Van Johnson

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For the American racing driver, see Van Johnson (racing driver).
Van Johnson
Van Johnson 1972.JPG
Johnson in a publicity photo, 1972
Born Charles Van Dell Johnson
(1916-08-25)August 25, 1916
Newport, Rhode Island, U.S.
Died December 12, 2008(2008-12-12) (aged 92)
Nyack, New York, U.S.
Occupation Actor, dancer, singer
Years active 1935–1992
Spouse(s) Eve Lynn Abbott Wynn (m. 1947; div. 1968)
Children 1

Van Johnson (August 25, 1916 – December 12, 2008) was an American film and television actor and dancer who was a major star at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios during and after World War II.

Johnson was the embodiment of the "boy-next-door wholesomeness (that) made him a popular Hollywood star in the '40s and '50s,"[1] playing "the red-haired, freckle-faced soldier, sailor or bomber pilot who used to live down the street" in MGM movies during the war years with such films as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, A Guy Named Joe and The Caine Mutiny. Johnson made occasional World War II movies through the end of the 1960s, and he played a military officer in one of his final feature films, in 1992. At the time of his death in December 2008, he was one of the last surviving matinee idols of Hollywood's "golden age."[2]

Early life[edit]

Johnson was born Charles Van Dell Johnson in Newport, Rhode Island; the only child[3] of Loretta (née Snyder), a homemaker, and Charles E. Johnson, a plumber and later real-estate salesman. His father was born in Sweden and came to the United States as a young child,[3] and his mother had Pennsylvania Dutch ancestry. His mother, an alcoholic, left the family when her son was a child; Johnson's relationship with his father was chilly.[4]

Career[edit]

The handprints of Van Johnson in front of The Great Movie Ride at Walt Disney World's Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park

Johnson performed at social clubs in Newport while in high school. He moved to New York City after graduating from high school in 1935 and joined an off-Broadway revue, Entre Nous (1935).[3]

After touring New England in a theatre troupe as a substitute dancer, his acting career began in earnest in the Broadway revue New Faces of 1936. Johnson returned to the chorus after that, and worked in summer resorts near New York City.[5] In 1939, director and playwright George Abbott cast him in Rodgers and Hart's Too Many Girls in the role of a college boy and as understudy for all three male leads. After an uncredited role in the film adaptation of Too Many Girls (which costarred Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz), Abbott hired him as a chorus boy and Gene Kelly's understudy in Pal Joey.[6]

Johnson was about to move back to New York when Lucille Ball took him to Chasen's Restaurant, where she introduced him to MGM casting director Billy Grady, who was sitting at the next table. This led to screen tests by Hollywood studios. His test at Columbia Pictures was unsuccessful, but Warner Brothers put him on contract at $300 a week. His all-American good looks and easy demeanor were ill-suited to the gritty movies Warner made at the time, and the studio dropped him at the expiration of his six-month contract. Shortly before leaving Warner, he was cast as a cub reporter opposite Faye Emerson in the 1942 film Murder in the Big House. His eyebrows and hair were dyed black for the role.[7]

Years at MGM[edit]

Fortuitously for Johnson, Lew Ayres, who played the title role in the popular Dr. Kildare movie series, was leaving to join the U.S. Army as a medic. Ayres had played a young doctor who assisted the crusty Dr. Gillespie, played by Lionel Barrymore. Johnson was assigned to the new role of Dr. Randall Adams in Dr. Gillespie's New Assistant and Dr. Gillespie's Criminal Case, and he appeared as a bit player in two other MGM features. At the same time he was given the classes in acting, speech, diction and other disciplines that were provided to all contract actors at MGM at the time.[8]

Johnson subsequently appeared in Pilot No. 5 (1943) and in William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy, which was produced in 1943, and in the title role in Two Girls and a Sailor.[9]

Johnson's big break was in A Guy Named Joe, with Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne, in which he played a young pilot who acquires a deceased pilot as his guardian angel. Midway through the movie's production in 1943, he was involved in a car crash that left him with a metal plate in his forehead and a number of scars on his face that the plastic surgery of the time could not completely correct or conceal; he used heavy makeup to hide them for years. Dunne and Tracy insisted that Johnson not be removed from the cast despite his long absence. The injury exempted Johnson from service in World War II.[10]

