Van Johnson- heartthrob of the 1940's dies at 92
Editors Note: Van Johnson, the popular Hollywood star in the '40s and '50s with films such as "30 Seconds over Tokyo," "A Guy Named Joe" and "The Caine Mutiny," died on Friday, December 12, 2008. Van Johnson's death was of natural causes. He was 92 years old.
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Below, is an article about the life of Van Johnson by EMOL.org's Illinois Entertainment Reporter, Steve Starr, part of his STARRLIGHT Series.
The wonderful life of Van Johnson
By Steve Starr
The handsome red-headed star ran off with his best friend's wife and married her on the very day of her divorce. He eventually left her for a chorus boy.
Charles Van Johnson was born August 25, 1916, in Newport Rhode Island, a town known for its gorgeous mansions, tennis tournaments, and yachts. His parents divorced when he was three and his father was given custody of their only child.
Charles grew to be a six-foot-one, red-headed, freckled, wholesome looking star-struck kid, appearing in school plays whenever he could. He began his professional career appearing as a chorus boy on Broadway in Entre Nous, and then in New Faces of 1936.
Soon he landed a role as a college boy in a Rodgers and Hart musical, Too Many Girls, and was spotted by RKO Studio agents who hired him to recreate his role in the 1940 film version starring Lucille Ball, in which he became chorus boy #41.
Johnson signed a six-month contract with Warner Bros. Pictures, where he had a bit part in Murder In The Big House (1941). While driving with friends Keenan Wynn and his wife Eve to a screening of the Kathryn Hepburn and Spencer Tracy film Keeper of the Flame (1942), Johnson was in a terrible, near death car accident that spared his passengers but left him needing a metal plate inserted in his head. Spencer Tracy was his co-star in a movie he was working on, and insisted that the film, A Guy Named Joe (1943), the first of five movies he made with Esther Williams, be held up until Johnson recovered at the Wynn's home.
The auto crash and resulting scar that later showed up in some of his films seemed to enhance his career. Now exempt from military service in World War II, he received a seven-year contract with MGM Studios, where he made musicals with the most popular stars of the day. Johnson, a great dancer and charming singer, was also a very good actor equally at home in musical comedy or serious drama. He became a favorite of teenagers, then called Bobby-Soxers, who inundated his studio with thousands of their fan letters and mounds of homemade cookies.
Even though he could sing well, he was often called "The Voiceless Sinatra," stemming from his similar popularity among the same young crowd. In 1944, he first received top billing in Two Girls and a Sailor 1944), opposite June Allyson, with whom he made five films. For two years, Johnson was rated one of Hollywood's top ten box-office draws, placing second in 1945 and third in 1946.
On January 27, 1947, Johnson married Eve Lynn Abbot, who on that very day had divorced his best friend, actor Keenan Wynn. Van's movie released that year, The Romance of Rosy Ridge, was co-star Janet Leigh's film debut. A year later, the Johnsons produced a daughter, who years later stated in a tabloid, The Globe, that her father was a cold and disinterested parent. The Johnsons separated in 1960 and divorced in 1968. Johnson's stepson, Ned Wynn, proclaimed that Van left Eve for a male dancer during a stage production of The Music Man. In 1999, a few years before her death, Eve told the press that their marriage had been arranged by MGM to cover up his sexual orientation.
In the 1950's, Johnson declared that he had been a movie star and now wanted to be an actor, stating, "…a man just gets to his beautiful period when he is forty."
Van's problem was that, although he was a bit heavier and had acquired a more worried expression on his face, he did not look much different at forty than at twenty, and his boyishness hurt his work at sustaining belief in portrayals of maturity, even though he gave great performances, such as in The Caine Mutiny (1954), in which his scar showed prominently. Johnson made numerous television appearances throughout the 1960's and 1970's. Some of hisvery successful other films include Wives & Lovers (1963) and Yours, Mine, and Ours (1968). In 1985, Van made a comeback touring with the Broadway musical La Cage Aux Folles, and appeared in the Woody Allen film, The Purple Rose of Cairo.
In 2006, Mr. Johnson turned 90 years old, his red locks a bit gray, but sporting his trademark red socks.
Van Johnson died of natural causes on Friday, December 12, 2008.s
The Stars by Richard Schickel