Van Johnson: Leading man in 1940s Hollywood who was known as the 'voiceless Sinatra'

During the Second World War, with many of its leading male actors serving in the forces, Hollywood found the need to develop new stars. Most studios promoted young, clean-cut, All-American youths such as Lon McCallister at Fox, Robert Hutton at Warners and Tom Drake at MGM. By far the most successful, though, was another MGM star, Van Johnson, who by 1945 had become second only to Bing Crosby in film popularity.

With his curly red hair, freckled complexion and an innocent "boy next door" quality, Johnson aroused the maternal instinct in mature fans and captivated the "bobby-soxers" of the era, who deluged the studio with 8,000 fanmail letters a week. They made his films – mainly escapist comedies and musicals – box-office hits, and earned Johnson the title "the voiceless Sinatra". This was not entirely accurate, since he proved in several films that he could carry a tune serviceably and in 1961 he starred on the West End stage in the musical The Music Man.

Of Swedish ancestry, he was born Charles Van Dell Johnson in Rhode Island in 1916, the son of a plumber who raised him after his wife abandoned them when Van was three. He played the violin at Rogers High School and took odd jobs to pay for singing and dancing lessons, though his father disapproved. After graduating in 1935, he became his father's book-keeper for nearly a year before moving to New York to try to fulfil his ambition to perform. His first stage appearance was in a revue, Entre Nous, which lasted for only four weeks in Greenwich Village. But his Broadway début, New Faces of 1936, was a hit.

A major break was being cast in the Rodgers and Hart musical Too Many Girls (1939), directed by George Abbott. Abbott cast him in the chorus and made him understudy to all three male stars, Desi Arnaz, Eddie Albert and Richard Kollmar. "When we were in rehearsal, every one of us was looking at Van," Albert said. "He had a charisma and a winning smile and every move he made was that of a great dancer." In the screen version, Johnson can be glimpsed as a member of the chorus. The film's female lead, Lucille Ball, was to become a lifelong friend.

In Abbott's next show, Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey (1940), Johnson was given some lines and a short dance with June Havoc and he also understudied Gene Kelly in the title role. His first film offer came from Warner Bros. After starring in a B-movie, Murder in the Big House (1942), he was dropped, but when Lucille Ball heard that he was about to leave Hollywood for New York she rang the head of casting at MGM and asked that he be given a screen test. Signed to a contract, he was given small roles in Somewhere I'll Find You (1942), with MGM's superstar, Clark Gable, and Madame Curie (1943) with Greer Garson, who said, "I've always thought of Van as a sort of big and burly Shirley Temple."

An admitted star-struck filmgoer, Johnson amused some while irritated others by running around with his autograph book. "If that boy annoys me once more," said Ingrid Bergman, "I'm going to scream."

It was the popular romantic fantasy A Guy Named Joe (1943) that proved a turning point in Johnson's career. The film starred Spencer Tracy (whom Johnson idolised) as Pete, a reckless pilot killed in action, whose spirit returns as guardian angel to a new pilot (Johnson). Tracy had been influential in getting Johnson cast, but mid-way through shooting, Johnson was driving his close friends Keenan and Evie Wynn to a film premiere when another car drove through a red light and hit them, sending Johnson through the windscreen. His near-fatal injuries included a split skull and a metal plate was later inserted.

When the studio chief Louis B. Mayer considered replacing Johnson with another contract player, Tracy threatened to walk out. The production was closed down for three months. Johnson would later state his eternal gratitude to Tracy. A Guy Named Joe was a beautifully crafted mixture of romance, pathos, comedy and tragedy, and it became a huge success, establishing Johnson as a new star.

That success was consolidated when the studio teamed him with another recent acquisition from Broadway, June Allyson, in a delightful musical, Two Girls and a Sailor (1944). Allyson was rapidly becoming MGM's resident girl-next-door and she and Johnson complemented each other beautifully. In Two Girls and a Sailor, Allyson and Gloria DeHaven played sisters who patrol New York streets at night asking lonely servicemen to join them at home for refreshments and music (all totally innocent in 1944). The film was a great success and Allyson became a lifelong friend. Johnson made five films with her and he made an equal number with MGM's swimming star Esther Williams, starting with Thrill of a Romance (1945).

Johnson was given his first major dramatic role when he played in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) as Ted W. Lawson, a flier who took part in the first bombing raid on Japan in 1942 and whose memoirs formed the basis for the movie. With Tracy in the cameo role of the mission's leader, Lt-Col James H. Doolittle, the film was a hit and Johnson's portrayal of the heroic fighter who lost a leg in action won praise from critics. However, MGM kept him mainly in light fare, including Weekend at the Waldorf (1945), Easy to Wed (1946) and Till The Clouds Roll By (1946).