Johnson, in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)

With many actors serving in the armed forces, the accident greatly benefited Johnson's career.[3] He later said, "There were five of us. There was Jimmy Craig, Bob Young, Bobby Walker, Peter Lawford, and myself. All tested for the same part all the time". Johnson was very busy, often playing soldiers; "I remember ... finishing one Thursday morning with June Allyson and starting a new one Thursday afternoon with Esther Williams. I didn't know which branch of the service I was in!".[11] MGM built up his image as the all-American boy in war dramas and musicals, with his most notable starring role as Ted Lawson in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, which told the story of the Doolittle raid on Tokyo in April 1942.

In 1945, Johnson tied with Bing Crosby as the top of a list of box office stars chosen yearly by the National Association of Theater Owners. But he fell off the list as other top Hollywood stars returned from wartime service.[2] As a musical comedy performer, Johnson appeared in five films each with Allyson and Williams. His films with Allyson included the musical Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), and the mystery farce Remains to Be Seen (1953). With Williams he made the comedy Easy to Wed (1946)[12] and the musical comedy Easy to Love (1953). He also starred with Judy Garland in In the Good Old Summertime (1949), and teamed with Gene Kelly as the sardonic second lead of Brigadoon (1954).[3]

Johnson continued to star in war dramas after the war ended, including Battleground (1949).

Johnson continued to appear in war movies after the war ended, including his performance as Holley in Battleground (1949), an account of the Battle of the Bulge, and in Go for Broke! (1951), in which he played an officer leading Japanese-American troops of the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Europe.

Unlike some other stars of that era, Johnson did not resent the restrictions of the studio system. In 1985, he said his years at MGM were "one big happy family and a little kingdom". He said: "Everything was provided for us, from singing lessons to barbells. All we had to do was inhale, exhale and be charming. I used to dread leaving the studio to go out into the real world, because to me the studio was the real world."[2]

Later career[edit]

Johnson was dropped by MGM in 1954, after having appeared in The Last Time I Saw Paris with Elizabeth Taylor and co-starring in Brigadoon. He enjoyed critical acclaim for his performance in 1954 as Lt. Steve Maryk in The Caine Mutiny. He refused to allow concealment of his facial scars when being made up as Maryk, believing they enhanced the character's authenticity. One commentator noted years later that "Humphrey Bogart and Jose Ferrer chomp up all the scenery in this maritime courtroom drama, but it’s Johnson’s character, the painfully ambivalent, not-too-bright Lieutenant Steve Maryk, who binds the whole movie together." Time commented that Van Johnson "... was a better actor than Hollywood usually allowed him to be."[1]

Johnson's critically praised performance in The Caine Mutiny (1954) was his most notable post-MGM role.

Johnson played himself in a walk-on role in I Love Lucy, which, according to Benjamin Svetkey, "may have pioneered the cheesy sitcom walk-on."[1]

During the 1950s, Johnson continued to appear in films and also appeared frequently in television guest appearances. He received favorable critical notices for the 1956 dramatic film Miracle in the Rain, co-starring Jane Wyman, in which he played a good-hearted young soldier preparing to go to war, and in the mystery 23 Paces to Baker Street, in which he played a blind playwright residing in London. He appeared as the title character of the 1957 made-for-television film The Pied Piper of Hamelin, a musical version of Robert Browning's poem.

On February 19, 1959, Johnson appeared in the episode "Deadfall" of CBS's Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater in the role of Frank Gilette, a former outlaw falsely charged with bank robbery. He is framed by Hugh Perry, a corrupt prosecutor played by Harry Townes, and Deputy Stover, portrayed by Bing Russell. Convicted of the robbery, Gilette is captured by outlaws while on his way to prison, and the sheriff, Roy Lamont, portrayed by Grant Withers, is killed.[13]

In 1959, Johnson turned down an opportunity to star as Eliot Ness in The Untouchables, which went on to become a successful television series with Robert Stack in the Ness role.[14]

Johnson guest starred as Joe Robertson, with June Allyson and Don Rickles, in the 1960 episode "The Women Who" of the CBS anthology series The DuPont Show with June Allyson. In 1961 Johnson traveled to England to star in Harold Fielding's production of The Music Man at the Adelphi Theatre in London. The show enjoyed a successful run of almost a year with Johnson playing the arduous leading role of Harold Hill to great acclaim.

