John Phillip Law: Actor best known for 'Barbarella'

Saturday 17 May 2008 00:00 BST

An imposingly tall, blond actor, John Phillip Law made his strongest impression on screen in the outlandish science-fiction fantasy Barbarella (1968), playing the handsome blind angel who travels with the space-age heroine (Jane Fonda) through vast galaxies to find the panacea that will enable him to fly again. Despite notable roles in several other films, he never quite broke through as a major star, and spent many years starring in Italian-made action films and straight-to-video fare.

Born in Los Angeles in 1937, he was the son of John Law, the County's Deputy Sheriff and an actress, Phyllis Sallee, who had appeared on Broadway. He worked as an extra as a child, and can be seen in the non-speaking role of a courtroom page in John Sturges's The Magnificent Yankee (1950), a biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes. His interest in acting grew at the University of Hawaii, where he studied drama and appeared in several college productions.

After graduation, Law moved to New York, where he had a small role in Garson Kanin's comedy Come On Strong (1962). He then studied with Elia Kazan's Lincoln Center Repertory Theatre, before moving to Italy, where he acted in several films, one of which was seen by the director Norman Jewison, who thought Law perfect for the role of a gauche young Soviet sailor in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966), a Cold War comedy which received several Oscar nominations.

After returning to Italy to star with Lee Van Cleef in a spaghetti western, Death Rides a Horse (1967), Law was cast in an overheated melodrama set in Louisiana, Hurry Sundown (1967), where he first met Fonda, with whom he went on to star in Barbarella. In Roger Vadim's extravagant fantasy, Law was a strikingly photogenic presence as the blind angel who has lost the use of his huge, feathery wings. Though the script took seven writers, the film was basically an excuse to have Fonda, who had recently replaced Brigitte Bardot as Vadim's wife and muse, undress as often as possible while journeying through the galaxies with her "guardian angel" (Law). Critics tended to be dismissive, but the film was a worldwide hit and quickly established itself as a cult movie. Mario Bava's similarly fantastic Danger: Diabolik (1968), displayed Law garbed in a futuristic gold-lamé costume as a super-thief. Though he once stated "I've had more kicks out of playing far-out things", Law tried to escape his image as a male pin-up by taking more demanding roles.

Skidoo (1968) was a star-studded comic misfire, but John Flynn's The Sergeant (1968) was an early attempt to deal with homosexuality in a mainstream movie. As the young private who becomes an obsession of Master Sergeant Albert Callan (Rod Steiger, at his most unsubtle), Law had to contend with an under-written role. Though Callan makes the private his orderly room clerk to keep him close, and consistently denies him passes to visit his girlfriend, the young man assumes it is purely because the sergeant is lonely. The New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote: "As played by John Phillip Law, the private is remarkably dense, and – when not being dense – he is so hostile that it would seem the sergeant would have to be psychotic to run after him with such boozy abandon."

During the Sixties, Law and his brother Tom, who had been road manager for the folksingers Peter, Paul and Mary, lived in a mansion in Los Feliz, Los Angeles, and rented rooms to young singers and artists trying to get established, including Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol. In 1971 John Phillip Law was seen in one of his better roles, playing the German First World War air ace Baron Manfred Von Richtofen in Roger Corman's The Red Baron. The flying scenes proved more effective than those on the ground – when previewed, a nude love scene brought laughter instead of the hushed excitement expected and was promptly deleted.

In an adaptation of Jacqueline Susann's The Love Machine (1971), Law revealed that he did not have the commanding presence required to play the ruthlessly ambitious television newsreader at the centre of the tale. He was happier as the dashing adventurer Sinbad in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), great fun in which he contended with a pleasing assortment of colourful adversaries. It was his last international hit, though he continued to act for the rest of his life.

Law was a well-known figure on the Hollywood social scene – he was a regular guest of Hugh Hefner at his legendary parties at the Playboy Mansion – and he also remained a popular name with action fans for his leading roles in such films (often released straight to video) as American Commandos (1986), Combat Force (1987) and Space Mutiny (1988). On television, he was a guest star in Love Boat (1982) and Murder, She Wrote (1985), and in the mid-1990s had a recurring role on the daytime television soap opera The Young and the Restless.

In 2001 he was in CQ, Roman Coppola's directorial début which paid homage to the Italian spy and fantasy films in which Law had once appeared.

Tom Vallance

John Phillip Law, actor: born Los Angeles 7 September 1937; married Shawn Ryan (one daughter; marriage dissolved); died Los Angeles 13 May 2008.

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