Johnson in a publicity photo, 1972
|Born||Charles Van Dell Johnson
August 25, 1916
Newport, Rhode Island, U.S.
|Died||December 12, 2008
Nyack, New York, U.S.
|Occupation||Actor, dancer, singer|
|Spouse(s)||Eve Lynn Abbott Wynn (m. 1947; div. 1968)|
|Children||Schuyler V. Johnson (b. 1948)
Ned Wynn (b. 1941)
Tracy Keenan Wynn (b. 1945)
Johnson was the embodiment of the "boy-next-door wholesomeness (that) made him a popular Hollywood star in the '40s and '50s," 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 Human Comedy. 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".
- 1 Early life
- 2 Career
- 3 Personal life
- 4 Later years and death
- 5 Legacy
- 6 Filmography
- 7 Stage work
- 8 Radio appearances
- 9 References
- 10 External links
Charles Van Dell Johnson was born in Newport, Rhode Island, the only child of Loretta (née Snyder), a housewife, 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, 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.
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.
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.
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. Johnson's 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.
Johnson was soon signed by MGM. As with other contract players at MGM, Johnson was provided with classes in acting, speech, and diction.
This encouraged MGM to cast Johnson in their long-running Dr. Kildare series. These films had starred Lew Ayres as Dr Kildare and Lionel Barrymore as Dr Gillespie; when Ayes' career was hurt due to being a conscientious objector, the series focused on Dr Gillespie mentoring new doctors. Johnson played Dr. Randall Adams in Dr. Gillespie's New Assistant (1942).
MGM then cast Johnson as Mickey Rooney's soldier brother in The Human Comedy (1943), a huge hit. He returned as Randall Adams in Dr. Gillespie's Criminal Case (1943) and was in uniform again for Pilot No. 5 (1943). He had a small role as a reporter in Madame Curie (1943).
A Guy Named Joe and Stardom
Johnson's big break was in A Guy Named Joe, starring 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, Johnson was involved in a serious car accident 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. When the crash happened, Johnson's scalp was nearly sheared off. The closest rescue units responded, but because the accident happened just over the local county line, the rescuers had to stop at the county line and could not help him. Johnson had to slap his scalp into place and literally crawl nearly 50 yards to get to the rescue workers for aid[dubious ]. MGM wanted to replace him in A Guy Named Joe, but Tracy insisted that Johnson be allowed to finish the picture, despite his long absence. The injury exempted Johnson from service in World War II. The film was a huge hit earning a profit of over a million dollars and Johnson was launched as a star.
With many actors serving in the armed forces, the accident greatly benefited Johnson's career. 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!"
MGM built up his image as the all-American boy in war dramas and musicals. His first top billed role in an "A" was the musical Two Girls and a Sailor (1944) which was big success; it was his first film with June Allyson. He had a smaller part in The White Cliffs of Dover (1944), then reprised his role as Dr Adams in 3 Men in White (1944).
Johnson played Ted Lawson in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, which told the story of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in April 1942, and was another big success. He played Dr Adams one last time in Between Two Women (1945), which Johnson's popularity helped propel to a gross of over two million dollars - a remarkable figure for a B picture.
Even more popular was Thrill of a Romance (1945), a musical with Esther Williams, which was one of the biggest hits of the year, earning a profit of over three million dollars. Another big one was Week-End at the Waldorf (1945), a musical remake of Grand Hotel with Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon and Ginger Rogers.
He was reunited with Williams in Easy to Wed (1946), a musical remake of Libled Lady. No Leave, No Love (1946) was a profitable musical co-starring Keenan Wynn. Johnson had a guest appearance in the all-star Till the Clouds Roll By (1946).
Johnson made his third appearance with Allyson in High Barbaree (1947). It was popular but its high cost meant it was the first film Johnson made since becoming a star that lost money. Another money loser was The Romance of Rosy Ridge (1948), a drama best remembered today for introducing Janet Leigh. A comedy with Allyson The Bride Goes Wild (1948) was better received.
MGM Under Dore Schary
More typical was a musical he made with Judy Garland, In the Good Old Summertime (1949). It was popular. Even more so was Battleground (1949), a movie about the Battle of the Bulge produced by MGM's new head of the studio, Dore Schary; it was MGM's most profitable work of the year.