Johnson also guest-starred on Batman as "The Minstrel" in two episodes (39 and 40) in 1966. In the 1970s, he appeared on Here's Lucy, Quincy, M.E., McMillan & Wife and Love, American Style. He played a lead character in the 1976 miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man, and was nominated for a prime time Emmy Award for that role. In the 1980s, he appeared on an episode of Angela Lansbury's Murder, She Wrote along with June Allyson.

In the 1970s, after twice fighting bouts of cancer, Johnson began a second career in summer stock and dinner theater. In 1985, returning to Broadway for the first time since Pal Joey, he was cast in the starring role of the musical La Cage aux Folles. In that same year he appeared in a supporting role in Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo. At the age of 75, now grey and rotund, he toured in Show Boat as Captain Andy. His last film appearance was in Clowning Around (1992). In 2003, he appeared with Betsy Palmer for three performances of A.R. Gurney's Love Letters at a theater in Wesley Hills, New York.[15]

Personal life[edit]

Johnson married former stage actress Eve Abbott (6 May 1914 – 10 October 2004) on January 25, 1947, the day after her divorce from actor Keenan Wynn was finalized. In 1948, the newlyweds had a daughter, Schuyler. By this marriage, Johnson had two stepsons, Edmond Keenan (Ned) and Tracy Keenan Wynn. The Johnsons separated in 1961 and their divorce was finalized in 1968.[16][17] According to a statement by his ex-wife that was first published after his death at age 92, their marriage had been engineered by MGM: "They needed their 'big star' to be married to quell rumors about his sexual preferences and unfortunately, I was 'It'—the only woman he would marry."[18] Johnson's biographer, Ronald L. Davis, has written that the actor's homosexual proclivities were well known within the film industry, but that these were covered up due to a general regard for the privacy of a fellow performer and studio executive Louis B. Mayer's efforts to quash any scandal.[19]

In contrast to his "cheery Van" screen image, Johnson was reputed by his ex-wife to be morose and moody because of his difficult early life. She reported that he had little tolerance for unpleasantness and would stride into his bedroom at the slightest hint of trouble. He had a difficult relationship with his father and was estranged from his daughter at the time of his death.[2]

Later years and death[edit]

Johnson lived in a penthouse in the Sutton Place area of East 54th Street on Manhattan's East Side until 2002, when he moved to Tappan Zee Manor, an assisted living facility in Nyack, New York.[15] After having been ill and receiving hospice care for the previous year, he died there on December 12, 2008. Wendy Bleisweiss, a close friend, indicated that he died of natural causes. His body was cremated.[15][20]

Legacy[edit]

Star on Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6600 Hollywood Blvd.

Johnson was never nominated for an Academy Award and, during the height of his career, was noted mainly for his cheerful screen presence. Reflecting on his career after his death, one critic observed that Johnson was "capable of an Oscar-worthy performance, and that’s more than most movie stars can claim."[1]

For his contribution to the film industry, Johnson has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6600 Hollywood Blvd.

