John Forsythe: Actor who played Blake Carrington in 'Dynasty' and the elusive Charlie in 'Charlie's Angels'
Thursday 08 April 2010
It is ironic that an actor who so distinguished himself in films and on Broadway before winning fame as Blake Carrington on television in Dynasty should perhaps still be best remembered for a role in which viewers never even saw him, that of the elusive Charlie in Charlie's Angels, whose disembodied voice on a phone line gave his girl detectives their new assignment each week.
During the show's five-year run, the identity of Charlie was one of TV's most closely guarded secrets. John Forsythe's name was deliberately left off the credits and even the other cast members were not told who was behind the voice. In spite of the anonymity, Forsythe loved the job – it was quick and paid well. He enjoyed joking that he could drive to the studio still in his pyjamas, say the lines, and then go back home to bed.
He was born John Lincoln Freund in New Jersey in 1918, the son of a Wall Street stockbroker. At school his all-consuming passion was for sport; playing it and reading about it. By the age of 10 he could reel off the names and records of football stars and recite final scores of games played before he was even born. This retentive memory was a gift that came in handy when he became an actor and had to learn reams of dialogue.
After graduating from high school, he was hired as a stadium announcer for the Brooklyn Dodgers. That led him to join the NBC radio staff as a news broadcaster and to try his hand at a little radio acting. After only a few performances he was hopelessly infected with the acting bug, despite objections about entering the profession from his father.
John Forsythe (as he became) got his first real stage experience with a struggling Shakespeare group where actors were expected to pitch in. He often found himself driving the truck which transported the players from town to town. Most of the bookings were in schools, which often didn't make for the best audiences. Forsythe remembered being hit in the eye by a ball of putty from one disagreeable pupil as the curtain closed.
The school tours over, he returned to New York and the soul-destroying round of casting agents and Broadway producers. To pay his rent, Forsythe worked as a waiter at Schrafft's restaurant on Broadway alongside a fellow struggling actor, Kirk Douglas. Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, Forsythe landed his first big Broadway break, appearing with the Hollywood star José Ferrer in Vickie. Although not a huge hit, it did hang around long enough for a talent scout from Warner Bros to spot Forsythe's good looks and star potential and sign him up to appear in the Cary Grant film Destination Tokyo (1943).
Hardly had he finished the picture when he was drafted into wartime military service with the Army Air Corps. Because of his previous acting experience Forsythe was commandeered for the propaganda musical Winged Victory, which successfully toured the country. More personally satisfying for Forsythe, however, was a job at an army hospital working with soldiers who through psychological reasons had lost their power of speech. Forsythe was to call his time there "one of the most rewarding periods of my life".
After the war, Forsythe asked for a release from his Warners contract in order to return to Broadway and pursue a serious career as a stage actor. In 1947 he was chosen by Elia Kazan to star in Arthur Miller's first play All My Sons. Forsythe also took the opportunity to enrol in Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio, where he made the aquaintance of writers, actors and directors who were to invigorate the theatre and cinema over the next 10 years.
Despite his theatrical aspirations, this was the era of live television drama emanating from New York and Forsythe became a familiar face to home audiences, winning the TV Guide Best Actor award for 1951 and 1952. Henceforth Forsythe divided his time between theatre and TV drama. In 1950 he toured with the road company of Mister Roberts before taking over Henry Fonda's part on Broadway. After his triumph in The Teahouse of the August Moon, which ran for two years, Forsythe was bombarded with film offers and accepted a role in Alfred Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry (1955). It was an experience that persuaded him to settle permanently in Hollywood.
Forsythe won even greater exposure with his first headlining television series Bachelor Father, which ran from 1957 until 1962 and in which his romantic pursuits were invariably thwarted by his responsibilities as guardian to a teenage niece. The show featured the 16-year-old actress Linda Evans, who later played Forsythe's wife in Dynasty.
The success of Bachelor Father led to Forsythe being somewhat typecast as debonair paternal figures in several other long-running series. One of the most affable and best liked stars in Hollywood, Forsythe was generally cast as decent, upstanding men. But in 1979 he shocked not only his fans but his family and friends, too, by playing a kinky and sadistic judge in the Al Pacino courtroom drama And Justice For All. It was a radical departure but the gamble paid off when a TV executive saw it and thought Forsythe would be perfect to play the ruthless, risk-taking oil millionaire Blake Carrington in a new prime-time soap opera called Dynasty.
Forsythe almost missed out on the part due to poor health. Despite having given up smoking back in the Fifties, rarely drinking and eating a diet of mostly chicken, fish and vegetables, in addition to jogging 12 miles a week and playing tennis, he underwent a five-hour quadruple heart bypass operation in 1979. The ordeal forced him to re-evaluate his life and where he was going. The role of Blake Carrington proved to the perfect tonic, giving not only his career but also Forsythe himself a new lease of life.
Set in Denver, Dynasty was set up as a rival to Dallas, the soap opera about Texas oil barons, and Blake was the show's JR figure. "He is dynamic, ruthless, manipulative, all the things I'm not," Forsythe said. "That's why I took the part. I couldn't resist the challenge." Yet he almost quit the show in protest that Blake was too much of a cartoon villain. The actor wanted his character to have more humanity to him, not be your average stereotypical bad guy. Forsythe won the day and found himself in the limelight as never before, winning two Golden Globes and becoming, at the age of 64, one of TV's oldest sex symbols.
In keeping with his urbane image on screen, Forsythe was a man of classical tastes, with an extensive private library and a large art and antiques collection. He was also a keen birdwatcher and spokesman and sponsor of the World Wildlife Fund. His second marriage, to the former musical comedy actress Julie Warren, was among Hollywood's longest lasting at 50 years, ending only with her death in 1994. In 2002 more than a few eyebrows were raised when Forsythe remarried at the age of 84, to the 62-year-old Beverly Hills businesswoman Nicole Carter.
In recent years Forsythe's career had slowed down, the only highlights being the reprising of his two most famous roles, as Blake Carrington in a 1991 Dynasty reunion and as the voice of Charlie in both Charlie's Angels movies.
John Lincoln Freund (John Forsythe), actor: born Penn's Grove, New Jersey 29 January 1918; married 1938 Parker McCormick (divorced 1940; one son), 1943 Julie Warren (died 1994; two daughters), 2002 Nicole Carter; died Santa Ynez, California 1 April 2010.
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