Johnson made a comedy The Big Hangover (1950) then was reunited with Williams in Duchess of Idaho (1951) a solid hit. A comedy he made with Kathryn Grayson, Grounds for Marriage (1951), was only a mild success.
Johnson appeared in a popular musical Three Guys Named Mike (1951). Another Schary-produced war film, Go for Broke! (1951), in which he played an officer leading Japanese-American troops of the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Europe. did well at the box office. He had a small part in It's a Big Country (1951) and was reunited with Allyson for Too Young to Kiss (1951).
A drama, Invitation (1952), was a box office disappointment. When in Rome (1952), in which Johnson played a priest, was a flop. So too was Washington Story (1952), Plymouth Adventure (1952) with Spencer Tracy, Confidentially Connie (1953) with Janet Leigh and Remains to Be Seen (1953) with Allyson.
The box office rot stopped with the Esther Williams musical comedy Easy to Love (1953). He was loaned out for a Western Siege at Red River (1954), then was in a popular Korean War drama Men of the Fighting Lady (1954).
Johnson was loaned to Columbia for The Caine Mutiny (1954), getting an excellent part in a big hit. 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."
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."
Johnson played himself on I Love Lucy in which he sang and danced with Lucille Ball in one of the episodes set in Hollywood.
During the 1950s, Johnson continued to appear in films and also appeared frequently in television guest appearances, including What's My Line?, as a celebrity mystery guest on the 22 November 1953 episode.
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.
Baby Boomers still fondly recall Johnson's appearance as the title character of the highly rated "spectacular," The Pied Piper of Hamelin, a musical version of Robert Browning's poem utilizing the music of Edvard Grieg. Featuring Claude Rains in his only singing and dancing role, it was shown on Tuesday, November 26, 1957 as part of NBC's week-long Thanksgiving specials. The program was so successful it spawned a record album  and was repeated in 1958. Syndicated to many local stations, it was rerun annually for many years in the tradition of other holiday specials.
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.
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. He also appeared in a special two-part episode of The Love Boat, "The Musical: My Ex-Mom; The Show Must Go On; The Pest, Parts 1 and 2" which aired on February 27, 1982, and co-starred Ann Miller, Ethel Merman, Della Reese, Carol Channing, and Cab Calloway, as the retired showbiz stars related to the cast of the show.
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 Three Days to a Kill (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.
Johnson married former stage actress Eve Abbott (May 6, 1914 – October 10, 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. According to a statement by his former 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." 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.
In contrast to his "cheery Van" screen image, Johnson was reputed by his former 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.
Later years and death
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. 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.
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."
|1940||Too Many Girls||Chorus boy #41||Uncredited|
|1942||Murder in the Big House||Bert Bell|
|1942||Somewhere I'll Find You||Lieutenant Wade Hall||Uncredited|
|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||Guy Named Joe, AA Guy Named Joe||Ted Randall||Suffered disfiguring accident during shooting
|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||Thrill of a Romance||Major Thomas Milvaine|
|1945||Week-End at the Waldorf||Captain James Hollis|
|1946||Easy to Wed||William Stevens 'Bill' Chandler|
|1946||No Leave, No Love||Sergeant Michael Hanlon|
|1946||Till the Clouds Roll By||Bandleader in Elite Club|
|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|
|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||It's a Big Country||Rev. Adam Burch|
|1951||Too Young to Kiss||Eric Wainwright|
|1952||Invitation||Daniel I. "Dan" Pierce|
|1952||When in Rome||Father John X. Halligan|
|1952||Washington Story||Joseph T. Gresham|
|1952||Plymouth Adventure||John Alden|
