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 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 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
Johnson was born Charles Van Dell Johnson 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.
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.
Johnson’s tenure at MGM began when he was awarded the role of Dr. Randall Adams in Dr. Gillespie’s New Assistant and Dr. Gillespie’s Criminal Case in the popular Dr. Kildare movie series. As with other contract players at MGM, Johnson was provided with classes in acting, speech, and diction.
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. 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 stopped at the county line and could not help him. So Johnson slapped his scalp into place and literally crawled nearly 50 yards to get to the rescue workers for aid. MGM wanted to replace him in the production, but Tracy insisted that Johnson not be removed from the cast despite his long absence. The injury exempted Johnson from service in World War II.
Johnson, in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)
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, 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 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) 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 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.
Johnson was one of several major stars dropped by MGM in 1954. His final appearances for the studio were 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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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 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 (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. 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.” 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 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.