader. However this time the dispute was not over money but due to Chandler's over work.
Universal cast Chandler in an expensive remake of The Spoilers, then was given the lead in one of the studio's most prestigious films of the year, Away All Boats.
In May Chandler performed at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas. The Los Angeles Times wrote that Chandler "is proving remarkable in performing singing duty, even though he is not exactly a singing type."
He made a Western, Pillars of the Sky, then had a change of pace with the comedy The Toy Tiger, the fourth movie he made that year. Louella Parsons called Chandler "the busiest actor in town... Jeff is so happy in his private life these days that he's doing everything the studio wants."
Towards the end of the year, Chandler formed his own production company, Earlmar, with his agent, Meyer Mishkin. This was to take effect from August 1956 onwards, when Chandler's exclusive contract with Universal expired. However Chandler intended to continue to make films for Universal under a multi-picture contract. He was voted the seventh most popular star with British cinema goers.
In 1956, Universal gave Chandler a leave of absence from his contract with them "for a period of several months" to enable him to make his own movie for Earlmar. In exchange for this, Chandler was to make two more films for Universal under his original contract with them, then enter into a new arrangement under which he would appear in two films a year over three years.
Earlmar signed a six-picture deal with United Artists, under which Chandler was to appear in at least three of the films. He acted in and produced the first Earlmar production, a Western, Drango. "It's no Indian story," said Chandler, "let Cochise rest in peace." Chandler bought the rights to a novel, Lincoln McEever but it was never made; Drango would turn out to be Earlmar's sole production.
After Drango Chandler made the final two films owing under his original contract with Universal: The Tattered Dress, playing a lawyer in a melodrama, and Man in the Shadow, co-starring opposite Orson Welles. He had commitments to make two films a year at Universal until 1959.
Chandler then moved over to Columbia and acted with Kim Novak in Jeanne Eagels, a popular "biopic".
He followed this with two films for Universal, The Lady Takes a Flyer, with Lana Turner and Raw Wind in Eden, with Esther Williams. A Motion Picture Exhibitor Poll listed him as the tenth most popular male star in the US in 1957.
Chandler made another for Universal, A Stranger in My Arms with June Allyson. He was allegedly due to star in Operation Petticoat (1959) but fell ill and had to pull out.
Chandler's next two movies were made for a brand new company, Seven Arts: Ten Seconds to Hell, a bomb disposal drama shot in Germany with Jack Palance for director Robert Aldrich, and Thunder in the Sun, a Western with Susan Hayward.
The last of those was distributed by Paramount, who also released Chandler's next film, another Western, The Jayhawkers. In Ten Seconds to Hell and The Jayhawkers Chandler played villains. He later reflected "I've tried heavies - but audiences didn't seem to take to that."
Chandler formed another production company, August, for which he made The Plunderers, a Western, distributed by Allied Artists. Allied was so pleased with the film they requested three more movies from August, but Chandler never got to make them.
His next film, The Story of David, was filmed for American TV - his first work in that medium - but shown theatrically in other countries. It was shot in London and Israel. Chandler stated:
I don't want to make pictures in other countries; I want to stay home. But suddenly there are not enough pictures being made here. All other countries are giving inducements to companies and to players; even a little country like Israel is trying to formulate a plan for subsidies. Our government still taxes the hell out of people; somebody ought to wake 'em up.
Chandler appeared in Return to Peyton Place for Fox. He then went over to Warner Bros to make Merrill's Marauders, which would be his last film.
Chandler had a concurrent career as a singer and recording artist, releasing several albums and playing nightclubs. In 1955 he became only the second star to play at the Riviera, after Liberace was the featured headliner. In her autobiography Hold the Roses (2002), Rose Marie wrote that "Jeff Chandler was a great guy, but he was no singer. He put together an act and we opened at the Riviera. He came with a conductor, piano player, light man, press agent, and manager. None of it helped". And "Everybody raved about Jeff's singing, but let's face it: He really didn’t sing very well. He definitely had guts to open in Vegas". He left to work on a movie after three and a half weeks.
While working on Merrill's Marauders in the Philippines, on April 15, 1961, Chandler injured his back while playing baseball with U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers who served as extras in the film. He had injections to deaden the pain and enable him to finish the production.
On May 13, 1961, he entered a Culver City hospital and had surgery for a spinal disc herniation. There were severe complications; an artery was damaged and Chandler hemorrhaged. On May 17, in a seven-and-a-half-hour emergency operation over-and-above the original surgery, he was given 55 pints of blood. A third operation followed, on May 27, where he received an additional 20 pints of blood. He died on June 17, 1961. The cause was a blood infection complicated by pneumonia.