Obituary: John Archer

Tom Vallance
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:51

JOHN ARCHER starred in the first Hollywood film to deal seriously with space travel, Destination Moon, one of more than 50 films in which he appeared.

The six-foot, curly haired actor also had a leading role in The Day Before Spring, an early stage musical by the My Fair Lady team of Lerner and Loewe, and a prolific career in radio. In 1944 he took over from Orson Welles as radio's crime-fighter, the Shadow, starting each show with the introduction, "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?", then answering his own question with, "The Shadow knows". At the time he was already a radio veteran, and he would return to radio throughout his career to support his work on film, stage and television.

Born Ralph Bowen in Osceola, Nebraska, in 1915, he was initially interested in the technical side of film-making, and studied cinematography at the University of Southern California, but when he graduated during the Depression, jobs in the entertainment industry were scarce. He took work as a pest exterminator, then was hired as an assitant to an aerial photographer in Los Angeles.

His break into acting came with an incident which itself could have come from a movie. He was lunching in a Hollywood restaurant when he was spotted by the director and drama coach Ben Bard. Bard had just boasted to one of his students, Jack Carson, that he could make an actor of anyone and, challenged, approached the young Nebraskan and offered him a scholarship to his acting school.

"I never for a moment considered acting," said Archer later. "I was 22 years old and making $60 a month in a job that was going nowhere, so I gave it a try. Ninety days later I was doing a walk-on in a `Charlie McCarthy' movie, Letter of Introduction. Then I had bit parts in the serials Flaming Frontier with Johnny Mack Brown - we shot an episode a day, practically - and Dick Tracy Returns. Within six months, I was making a living." He was also learning his craft in stage productions at the Ben Bard Playhouse, where he worked alongside other newcomers including Alan Ladd, Turhan Bey and Jack Carson ("who became my dearest friend for many years").

In these early roles, he was billed as Ralph Bowman, but a radio programme produced by the movie pioneer Jesse Lasky changed that. A talent contest called Gateway To Hollywood, the 13-week series was listened to by film fans from coast to coast, with the winners to be given the names "John Archer" and "Alice Eden" plus a contract with RKO. (Linda Darnell was among those elimated during the weekly heats.)

Bowman won ("I went from being a Bowman to an Archer!") and he and "Alice Eden" (formerly Rowena Cook) were cast in RKO's Career (1939), a small- town drama starring Anne Shirley. Variety said, "In Archer, Gateway to Hollywood has uncovered a lad with possibilities for development. He's a smooth looker, of clean-cut face and build, and with a bit of grooming has a chance to be heard from. With Miss Eden, it's another thing."

Though RKO did not keep him under contract, Archer had a spell of steady work in B movies, including City of Missing Girls (1941), The People vs Dr Kildare (1941) and two horror films, King of the Zombies (1941) and Bowery At Midnight (1942), both made at the "Poverty Row" studio, Monogram. "I enjoyed Monogram," said Archer, "They were fast B pictures, but the people were all good. The techniques were the same as the larger studios, except that they would shoot a lot faster with less rehearsal. They'd shoot a whole picture in a week."

In Bowery at Midnight he played the student victim of a university professor (secretly a master criminal) played by Bela Lugosi, and Archer later said of the legendary horror star, "He wasn't around much till you got on the set. Maybe he was a shy man, I don't know - I have nothing derogatory to say about the guy except that he was a loner."

In 1941 Archer had married Marjorie Lord, his co-star in a stage production of The Male Animal. They were to have two children - their daughter, born in 1947, is Anne Archer, who won an Oscar nomination for her role in Fatal Attraction.

Archer and Lord appeared together in Sherlock Holmes In Washington (1943). "I enjoyed that movie, even though the part was minimal," he said. "Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce were both consummate pros and a pleasure and a delight to work with. They were very helpful, and each had a subtle sense of humour."

Archer moved into big-budget films when signed to a contract by 20th Century-Fox, but his roles in such productions as Guadalcanal Diary (1943) and Hello, 'Frisco, Hello (1943) were small ones. He said,

I realised that all the young actors out of New York, like Vincent Price and Michael O'Shea, were getting the good parts and more money. That's when I elected to go to New York. I thought I would give up the name of John Archer because it might have an onus, being a contest winner. That's when the radio people said, "No, no - the John Archer name still means something. It still has a little marquee value because it's had so much exploitation."

Archer quickly became one of radio's most familiar voices, his deep voice being heard both as as announcer and as actor on such shows as the soap opera Amanda of Honeymoon Hill and the crime series The FBI In Peace and War. In September 1944 he took over the role of Lamont Cranston, alias `The Shadow', in an episode called The Ebony Goddess and he played the part in 30 episodes until April 1945. He kept none of the scripts, which are now collectors' items. "As we finished each page of a radio script, we dropped it on the floor. Who knew that pile of litter would be valuable some day?"

