Family & Companions
A minor young lead in Hollywood films of the late 1940s and early 1950s, John Derek achieved greater fame as a photographer and director of cheesecake and softcore films featuring his famous wives, who included actresses Ursula Andress, Linda Evans and Bo Derek. His darkly handsome features earned him a contract with Columbia, but after substantial roles in "Knock On Any Door" (1948) and "All the King's Men" (1950), he faded into costume adventures. He shifted to still photography and direction in the late 1960s, helming salacious efforts with Andress and Evans before striking pay dirt with the younger, less experienced Derek. He directed her in a string of softcore films, including "Tarzan the Ape Man" (1981) and "Bolero" (1984), most of which were hits, despite being savaged by critics. After his death in 1998, Derek's penchant for exploiting the physical charms of his wives overshadowed his photography and early performances.
The son of silent movie actor-turned-director Lawson Harris, and his wife, bit player Dolores Johnson, he was born Derek Delevan Harris in Hollywood on Aug. 12, 1926. A handsome, athletic young man, he was discovered by David O. Selznick, who put him under contract at 20th Century Fox while he was still a teen. Billed as Dare Harris, he made his screen debut as an extra in the wartime weepie, "Since You Went Away" (1944), then vaulted to juvenile support as Shirley Temple's soldier boyfriend in "I'll Be Seeing You." Military service in World War II interrupted his film career, and after his return to civilian life, he signed with Columbia Pictures in 1948. Derek's first film for the studio was "Knock on Any Door" (1948), a crime thriller starring and produced by Humphrey Bogart and directed by Nicholas Ray. He made an immediate impression with audiences and critics as a poor street youth facing the death sentence for the murder of a police officer. His line of dialogue from the film - "Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse" - found an enduring place in the pop culture lexicon.
The popularity of the film led to Derek being cast as corrupt politico Broderick Crawford's adopted son in Robert Rossen's "All the King's Men" (1950). Derek's Tom Stark suffered mightily for his father's ambitions; he nearly destroyed his father's reputation after accidentally killing a woman in a drunken car accident, and then became paralyzed in a football game to help promote his family's fading wholesomeness. Though the film won three Academy Awards, it essentially served as the apex of Derek's Hollywood career. Despite such promise, Columbia made the ill-informed decision to mold the hunky actor into a swashbuckler in costume epics like "Rogues of Sherwood Forest" (1950) and "Mask of the Avenger" (1951).
Derek soon became disillusioned with the direction of his career, so he left Columbia in 1953 to freelance for various studios. He became a staple of B-grade Westerns and war films, none of which gave him much to do. A rare exception was Phil Karlson's "Scandal Sheet" (1952), a terrifically gritty drama penned by Samuel Fuller about a caddish reporter (Derek) who discovers that his editor (Broderick Crawford) is really a killer. His final efforts of note were that of Joshua, dashing brother to Moses (Charlton Heston) in Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" (1956) and Paul Newman's Arab friend, Taha, who died for his association with the Israeli settlers in "Exodus" (1960). Beyond that, there were roles on television, including a brief stint as a series regular on "Frontier Circus" (CBS, 1961-62), an offbeat mix of big top stunts and Western thrills, with Derek as the co-owner of a traveling carnival with Chill Wills. The show would be his last effort for a producer other than himself.
By the mid-1960s, Derek's interest had shifted behind the camera; first as a still photographer and later as a feature producer. His first effort in this regard, a racy potboiler called "Nightmare in the Sun" (1965), starred his second wife, Swiss-German actress Ursula Andress, as a femme fatale who plots with Derek's hitchhiker to murder her elderly husband (Arthur O'Connell). Co-starring such disparate talents as Robert Duvall, Aldo Ray and Sammy Davis, Jr. and co-directed by character actor Marc Lawrence, the film was supposed to feature Andress in a nude scene, but reportedly, Derek balked at the last minute. However, Derek shot a layout with Andress for an issue of Playboy the same year of the film's release, a tradition he would repeat with each successive, blonde bombshell spouse.