His next film was High Barbaree (1947), a touching story of childhood romance with Allyson, then he co-starred with the newcomer Janet Leigh in The Romance of Rosy Ridge (1947). Leigh later said: "Over the years we did several pictures together and he was always a joy." Meanwhile, Johnson had married Evie Wynn. "Unfortunately, this didn't sit too well with many of his female fans," Leigh recalled. "The Romance of Rosy Ridge was the first film released after the marriage, and the box office receipts suffered.

Johnson's roles with MGM became more varied . He was convincing as a disillusioned but faithful aide to a political candidate in State of the Union (1948) with Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, and gave sterling performances in two 1949 war films, Command Decision, with Gable, and Battleground, a realistic enactment of the Battle of Bastogne in which he was top-billed as a wise-cracking GI who considers himself "inconvenienced" by the war. Directed expertly by William Wellman, Battleground was nominated for an Oscar as Best Film.

Lighter fare starring Johnson included The Bride Goes Wild (1948) with Allyson and In the Good Old Summertime (1949) with Judy Garland. "When the picture was over Mr Mayer called me into his office and said, 'What did you do? We came in on schedule,' " Johnson recalled. "Judy had a reputation for holding up production sometimes. Well, she never did it when I was with her. I just made her laugh. We came in on schedule because I made her giggle."

Many of Johnson's films in the early 1950s, including The Big Hangover (1950) with Elizabeth Taylor, were weak, and when Dore Schary became MGM's production chief he was not very interested in finding appropriate vehicles for contract stars such as Johnson and Allyson. Johnson's supposedly co-starring role in Brigadoon (1954) with Gene Kelly was really a supporting one. In the same year he was loaned to Columbia to support Humphrey Bogart in The Caine Mutiny, and won splendid reviews for his performance as the idealistic lieutenant.

In the UK he starred opposite Deborah Kerr in a version of Graham Green's The End of the Affair (1955) directed by Edward Dmytryk, who wrote: "Rarely have I seen two people of comparable skill and talent work together so effortlessly and with so little self-indulgence." When his MGM contract ended, Johnson was in two good films, a superior weepie, Miracle in the Rain (1956) and an intriguing thriller, 23 Paces to Baker Street (1956), in which he was a blind man whose acute hearing enables him to overhear a kidnapping being plotted in a pub.

In 1959 Johnson made a decision he later regretted. Having accepted the role of Elliott Ness in the television series The Untouchables, he was persuaded by Evie to ask for more money. The producers took Robert Stack instead and the series revitalised Stack's career. Johnson and his family moved to Switzerland that year, and he accepted several film roles in Europe. When Evie returned to the US, announcing their separation, Johnson stayed behind, and in 1961 he starred in the London production of The Music Man. Though he proved less vocally skilled than the show's original star, Robert Preston, he was likeably convincing as a beguiling con-man and audiences warmed to him.

He and Evie had reconciled shortly before the show opened, but they parted for good when Johnson began an affair with a male dancer in the show. On Broadway he starred with Carroll Baker in a short-lived play, Come On Strong (1962), then he started a nightclub tour that was interrupted when he was diagnosed with skin cancer. An operation for this proved successful. He returned to the screen in Wives and Lovers (1963), a comedy about a famous author who settles in suburbia with his wife (Janet Leigh), but film offers were sparse. He continued to work in dinner-theatres and took occasional television roles – like so many MGM stars he was a guest in Murder, She Wrote.

In 1968 he was finally divorced from Evie, whom he called "the Dragon Lady", in one of Hollywood's most acrimonious divorces. Evie claimed that she had been persuaded to marry him by MGM, who wanted to curb rumours about the star's sexual ambivalence. Evie, who was also Keenan Wynn's agent, stated: "Mayer decided that unless I married Van Johnson he wouldn't renew Keenan's contract." Johnson continued to make a good living acting in regional theatre in comedies and musicals, and he settled into a penthouse in Manhattan.

In 1980 he was on screen in The Killing of the President, a thriller about terrorism, and he was on Broadway in 1985 when he replaced Keith Michel as Georges in the hit musical La Cage Aux Folles. "It's really like a big, old-fashioned MGM musical," he said. "It picks you up, lets you down, makes you cry, makes you laugh..." During the run, he also appeared as a patrician 1930s film character in Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). His last film was Clowning Around (1992), in which a 13-year old Heath Ledger made his screen début. In recent years he led a reclusive life in Nyack, 25 miles north of New York City.

The veteran producer A.C. Lyles once said: "I knew them all – Cagney, Bogart, Hope, Crosby. And of all the celebrities I knew, no one enjoyed being a movie star more than Van Johnson."

Tom Vallance

Charles Van Dell Johnson, actor: born Newport, Rhode Island 25 August 1916; married 1947 Evie Wynn (née Abbott; one daughter); died Nyack, New York 12 December 2008.

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