Family & Companions
A freckled-faced boy-next-door, actor Van Johnson became a big star at MGM in the 1940s and 1950s when he came to Hollywood from the Broadway chorus. He cornered the market on genial guys who romanced nice girls like June Allyson and Esther Williams in comedies and musicals, which made him a top box office draw during the war and into post-war America. On occasion, he was given a chance to show some dramatic grit in war pictures like "Thirty Seconds over Tokyo" (1944) and "Battleground" (1949). Johnson's career faded in the early 1960s, though he remained active on television and theater until the early 1990s. Johnson's air of sympathetic concern, boyish energy and sometimes larger-than-life acting style ensured his enduring status as one of the most well-liked symbols of Hollywood's Golden Age.
Born Charles Van Johnson in Newport, RI on Aug. 25, 1916, he was raised by his father, a plumber named Charles Johnson, after his mother's alleged alcoholism led to divorce. A star-struck only child, Johnson was performing at local social clubs while in high school while helping to support his father through various odd jobs. At 19, he moved to New York to find work in the musical theater, and landed a job in the off-Broadway revue "Entre Nous" in 1935. Other stage credits soon followed before legendary director-producer George Abbott gave him his big break by hiring him as understudy to one of three male leads for his production of "Too Many Girls" in 1939. Johnson would eventually replace one of the actors, Richard Killmar, which gave him his Broadway debut. The following year, Abbott cast him again as a chorus boy and Gene Kelly's understudy in Rodgers and Hart's groundbreaking musical, "Pal J y."
Johnson made his film debut in the chorus of the screen adaptation of "Too Many Girls" (1940) starring Lucille Ball and a then unknown Broadway performer, Desi Arnaz, and, after a pit stop at Warner Bros., was signed by MGM. En route to a screening of the Katherine Hepburn film "Keeper of the Flame" (1942), Johnson was injured in a car accident and needed a metal plate inserted in his forehead. Being unable to serve in WWII turned out to be a big career break for the boyish young actor. Filling the gap left by more established stars that were in the military, Johnson became the go-to actor for amiably idealized, small-town leads and support in features. After replacing Lew Ayres in the continuation of the popular Dr. Kildare series as "Dr. Gillespie's New Assistant" (1942), he earned his true breakthrough in a pair of wartime dramas - "A Guy Named J " (1943) and "The Human Comedy" (1943). In the former, he was the inexperienced fighter pilot tutored by Spencer Tracy's ghostly flyboy, while "Comedy" cast him as the best pal of star Mickey Rooney.
With his earnest manner and youthful good looks, Johnson became a major teen favorite of his day. Because of such fans, Johnson, despite his very pleasant singing voice, acquired the nickname, 'the voiceless Sinatra.' He made the annual exhibitors' poll of top ten box-office stars in both 1945 and 1946, and over the next decade, made five films - each with two of MGM's most typically escapist stars, June Allyson and Esther Williams. His best films with Allyson included their first together, the peppy musical "Two Girls and a Sailor" (1944) and their last, the amusing mystery farce, "Remains to Be Seen" (1953). With Williams, he teamed for the decent comedy remake "Easy to Wed" (1946) and got big laughs when he campily imitated her ultra-femme swimming backstroke in "Easy to Love" (1953). Johnson also partnered Judy Garland for the fair but disappointing "In the Good Old Summertime" (1949) and stole the show as the sardonic second lead of the poor musical adaptation, "Brigadoon" (1954).
Though Johnson was largely perceived as a light musical lead, he was occasionally cast in more serious fare, including several fine war pictures and dramas, including the gripping "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" (1944), which cast him as real-life Navy pilot Lt. Ted Lawson, who participated in Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle's historic raid on Japan in 1942. One film, "Weekend at the Waldorf" (1945), even indirectly dramatized his injury, with Johnson as a soldier endangered by shrapnel near his heart. Johnson also played a major role in one of the finest of all WWII films, "Battleground" (1949), about an Allied platoon in the Battle of Bastogne, and "Go for Broke!" (1951), both for director and real-life veteran Robert Pirosh.