Derek made his debut as a solo director with "Once Before I Die" (1966), a ham-fisted war drama about a young soldier, played by ersatz pop star Rod Lauren, who attempts to lose his virginity with the fiancée (Andress) of a superior officer (Derek). It was met with limited interest, and Derek's marriage to Andress ended soon after. In 1968, he met and married actress Linda Evans, then a star of the popular TV Western "The Big Valley" (ABC, 1965-69), who became the star of his fourth film as director, "Childish Things" (1969), a bizarre parable about an alcoholic vet (Don Murray, who also wrote the script) who experiences a religious conversion after serving as a debt collector for the Mob. A flop upon its release, the film was reissued several times, once under the salacious title "Tale of the Cock" to generate interest from the grindhouse crowd. In 1971, Derek photographed Evans for Playboy.
In 1972, Derek met and fell in love with Mary Catherine Collins, a 16-year-old actress from California who was top-billed in his next film, a coming-of-age film called "Fantasies." So smitten with this younger version of Evans was Derek, he divorced his wife and relocated to Germany, where he married Collins - redubbed Bo Derek - on her 18th birthday to avoid charges of statutory rape. Derek became his new wife's manager, guiding her through a variety of ornamental roles in films like "Orca" (1979) before overseeing her transition to pop culture icon/lust object in Blake Edwards' comedy classic, "10" (1979). He also provided Edwards with several adult films stars for the film's comic orgy sequence, including Annette Haven, whom he directed in a pornographic film, "Love You" (1980). The following year, "Fantasies" saw an official release to capitalize on Bo Derek's skyrocketing popularity as the corn-rowed beach goddess of "10."
Never one to waste an opportunity to cash in on his wives, Derek returned to directing with "Tarzan the Ape Man" (1981), a lushly photographed but abysmally acted and written adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure, with wife Bo as a frequently unclad Jane and a seemingly unhinged Richard Harris as her explorer father. Met with near-universal derision, Bo Derek's physical charms helped to make the picture a success, but the same could not be said for their follow-up, "Bolero" (1984). An expensive historical piece with Bo as a virginal young woman pursuing carnal pleasure across the globe, it was carpet-bombed by critics, and audiences reacted to its countless softcore couplings with laughter rather than lust. Their final screen collaboration, "Ghosts Can't Do It" (1990), was a mind-bending comedy with Bo as a young widow whose deceased husband (Anthony Quinn) attempted to direct her to happiness. It was barely released to theaters and effectively ended Derek's career in feature filmmaking and Bo's streak as an in-demand sex object.
In subsequent years, Derek led a reclusive life on his ranch in central California, emerging only occasionally to oversee a photo shoot of Bo for Playboy. Despite appearing to trade-up younger versions of each consecutive wife, Derek remained committed to Bo for over 20 years. In 1995, he co-directed two suggestive music videos for country artist Shania Twain; one of the promo pieces for the 1995 single "Any Man of Mine" appeared to undergo some birthing pains, as its release was pushed back several times before its April release. On May 22, 1998, Derek succumbed to cardiovascular disease in Santa Maria, CA at the age of 71.
Director (Feature Film)
Cast (Feature Film)
Cinematography (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Music (Feature Film)
Costume-Wardrobe (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
First screen appearance (as extra), "Since You Went Away"
Screen acting debut in "I'll Be Seeing You"
First major acting role in "Knock on Any Door"
Appeared in "The Ten Commandments"
Co-starred in "Exodux"
First film as producer, "Nightmare in the Sun"
Feature directing debut, "Once Before I Die"; also acted and produced
First film as director of photography and director "Childish Things/Tale of the Cock" (released in 1969, re-released in 1972 as "Confessions of Tom Harris")
Screenwriting debut, "A Boy... A Girl"; also directed and served as cinematographer
First directed Bo Derek, "Fantasies"
Directed wife in "Bolero"
Final film, "Ghosts Can't Do It"