Van Johnson, movie actor and Hollywood heartthrob during the Forties, passed yesterday, December 12, at the age of 92.
Johnson was born on 25 August 1916 in Newport, Rhode Island. Following graduation from high school he moved to New York City to pursue an acting career. He toured New England with an acting troupe for a time before making his Broadway debut in New Faces of 1936. He went onto appear on Broadway in Too Many Girls and not only had a small part in Pal Joey, but was also Gene Kelly's understudy.
Johnson made his film debut in an uncredited part in Too Many Girls in 1940. Signed to a contract with Warner Brothers, he was cast in Murder in the Big House opposite Faye Emerson. Unfortunately, Warner Brothers only kept Johnson for six months. Fortunately, he was signed to MGM where his fortunes would improve. Appearing in such films as Dr. Gillespie's New Assistant (part of the Dr. Kildare series) and Pilot #5, he had his first break with A Guy Named Joe, released in 1943. He was cast in his first dramatic role in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, released in 1944. Johnson also appeared in the films Week-End at the Waldorf and The White Cliffs of Dover. MGM built him up as "the boy next door" and by 1945 he was tied with Bing Crosby as the top box office star chosen by theatre owners.
Unfortunately, Johnson's career faded after World War II, as stars with bigger names returned home from the war. He appeared in such films as Three Guys Named Mike and Plymouth Adventure. Perhaps most significantly, he also appeared in Brigadoon with Gene Kelly and as Lt. Maryk in The Caine Mutiny. Regardless, he was released from his contract with MGM in 1954. Johnson continued to appear in films, but also started doing television as well. He played himself in a 1955 episode of I Love Lucy and a 1957 episode of The Jack Benny Programme, and also appeared on The Loretta Young Show and Zane Grey Theatre.
In 1962 Johnson returned to Broadway in the play Come on Strong. Later in the decade he would appear in the plays On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and Mating Dance. He also continued to make guest appearances on television, on The Virginian, Ben Casey, Batman, and The Danny Thomas Hour. He appeared in the films Where Angels Go Trouble Follows, Divorce American Style, and Yours, Mine, and Ours, as well as the TV movie Doomsday Flight.
By the Seventies most of Johnson's roles were on television. He appeared in several television movies and guest starred on such shows as McCloud, One Day at a Time, Quincy M.E., Love Boat, Fantasy Island, and the 1988 version of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He had a small role in Woody Allen's Purple Rose of Cairo. He also appeared on Broadway again in the Eighties, playing Georges in La Cage aux Folles. He also spent many of his later years playing in dinner theatre and summer stock.
If Van Johnson was the boy next door for most of his early career, it was perhaps because he played the part so well. Despite a difficult childhood (his family was exceedingly poor), Johnson was able to play the happy go lucky, charming, average American boy in several roles. This is not to say Johnson could not play other roles. He shed his boy next door image for The End of the Affair, in which he played an adulterer, and Lt. Maryk, the executive officer of the Caine who finally decides he must relieve Commander Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) of duty. Johnson's versatility could also be seen in many of his television roles, in which he sometimes played characters who weren't exactly the boy next door. Although he only topped the box office for a short time, Van Johnson was indeed at talented actor.