Selected filmography[edit]

Film
Year Title Role Notes
1940 Too Many Girls Chorus boy #41 Uncredited
1942 Somewhere I'll Find You Lieutenant Wade Hall Uncredited
1942 Murder in the Big House Bert Bell
1942 War Against Mrs. Hadley, TheThe War Against Mrs. Hadley Michael Fitzpatrick
1942 Dr. Gillespie's New Assistant Dr. Randall 'Red' Adams
1943 Human Comedy, TheThe Human Comedy Marcus Macauley
1943 Dr. Gillespie's Criminal Case Dr. Randall 'Red' Adams
1943 Pilot No. 5 Everett Arnold
1943 Madame Curie Reporter
1943 Guy Named Joe, AA Guy Named Joe Ted Randall
1944 Two Girls and a Sailor John Dyckman Brown III
1944 White Cliffs of Dover, TheThe White Cliffs of Dover Sam Bennett
1944 3 Men in White Dr. Randall 'Red' Ames
1944 Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo Ted Lawson
1945 Between Two Women Dr. Randall 'Red' Adams
1945 Week-End at the Waldorf Captain James Hollis
1945 Thrill of a Romance Major Thomas Milvaine
1946 Till the Clouds Roll By Bandleader in Elite Club
1946 No Leave, No Love Sergeant Michael Hanlon
1946 Easy to Wed Bill Chandler
1947 High Barbaree Alec Brooke
1947 Romance of Rosy Ridge, TheThe Romance of Rosy Ridge Henry Carson
1948 Bride Goes Wild, TheThe Bride Goes Wild Greg Rawlings
1948 State of the Union Spike McManus Alternative title: The World and His Wife
1948 Command Decision Technical Sergeant Immanuel T. Evans
1949 Mother Is a Freshman Professor Richard Michaels Alternative title: Mother Knows Best
1949 Scene of the Crime Mike Conovan
1949 In the Good Old Summertime Andrew Delby Larkin
1949 Battleground Holley
1950 Big Hangover, TheThe Big Hangover' David Muldon
1950 Duchess of Idaho Dick Layne
1951 Grounds for Marriage Dr. Lincoln I. Bartlett
1951 Three Guys Named Mike Mike Lawrence
1951 Go for Broke! Lieutenant Michael Grayson
1951 Too Young to Kiss Eric Wainwright
1952 Invitation Daniel I. "Dan" Pierce
1952 When in Rome Father John X. Halligan
1952– Plymouth Adventure John Alden
1954 Caine Mutiny, TheThe Caine Mutiny LT Stephen Maryk, USNR
1953 Easy to Love Ray Lloyd
1954 Brigadoon Jeff Douglas
1954 Last Time I Saw Paris, TheThe Last Time I Saw Paris Charles Wills
1954 Siege at Red River Capt. James S. Simmons / Jim Farraday
1954 Men of the Fighting Lady Lt (JG) Howard Thayer
1955 End of the Affair, TheThe End of the Affair Maurice Bendrix
1956 23 Paces to Baker Street Phillip Hannon
1956 Miracle in the Rain Pvt 1st class Arthur Hugenon
1957 Slander Scott Ethan Martin
1957 Action of the Tiger Carson
1959 Beyond This Place Paul Mathry
1967 Divorce American Style Al Yearling
1968 Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows Father Chase
1968 Yours, Mine and Ours Warrant Officer Darrel Harrison
1969 Price of Power, TheThe Price of Power' President James Garfield Alternative titles: La muerte de un presidente
Texas
1971 Eye of the Spider Professor Orson Krüger Alternative title: L'occhio del ragno
1979 Concorde Affaire '79 Captain Scott
1979 From Corleone to Brooklyn Lieutenant Sturges Alternative titles: Da Corleone a Brooklyn
The Sicilian Boss
1980 Kidnapping of the President, TheThe Kidnapping of the President Vice President Ethan Richards
1985 Purple Rose of Cairo, TheThe Purple Rose of Cairo Larry
1992 Clowning Around Mr. Ranthow
Television
Year Title Role Notes
1955 I Love Lucy Himself Episode: "The Dancing Star"
1957 Pied Piper of Hamelin, TheThe Pied Piper of Hamelin Pied Piper/Truson Television special
1959 Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater Frank Gilette Episode: "Deadfall"
1960 General Electric Theater Jimmy Devlin Episode: "At Your Service"
1960 Ann Sothern Show, TheThe Ann Sothern Show Terry Tyler Episode: "Loving Arms"
1965 Ben Casey Frank Dawson Episode: "A Man, a Maid, and a Marionette"
1966 Batman The Minstrel Episodes: "The Minstrel's Shakedown"
"Barbecued Batman?"
1967 Danny Thomas Hour, TheThe Danny Thomas Hour Charlie Snow Episode: "Is Charlie Coming?"
1971 Virginian, TheThe Virginian Alonzo Episode: "The Angus Killer"
1971 Doris Day Show, TheThe Doris Day Show Charlie Webb Episodes: "Cousin Charlie"
"The Albatross"
1971 Love, American Style Don Segment: "Love and the House Bachelor"
1972 Maude Henry Episode: "Flashback"
1974 McCloud Dan Kiley Episode: "This Must Be the Alamo"
1974 McMillan & Wife Harry Jerome Episode: "Downshift to Danger"
1976 Rich Man, Poor Man Marsh Goodwin Miniseries
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor – Miniseries or a Movie
1976 Rich Man, Poor Man Book II Marsh Goodwin Miniseries
1977 Quincy, M.E. Al Ringerman Episodes: "Snake Eyes" (Parts 1&2)
1982 One Day at a Time Gus Webster Episode: "Grandma's Nest Egg"
1983 Tales of the Unexpected Gerry T. Armstrong Episode: "Down Among the Sheltering Palms"
1984-1990 Murder, She Wrote Various roles 3 episode
1988 New Alfred Hitchcock Presents, TheThe New Alfred Hitchcock Presents Art Bellasco Episode: "Killer Takes All"

