Family & Companions
"I don't know whether I'm an actor or not because I've never been sure what acting is. I've always played different types, but it seems to me they turn out to be just myself every time."
--John Hodiak, quoted by James Robert Parrish in Hollywood Players: The Forties
If John Hodiak felt all of his roles were variations on himself, it may be because he was so easily cast as a time-honored type. He was one of the screen's quintessential workingmen, with a rugged physique, strong features and a head made for hard hats. Even when the studios dressed him up to play more refined characters, he always seemed ready to shed his suit jacket, roll up his sleeves and get down to work. It was an image that stood him in good stead in Lifeboat (1944), Alfred Hitchcock's microcosm of wartime tensions. As a ship's oiler among the survivors of an ocean liner sunk by the Nazis, he's a representative of the working class, striking sparks off of refined news hen Tallulah Bankhead until the two fall in love.
The film helped propel him to stardom during the war years, when most of the studios' established male stars were off in the armed services. Hodiak suffered from hypertension, which brought him a 4F rating and put him in position to serve as a surrogate for the likes of Clark Gable, Robert Taylor and Tyrone Power. But though that period brought him some of his best roles, they weren't enough to sustain his popularity when the war ended and the studios got their leading men back.
Hodiak was born in Pittsburgh to a Ukranian father and Polish mother who moved the family to the Polish suburb of Detroit when he was eight. At an early age, he fell in love with the movies and determined to become an actor. He appeared in church plays performed in Hungarian and Polish, sang in the choir, learned the clarinet and played baseball so well he was invited to join one of the St. Louis Cardinals' farm teams. He turned that down to pursue acting. After playing small roles at a Detroit radio station, he moved to Chicago, where he created the role of L'il Abner for the radio version of the popular comic strip. When his radio work caught the ear of an MGM talent scout, he did a screen test (with African-American actor Canada Lee), followed by a long-term contract.
Like most young actors, he started with bit parts, making his screen debut in A Stranger in Town (1943), starring Frank Morgan as a vacationing Supreme Court justice who helps lawyer Richard Carlson fight a small-town political machine. Hodiak was considered for one of the leads in A Guy Named Joe (1943) when Van Johnson was badly injured in a car accident three weeks into shooting, but the film's star, Spencer Tracy, demanded production be held up until Johnson was better. After similar walk-ons in the Red Skelton comedy I Dood Itand Ann Sothern's Swing Shift Maisie (both 1943), Hodiak got his big break. Hitchcock had asked to view his screen test because he was considering Lee for a role in Lifeboat. He not only hired Lee, but also liked Hodiak enough to cast him as John Kovac. The loan-out to 20th Century-Fox brought Hodiak solid reviews and quite naturally led to better roles.
When he returned to MGM, he was promoted to leading man in one of the Maisie films, playing a blackjack dealer in Maisie Goes to Reno, then got to co-star with Lana Turner in the military comedy Marriage Is a Private Affair (both 1944). He also took Turner on a few studio-arranged dates. In fact, he was one of the few men to say no to the blonde bombshell, much to her displeasure.
Hodiak had made a good impression on the honchos at Fox, who borrowed him for two films in a row. First, he played a soldier who falls for the daughter (Anne Baxter) of a family offering Sunday Dinner for a Soldier (1944). Fox then cast him in his favorite film, A Bell for Adano (1945). In a role played by Fredric March on stage, he starred as an American major bringing democracy to a small Italian town and falling for local peasant girl Gene Tierney. As an added bonus, he ran into Baxter at a party that year. The two had rarely socialized making their first film together, but at the party something clicked. They married in 1946.
At that point in his career, MGM's top stars -- including Clark Gable, James Stewart and Robert Taylor -- came home from the war and back to their position as the studio's leading men. Suddenly Hodiak was only playing leads in low budget films or pictures like the Judy Garland musical The Harvey Girls (1946) that didn't require a major male star. To add insult to injury, the duet he filmed with Garland to "My Intuition" was cut before release, robbing him of his one chance to sing on screen. He and Lucille Ball co-starred as a pair of con artists in the romantic film noir Two Smart People (1946), directed by Jules Dassin, then he finally got top billing as a gangster trying to seduce George Murphy's wife in The Arnelo Affair (1947), written and directed by Arch Oboler.
Hodiak was top-billed in his next two films, Desert Fury and Love from a Stranger (both 1947), both made on loan-out, but he started moving down the credits list after that. His next assignment was a decidedly secondary role in the Clark Gable-Lana Turner romance Homecoming (1948). Although MGM borrowed Baxter for the film, they had few scenes together. She's the wife surgeon Gable leaves behind while romancing nurse Turner during World War II service, with Hodiak as a medical colleague who early on calls Gable out over his lack of concern for the poor. Even though Hodiak was part of a strong ensemble in Battleground (1949), a surprise hit about the Battle of the Bulge, top billing went to Van Johnson. After that he appeared in support of Robert Taylor in the Western Ambush (1949), Gable in the wartime drama Command Decision (1948) and another Western, Across the Wide Missouri (1951), and Hedy Lamarr in the film noir A Lady Without Passport (1950). At least he got to share some love scenes with Lamarr, who played an illegal alien who helps Immigration inspector Hodiak fight a human trafficking ring.
Seeing the writing on the wall, Hodiak asked out of his MGM contract in 1951. As a freelance his billing got better at first, even if the budgets were lower. He took top billing in the Korean War drama Battle Zone (1952), vying with fellow war photographer Stephen McNally for the love of Italian beauty Linda Christian. But when subsequent assignments didn't further his career, he decided to try the stage. He made his Broadway debut in 1951 as the town sheriff fighting to maintain his integrity in Horton Foote's The Chase and won solid reviews and a Donaldson Award. After a few more disappointing films, he returned for what many consider his best performance, as the sailor on trial in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. He more than held his own in a 1954 production co-starring Henry Fonda and Lloyd Nolan (as Captain Queeg) and hoped to repeat the role in the 1954 screen version. Instead, producer Stanley Kramer cast his old MGM co-star Johnson. His move to Broadway had earlier wreaked havoc with his marriage, leading to a divorce from Baxter in 1953.
Nonetheless, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial raised his stock in Hollywood. Suddenly he had his choice of offers, albeit still supporting roles. But he landed a powerful one as the district attorney prosecuting a racially charged rape-murder case in Trial (1955), starring Glenn Ford and Dorothy McGuire. He then played Air Force doctor Guy Madison's commanding officer in On the Threshold of Space (1956). The film was mostly finished, and he was shaving before going to the studio for retakes when he suffered a coronary thrombosis, dying instantly, the morning of October 19, 1955. He was only 41 and left behind a still sympathetic Baxter, their daughter, future actress Katrina Hodiak, and a legacy of solid performances that gave a voice to hard-working everyday guys.
TCM's Summer Under the Stars pays tribute to John Hodiak with 14 films -- A Stranger in Town (1943), Lifeboat (1944), Maisie Goes to Reno (1944), Marriage Is a Private Affair (1944), A Bell for Adano (1945), The Harvey Girls (1946), Two Smart People (1946), The Arnelo Affair (1947), Homecoming (1948), Ambush (1950), Battleground (1949), A Lady Without Passport (1950), Across the Wide Missouri (1951) and Battle Zone (1952).