|1953||Confidentially Connie||Joe Bedloe|
|1953||Remains to Be Seen||Waldo Williams|
|1953||Easy to Love||Ray Lloyd|
|1954||Siege at Red River||Capt. James S. Simmons / Jim Farraday|
|1954||Men of the Fighting Lady||Lt. (JG) Howard Thayer|
|1954||Caine Mutiny, TheThe Caine Mutiny||Lt. Stephen Maryk, USNR|
|1954||Last Time I Saw Paris, TheThe Last Time I Saw Paris||Charles Wills|
|1955||End of the Affair, TheThe End of the Affair||Maurice Bendrix|
|1956||The Bottom of the Bottle||Donald Martin / Eric Bell|
|1956||Miracle in the Rain||Pvt 1st class Arthur Hugenon|
|1956||23 Paces to Baker Street||Phillip Hannon|
|1957||Slander||Scott Ethan Martin|
|1957||Kelly and Me||Len Carmody|
|1957||Action of the Tiger||Carson|
|1959||The Last Blitzkrieg||Lt. Hans Von Kroner / Sgt. Leonard Richardson|
|1959||Subway in the Sky||Major Baxter Grant|
|1959||Beyond This Place||Paul Mathry|
|1960||The Enemy General||Allan Lemaire (OSS agent)|
|1963||Wives and Lovers||Bill Austin|
|1966||The Doomsday Flight||Captain Anderson|
|1967||Divorce American Style||Al Yearling|
|1968||Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows||Father Chase|
|1968||Yours, Mine and Ours||Warrant Officer Darrel Harrison|
|1969||Eagles Over London||Air Marshal George Taylor|
|1969||Price of Power, TheThe Price of Power||President James Garfield||Alternative titles: La muerte de un presidente
|1971||Eye of the Spider||Professor Orson Krüger||Alternative title: L'occhio del ragno|
|1979||The Concorde Affair||Captain Scott||Alternative title: Concorde Affaire '79|
|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|
|1982||Scorpion with Two Tails||Mulligan - Joan's father|
|1985||Purple Rose of Cairo, TheThe Purple Rose of Cairo||Larry Wilde|
|1988||Laggiù nella giungla|
|1990||Fuga dal paradiso||Old Narrator|
|1991||Delta Force Commando II: Priority Red One||Gen. McCailland|
|1992||Clowning Around||Mr. Ranthow|
|1992||Three Days to a Kill||Comm. Howard||(final film role)|
|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"
|1967||Danny Thomas Hour, TheThe Danny Thomas Hour||Charlie Snow||Episode: "Is Charlie Coming?"|
|1968||Here's Lucy||Himself||Episode: "Guess Who Owes Lucy $23.50?"|
|1971||Virginian, TheThe Virginian||Alonzo||Episode: "The Angus Killer"|
|1971||Doris Day Show, TheThe Doris Day Show||Charlie Webb||Episodes: "Cousin Charlie"
|1971||Love, American Style||Don||Segment: "Love and the House Bachelor"|
|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)|
|1978||The Love Boat||Man of the Cloth / Her Own Two Feet / Tony's Family|
|1982||One Day at a Time||Gus Webster||Episode: "Grandma's Nest Egg"|
|1982||The Love Boat||The Musical / My Ex-Mom / The Show Must Go On / The Pest / My Aunt, the Worrier|
|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"|
Box office ranking
For a number of years film exhibitors voted Johnson among the most popular stars in the country:
- 1945 - 2nd (US)
- 1946 - 3rd (US)
- 1950 - 18th (US)
- 1951 - 24th (US)
|1936||Eight Men in Manhattan|
|1936||New Faces of 1936|
|1939||Too Many Girls|
|1961–63; 1973||The Music Man|
|1962||Come On Strong|
|1963||Bye Bye Birdie|
|1963; 1971||Damn Yankees|
|1963||Guys and Dolls|
|1964||A Thousand Clowns|
|1966||On a Clear Day You Can See Forever|
|1968||Bells Are Ringing|
|1968||The Great Sebastians|
|1968; 1971; 1974||There's a Girl in My Soup (play)|
|1972; 1974||Help Stamp Out Marriage|
|1974||6 Rms Riv Vu|
|1977||How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying|
|1983||No, No, Nanette|
|1985||La Cage aux Folles|
|1944||The Burns and Allen Show||NA|
|1946||Lux Radio Theatre||You Came Along|
|1952||Cavalcade of America||Billy the Kid|
|1953||Theatre Guild on the Air||State Fair|
|1953||Broadway Playhouse||Detective Story|
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- Davis 2001, p. 26.
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- Davis 2001, pp. 76–77.
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- Davis, Ronald L. (2001). Van Johnson: MGM's Golden Boy. Jackson MS: Univ. Press of Mississippi. pp. 104–105. ISBN 1578063779.
- Kuchwara, Michael. "Van Johnson, heartthrob in '40s, dead at 92." Huffington Post, December 8, 2013.
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- Beecher, Elizabeth. Van Johnson: The Luckiest Guy in the World. Racine, Wisconsin: Whitman Publishing Co., 1947.
- 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.
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