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Van Johnson

from the trailer for The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954)
Born Charles Van Johnson
August 25, 1916(1916-08-25)
Newport, Rhode Island, U.S.
Died December 12, 2008 (aged 92)
Nyack, New York, U.S.
Occupation Actor, dancer, singer
Years active 1935—1992
Spouse(s) Eve Lynn Abbott Wynn (1947 – 1968) (divorced)

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," 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. 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

Johnson was born Charles Van Johnson in Newport, Rhode Island; the only child[2] of Loretta (née Snyder), a homemaker and Charles E. Johnson, a plumber and later real-estate salesman. His father was an immigrant from Sweden and his mother had German-American Pennsylvania Dutch ethnicity. His mother, an alcoholic, left the family when her son was a child; Johnson's relationship with his father was chilly.[1]


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). [2]

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.[3] 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.[3] After an uncredited role in the film adaptation of Too Many Girls, Abbott hired him as a chorus boy and Gene Kelly's understudy in Pal Joey, the last Rodgers and Hart collaboration.[3] That led to screen tests by Hollywood studios. His test at Columbia Pictures was unsuccessful,[3] 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,[3] 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.[3]

Johnson, discouraged, planned to leave Hollywood. At a farewell dinner at Chasen's restaurant, Lucille Ball, who starred in the film version of Too Many Girls, introduced him to MGM casting director Billy Grady, who was sitting at the next table.[3]

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 US 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.[3]

He 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.[1]

His 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. Dunne and Tracy insisted that Johnson not be removed from the cast despite his long absence.[1] The injury exempted Johnson from service in World War II.

Johnson, in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)

With many actors now serving in the armed forces, the accident proved to be a major career break for Johnson.[2] 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 U.S. theater owners. But he fell off the list as other top Hollywood stars returned from wartime service.[1]

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 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).[2]

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.”[1]

Later career

Johnson was dropped by MGM in 1954, after appearing in The Last Time I Saw Paris with Elizabeth Taylor, and co-starring in Brigadoon. [1] He enjoyed critical acclaim for his performance as Lt. Steve Maryk in The Caine Mutiny in 1954. 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."[4]

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."[4]

During the 1950s, Johnson continued to appear in films and he also appeared frequently in television guest appearances. He received favorable critical notices for Miracle in the Rain (1956), in which he starred with Jane Wyman and in 23 Paces to Baker Street, in which he played a blind playwright residing in London. He guest starred as Joe Robertson, with June Allyson and Don Rickles, in her CBS anthology series The DuPont Show with June Allyson in the 1960 episode entitled "The Women Who".

He also guest-starred on Batman as "The Minstrel" in two episodes in 1966, Here's Lucy, Quincy M.E., McMillan & Wife and The Love Boat and in the mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man. He was nominated for an Emmy Award for that role.[5] 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. He turned down an opportunity to star as Eliot Ness in The Untouchables, which went on to become a successful TV series with Robert Stack in the Ness role.

Playbill of Johnson at Fiesta Dinner Theatre

In the 1970s, after twice fighting bouts of cancer, he began a second career in summer stock and dinner theater. In 1985 he returned to Broadway for the first time since Pal Joey, 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.[1] His last film appearance was in Clowning Around (1992).

In 2003, while living at an assisted living facility in Nyack, N.Y., he appeared with Betsy Palmer for three performances of A.R. Gurney's Love Letters, at a theater in Wesley Hills, New York.[6]

Personal life

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.[1]

Johnson married former stage actress Eve Abbott (1914–2004) on January 25, 1947, the day after her divorce from actor Keenan Wynn was finalized.[7] In 1948, the newlyweds had a daughter, Schuyler, one year later. By this marriage Johnson also had two stepsons, Edmond Keenan (Ned) and Tracy Keenan Wynn.

The Johnsons separated in 1961 and their especially bitter divorce was finalized in 1968.[8][9] According to Eve Johnson, her marriage to Johnson 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."[7]

Van Johnson lived in an apartment on 54th Street on Manhattan's East Side until 2002, when he moved to Tappan Zee Manor, an assisted living facility in Nyack, New York.[1][6] He died there of natural causes on December 12, 2008. He had been ill for the previous year and receiving hospice care. He was cremated.[1][6][10]


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 "a better actor than Hollywood usually allowed him to be," and that "he did prove he was capable of an Oscar-worthy performance, and that’s more than most movie stars can claim." [4]

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

He was one of several people interviewed by Lucie Arnaz for her biopic of her parents, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, "Lucy and Desi: A Home Movie" Other interviews included Carole Cook, Bob Hope, Fred Ball and several others.