Stage work[edit]

References[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d Svetkey, Benjamin. "Remembering Van Johnson: A classic Hollywood heartthrob." Time, via popwatch.ew.com. Retrieved: October 28, 2011.
  2. ^ a b c d Aljean, Harmetz. "Van Johnson, Film Actor, Is Dead at 92." The New York Times, August 12, 2008. Retrieved: December 13, 2008.
  3. ^ a b c d e "Van Johnson Biography." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: October 28, 2011.
  4. ^ Davis 2001, p. 7.
  5. ^ Davis 2001, p. 27.
  6. ^ Davis 2001, p. 26.
  7. ^ Davis 2001, pp. 41–45.
  8. ^ Davis 2001, pp. 46–47, 56.
  9. ^ Davis 2001, pp. 76–77.
  10. ^ Davis 2001, pp. 63, 67.
  11. ^ Stewart, Patrick (host). "The Lion Reigns Supreme". MGM: When the Lion Roars.
  12. ^ Davis, Ronald L. Van Johnson: MGM's Golden Boy 1578063779 Page 237 citing "Ruth Rowland, "Van, the Man," Movieland 14 (August 1956)"
  13. ^ "Zane Grey Theatre: "Deadfall", February 19, 1959". Internet Movie Data Base. Retrieved September 26, 2012. 
  14. ^ Nichols, Michelle. "Actor Van Johnson dies, aged 92." Reuters, December 12, 2008.
  15. ^ a b c Khurram, Saeed. "Actor Van Johnson dies in Nyack at 92." The Journal News, December 13, 2008.
  16. ^ Wynn 1990, p. 213.
  17. ^ Wayne 2006, p. 463.
  18. ^ Vallance, Tom. Obituary: Evie Wynn Johnson, Actress and ambitious Hollywood wife." The Independent, December 8, 2004.
  19. ^ Davis, Ronald L. (2001). Van Johnson: MGM's Golden Boy. Jackson MS: Univ. Press of Mississippi. pp. 104–105. ISBN 1578063779. 
  20. ^ Kuchwara, Michael. "Van Johnson, heartthrob in '40s, dead at 92." Huffington Post, December 8, 2013.

Bibliography[edit]

  • Davis, Ronald. Van Johnson: MGM's Golden Boy. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2001. ISBN 978-1-57806-377-2.
  • Eyman, Scott. Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. ISBN 0-7432-0481-6.
  • Wayne, Jane Ellen. The Leading Men of MGM. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2006. ISBN 0-7867-1768-8.
  • Wynn, Ned. We Will Always Live in Beverly Hills: Growing Up Crazy in Hollywood. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1990. ISBN 0-517-10885-2.

External links[edit]