Friday, December 12, 2008

Van Johnson (1916-2008)

Film and stage actor Van Johnson has died at the age of 92. He had recently been living in an assisted living facility in Nyack, NY. Johnson forged an indelible image as an easy-going, sandy haired presence in many popular films of the 1940s and 50s, and later carved out a niche in regional, Broadway and London theatre scenes. His Broadway career included Too Many Girls and the original production of Pal Joey, where he understudied Gene Kelly in the title role. Following in Kelly's footsteps, he went out to the West Coast and his film career soon began with an uncredited bit in the film adaptation of Too Many Girls, which starred his good friend Lucille Ball (who was instrumental in jumpstarting his acting in Hollywood).

Signing with MGM, he became part of the studio system, rising in the ranks as a matinee idol in diverse projects such as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, State of the Union, In the Good Old Summertime, The Caine Mutiny, Brigadoon, The End of the Affair and The Last Time I Saw Paris. His costars included Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Kathryn Grayson, Humphrey Bogart, Jose Ferrer, Elizabeth Taylor, June Allyson, Judy Garland, Deborah Kerr, Gene Kelly, Angela Lansbury, Esther Williams, Tony Martin, Janet Leigh, Clark Gable and Walter Pidgeon, to name a few.

When his film career waned toward the late 50s/early 60s, Johnson went to London where he starred as Professor Harold Hill in the original West End company of The Music Man (while we're on it, the Laserlight CD release of the London cast album is decidedly incomplete; thankfully I have the complete HMV recording). Johnson's Broadway comeback in the 1960s included the shortlived Come on Strong with Carroll Baker and the one-performance wonder Mating Dance, as well as replacing John Cullum as Dr. Mark Bruckner in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. Johnson would go onto star in regional and stock productions, with a final Broadway turn as a replacement Georges in the original production of La Cage Aux Folles. He also made several notable appearances on television, including the musical episode of "The Love Boat" with Ann Miller, Ethel Merman, Della Reese and Carol Channing as well as several guest bits on "Murder, She Wrote." Johnson is survived by his daughter Schuyler (from marriage to Eve Abbott Wynn).

1 comment:

SarahB said...

He was great on Murder, She Wrote - one episode he was partnered with June Alyson. I loved him in "State of the Union."