Selected filmography

Year Film Role Notes
1940 Too Many Girls Chorus boy #41 Uncredited
1942 Somewhere I'll Find You Lieutenant Wade Hall Uncredited
1943 The Human Comedy Marcus Macauley
Pilot No. 5 Everett Arnold
Madame Curie Reporter
A Guy Named Joe Ted Randall
1944 Two Girls and a Sailor John Dyckman Brown III
The White Cliffs of Dover Sam Bennett
Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo Ted Lawson
1945 Week-End at the Waldorf Captain James Hollis
Thrill of a Romance Major Thomas Milvaine
1946 Till the Clouds Roll By Bandleader in Elite Club
Easy to Wed Bill Chandler
1947 The Romance of Rosy Ridge Henry Carson
1948 State of the Union Spike McManus Alternative title: The World and His Wife
Command Decision Technical Sergeant Immanuel T. Evans
1949 Mother Is a Freshman Professor Richard Michaels Alternative title: Mother Knows Best
In the Good Old Summertime Andrew Delby Larkin
Battleground Holley
1950 Duchess of Idaho Dick Layne
1951 Go for Broke! Lieutenant Michael Grayson
Too Young to Kiss Eric Wainwright
1952 Invitation Daniel I. "Dan" Pierce
When in Rome Father John X. Halligan
Plymouth Adventure John Alden
1954 The Caine Mutiny Lieutenant Steve Maryk
Brigadoon Jeff Douglas
The Last Time I Saw Paris Charles Wills
1955 The End of the Affair Maurice Bendrix
1956 23 Paces to Baker Street Phillip Hannon
1957 Action of the Tiger Carson
1959 Web of Evidence Paul Mathry Alternative title: Beyond This Place
1967 Divorce American Style Al Yearling
1968 Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows Father Chase
Yours, Mine and Ours Warrant Officer Darrel Harrison
1969 The 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 Concorde Affaire '79 Captain Scott
From Corleone to Brooklyn Lieutenant Sturges Alternative titles: Da Corleone a Brooklyn
The Sicilian Boss
1980 The Kidnapping of the President Vice President Ethan Richards
1985 The Purple Rose of Cairo Larry
1992 Clowning Around Mr. Ranthow
Year Title Role Notes
1957 The Pied Piper of Hamelin Pied Piper/Truson Television special
1959 Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater Frank Gilette 1 episode
1960 General Electric Theater Jimmy Devlin 1 episode
The Ann Sothern Show Terry Tyler 1 episode
1965 Ben Casey Frank Dawson 1 episode
1966 Batman The Minstrel 2 episodes
1967 The Danny Thomas Hour Charlie Snow 1 episode
1971 The Virginian Alonzo 1 episode
The Doris Day Show Charlie Webb 1 episode
Love, American Style Don 1 episode
1972 Maude Henry 1 episode
1974 McCloud Dan Kiley 1 episode
McMillan and Wife Harry Jerome 1 episode
1976 Rich Man, Poor Man Marsh Goodwin Nominated: Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor – Miniseries or a Movie
Rich Man, Poor Man Book II Marsh Goodwin Miniseries
1977 Quincy, M.E. Al Ringerman 2 episodes
1982 One Day at a Time Gus Webster 1 episode
1983 Tales of the Unexpected Gerry T. Armstrong 1 episode
1988 The New Alfred Hitchcock Presents Art Bellasco 1 episode

Further reading

  • Davis, Ronald (2001). Van Johnson: MGM's Golden Boy. University Press of Mississippi.  
  • Eyman, Scott (2005). Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0743204816.  
  • Wynn, Ned (1990). We Will Always Live in Beverly Hills: Growing Up Crazy in Hollywood. New York: William Morrow & Co.. ISBN 0517108852.  


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Van Johnson, Film Actor, Is Dead at 92". New York Times. August 12, 2008. Retrieved 2008-12-13. "Van Johnson, a film actor whose affable charm and boyish good looks helped turn him into a major Hollywood star during World War II, died Friday in Nyack, N.Y. He was 92. His death, at the Tappan Zee Manor assisted living facility, was announced by a spokesman, Daniel Demello, of Shirley Herz Associates in New York."  
  2. ^ a b c d "Biography for Van Johnson". TCM Website. Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2008-12-17.  
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Davis, Ronald L. (2001). Van Johnson: MGM's golden boy. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 1-57806-377-9.  
  4. ^ a b c "Remembering Van Johnson: A classic Hollywood heartthrob". Time (Popwatch Blog). Retrieved 2008-12-14. "Van Johnson, who died today at age 92 in Nyack, N.Y., was a better actor than Hollywood usually allowed him to be."  
  5. ^ "Actor Van Johnson dies, aged 92". Reuters. December 12, 2008. Retrieved 2008-12-14. "Actor Van Johnson, a Hollywood star during the 1940s and 1950s who performed alongside Humphrey Bogart in "The Caine Mutiny," died on Friday aged 92. Johnson died at Tappan Zee Manor, an assisted living community in Nyack, New York, said a spokeswoman for the facility."  
  6. ^ a b c Saeed, Khurram (2008-12-13). "Actor Van Johnson dies in Nyack at 92". The Journal News (Gannett). Retrieved 2009-02-24.  
  7. ^ a b Vallance, Tom (2004-08-28). "Obituary: Evie Wynn Johnson". The Independent. Retrieved 13 December 2008. "The marriages were the subject of much publicity and rumour in the 1940s since, before marrying Evie, Johnson had been a best friend of the Wynns. Many of his fans were alienated when he married Evie the day after her divorce from Wynn, while those who were aware of Johnson's sexual ambivalence wondered how genuine the marriage could be."  
  8. ^ Ned Wynn, "We Will Always Live in Beverly Hills: Growing Up Crazy in Hollywood" (William Morrow, 1990)
  9. ^ Wayne, The Leading Men of MGM, Carroll & Graf, 2006 ISBN 0786717688 page 463
  10. ^ "Van Johnson, heartthrob in '40s, dead at 92". Associated Press. December 12, 2008.,4670,ObitVanJohnson,00.html. Retrieved 2008-12-14. "Van Johnson, whose boy-next-door wholesomeness made him a popular Hollywood star in the '40s and '50s with such films as "30 Seconds over Tokyo," "A Guy Named Joe" and "The Caine Mutiny," died Friday of natural causes. He was 92. Johnson died at Tappan Zee Manor, an assisted living center in Nyack, N.Y., said Wendy Bleisweiss, a close friend."  

External links

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