Johnny Sands

Fifties film actor

Elbert John Harp (Johnny Sands), actor: born Lorenzo, Texas 29 April 1927; married 1948 Donella Short (one son, one daughter); died Ainaloa, Hawaii 30 December 2003.

In the 1950s Johnny Sands was hailed as the new James Dean. He had a penchant for playing the grave, often misunderstood, lieutenant, boyfriend or beau in such movies as The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), in which he was Shirley Temple's boyfriend, and Target Unknown (1951), as Sergeant Crawford.

He often rose above second lead, taking top billing in Lew Landers's fantasy adventure Aladdin and His Lamp (1952), co-starring with the Fifties sex-pots Patricia Medina, Noreen Nash and Suzan Ball.

Sands was already a screen veteran by the age of 22. Not all of his films were successes at the box office. However, his performance had been critically acclaimed in every one. "Just as I was starting to go places some nut had the idea of changing my name [to Johnny Spencer]," he said:

I'd struggled in some kinda dross even though my own performances had been singled out as being impressive by columnist Hedda Hopper and Movie Land magazine. So that's my advice really to budding actors today, listen not to agents but to that voice inside your head - it's normally saying the right thing.

Half Cherokee, Sands was born Elbert Harp Jnr in 1927 in Lorenzo, Texas. He arrived in California at the age of 14 and took various jobs including working as a lifeguard on Venice Beach (he told bosses he was 18). Sands then studied briefly at the Pasadena Playhouse: "My brothers signed up with the forces," he said. "I did eventually, but at first I thought I'd act a bit and things worked out." He was spotted not on stage, however, but at the beach and when asked if he had considered changing his name decided upon Johnny Sands. "Because he loved the ocean and everything about beach life," said his daughter.

So billed, he worked at various studios before signing briefly to Twentieth Century-Fox. He made his screen début in Orson Welles's vastly underrated thriller The Stranger (1946), followed by Till the End of Time (1946), about three former GIs who struggle as they try to adjust to civilian life.

While he took his acting seriously, Sands's frustration with his existence on-screen often resulted in rather wild behaviour off-screen. By the early 1950s he had hooked up with Sal Mineo, James Dean and Vampira. Vampira had been blamed for Dean's addiction to LSD, and Mineo was something of a drunkard. But Sands caused directors and his studio head little heartache. "Hollywood publicity writers did everything in their power to make you a star with a squeaky-clean image," he said:

Anything untoward was picked up and acted upon. Dates were chosen, restaurants booked and paid for, and photographers tipped off, nothing was left to chance - the studios owned every part of you seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

He made featured appearances in low-budget westerns, such as Two Flags West (1950), war dramas including Sabre Jet (1953) and critically acclaimed B movies such as Joseph Losey's The Lawless (1950). He also cropped up in Perry Mason.

As the career waned Johnny Sands decided his life needed a change of direction, so he entered the Marine Corps. Upon retirement he operated a real-estate business, retiring with his wife to Hawaii.

Austin Mutti-Mewse

Comments