|Van Johnson |
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," 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."
Johnson was born Charles Van Dell Johnson in Newport, Rhode Island; the only child 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, and his mother had Pennsylvania Dutch ethnicity. His mother, an alcoholic, left the family when her son was a child; Johnson's relationship with his father was chilly.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Years at MGM.
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 medical corpsman. 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.
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.
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.
With many actors now serving in the armed forces, the accident proved to be a major career break for Johnson. 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.
As a musical comedy performer, Johnson appeared in five films each with June Allyson and Esther 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) 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).
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."
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."
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.
In contrast to his "cheery Van" screen image, Johnson was reputed to be morose and moody because of his difficult early life. 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.
Johnson married former stage actress Eve Abbott (1914–2004) 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 Eve Abbott Johnson, their marriage had been engineered by MGM: "They needed their 'big star' to be married to quell rumours about his sexual preferences and unfortunately, I was 'It'—the only woman he would marry."
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.
Van Johnson died on December 12, 2008 of natural causes at the Tappan Zee Manor, an assisted living facility in Nyack, New York.
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