Archer made his Broadway debut in a short-lived comedy, The Odds On Mrs Oakley (1944). Though the play was roundly panned, the New York Post stated, "John Archer, a newcomer, indicated that he might be a personable enough leading man" while the World-Telegram called him "an attractive juvenile". He received further good reviews for his next play, One Man Show (1945), in which he was the young man who woos Constance Cummings away from an unhealthy devotion to her father. "John Archer has a winning way with him," wrote Robert Garland in the Journal-American, and the New York Sun found him "direct and believable".

After a praised performance in Elliot Nugent's anti-isolationist play A Place Of Our Own (1945), Archer accepted a role in the Lerner-Loewe musical, The Day Before Spring in which, though not a singer, he was given one solo, "Where's The Wife?", which he handled capably. "The show was a semi-success," said Archer later. "It was a departure for me, but I'm sorry I took it really, because I had to turn down the lead opposite Betty Field in Dream Girl, which turned out to be a big hit."

When The Day Before Spring closed, Archer was offered a contract by Universal. "I sat there making a lot of money for a year and they didn't use me, except to loan me out to Walter Wanger for a picture with Susan Hayward and Robert Cummings called The Lost Moment." The actor was particularly disappointed to lose the leading role in The Egg and I with Claudette Colbert. "Jean Yarborough directed a test of me for The Egg and I, then Fred MacMurray became available so that stopped all conversation on the subject of me being in it!"

He returned to Broadway in a hit period comedy about suffragettes, Strange Bedfellows (1948), after which he went back to Los Angeles and "freelanced ever since". At Warners, he was given roles in two fine films directed by Raoul Walsh, Colorado Territory (1949), a western remake of the same director's High Sierra, and the thriller White Heat (1949) in which he played an FBI agent tracking the gangster Cody Jarrett (James Cagney).

The landmark space film Destination Moon (1950) produced by George Pal gave him star billing, for the first time, as an aircraft industrialist who becomes one of four men who fly to the Moon in an atomic rocket. "The spaceship set was a brilliant mechanism," stated Archer.

They had this set that would turn over (like a rolling drum). It was a fascinating set to be in. If you were required to walk on the wall, the set would be turning so that the wall was under your feet. We were just doing what we had to do, and the set was rotating. And we reacted as we went along. For scenes where we were floating around weightless in the cabin, they had tracks up in the ceiling area, and motors would just move us out to wherever it was we were supposed to be.

In one of the most exciting moments, Archer's character had to propel himself into space to rescue a colleague who had lost contact with the ship and floated off. "All that was done on a stage, with wires. That scene had a great, gorgeous backround of brilliant stars deigned by Chesley Bonestell, who had helped design the Golden Gate Bridge. It was just breathtaking, the sight of it."

The film won the 1950 Oscar for special effects, and many years later, Archer would still talk of it with pride. "I loved the movie and I knew that it was possible someday to get to the Moon. Then in 1969 when a man finally did walk on the Moon, I was amazed and awestruck at how little Destination Moon differed from the actual landing."

Archer made his final Broadway appearance in 1950, playing leading man to Edna Best in Captain Brassbound's Conversion. "I always enjoyed the theatre," confessed the actor recently. "Any actor who has worked in the theatre successfully will say there's nothing like it. There's excitement because you are there, and you just feel when the audience is with you and when they are not. I never cared much for live television because of the lack of rehearsal time, but I enjoyed radio tremendously."

Archer's subsequent films included High Lonesome (1950), Best of the Badmen (1951, one of his favourite roles, as a villain), The Big Trees (1952), Rock Around The Clock (1956) and Blue Hawaii (1963) with Elvis Presley. "You wouldn't think so," commented Archer, "but Elvis Presley was a very profound young man in those days. He was a very gentle man, and I enjoyed working with him."

Archer's television work included roles in Science-Fiction Theatre, Bonanza, The Twilight Zone (in the classic episode Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up), and the mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man, but in 1968 he went into the trucking business with his brother. "I didn't give show business up, it gave me up. I had a nice career and I felt that I should move along, though I still miss acting." In recent years, he had been a regular attendee at radio conventions, and just four years ago I saw him perform an episode from The Shadow at a convention in New Jersey.

Divorced from Lord in 1953, he dated the actress Mari Blanchard for a while, but in 1956 married the radio actress Ann Leddy, who survives him. "I've enjoyed my career," he stated recently, "though I maybe made some wrong decisions in accepting one play over another. But I've been successful, and first things come first, and that is to take care of yourself and your family."

Ralph Bowen (John Archer), actor: born Osceola, Nebraska 8 May 1915; married 1941 Marjorie Lord (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1953), 1956 Ann Leddy (one son, one daughter); died Richmond, Washington 5 December 1999.

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