Sometimes, though, Johnson's attempts at more serious acting were hampered by his early screen persona. "State of the Union" (1948) emphasized Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, and "The Caine Mutiny" (1954) threw all the acting meat to Humphrey Bogart, Jose Ferrer and Fred MacMurray; leaving Johnson with routine heroics. As middle-age dawned, Johnson's features became heavier and acquired a slightly worried look, but he did well in offbeat entries while free-lancing. "The Bottom of the Bottle" (1956) was unabashed melodrama, but gave Johnson a complex role as an alcoholic. He also did very well as a blind detective in the fondly remembered "23 Paces to Baker Street" (1956) and he reteamed with Vera Miles from the latter for the British-made "Beyond This Place" (1959). Johnson was also a regular in homes during the Thanksgiving holidays, thanks to his turn as "The Pied Piper of Hamlin" (NBC, 1957), a musical TV-movie based on the p m by Robert Browning.
Films like "Kelly and Me" (1957), which teamed Johnson with a performing dog, did not help his film career, and feature film work since the 1960s was irregular. With his MGM contract now expired, he freelanced for other studios, working frequently in nightclubs and musicals; most notably in London productions of "The Music Man" (1961) and "Come on Strong" in Broadway's 1962 season. Operations for skin cancer and the removal of a lymph gland took him out of the picture in the mid 1960s, but he was back on television and in features by the end of the decade. Now firmly established as affable support, he appeared in family comedies like "Yours, Mine and Ours" (1968), thrillers such as "Company of Killers" (1970) and even several genre pictures in Europe.
A late career high came in 1976 with an Emmy nomination for "Rich Man, Poor Man" (ABC), which led to more work on the small screen in "Superdome" (1978) and "Glitter" (1984). Throughout the 1980s, he was busy in dinner theater and the straw-hat circuit. In 1985, he received critical and box-office acclaim when he returned to Broadway as one of original star Gene Barry's replacements in the flashy but warm gay-themed musical, "La Cage aux Folles," and he gave an amusing turn as one of the stars in the film-within-a-film that highlighted Woody Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo" (1985).
The 1990s saw Johnson on stage in productions of "No, No, Nanette" and "Show Boat," though he was forced to abandon the latter due to health concerns in 1991. A regular on television documentaries about the Hollywood of yore, he was a genial and informative interview subject, most notably for "Burt Reynolds' Conversations With " (CBS, 1991), for which he was joined by the likes of James Stewart, Ricardo Montalban and his "Human Comedy" co-star Mickey Rooney. After retiring to an assisted living facility in the new millennium, Johnson died Dec. 12, 2008 at the age of 92. His legacy was a true rarity in movie circles - he had outlasted virtually all male actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood and had managed to work solidly way into his golden years, unlike many of his peers.
Cast (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Short)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Raised by father after parents' divorce
Moved to New York; first job in Off-Broadway was the musical revue, "Entre Nous"
Appeared in the Broadway production of "New Faces of 1936"
Hired by George Abbott as an understudy to three male leads in Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's "Too Many Girls"
Again cast by George Abbott for a small part and also as Gene Kelly's understudy in Rodgers and Hart's Broadway musical, "Pal Joey"
Film debut, "Too Many Girls" (in chorus)
Signed to seven-year contract by MGM
Began to attract attention in film, "Dr. Gillespie's New Assistant"
Signed to six-month contract by Warner Brothers (at $300/week), studio dropped his option after two films
Breakthrough film, "A Guy Named Joe"; first of five films he made opposite Esther Williams
Made first of five films opposite June Allyson, "Two Girls and a Sailor"; first film in which he was received top billing
First of three films opposite Janet Leigh, "The Romance of Rosy Ridge"
Made last film opposite June Allyson, "Remains to Be Seen" and last one opposite Esther Williams, "Easy to Love"
Made TV debut on "The Last Spring" (an installment of the "Loretta Young Show")
First non-US feature, "The End of the Affair"; starred opposite Deborah Kerr in the British-made production
Starred in TV special, "The Pied Piper of Hamelin"
Moved to Switzerland with his family
Last film for three years, "The Enemy General"
Made London stage debut in "The Music Man"
Returned to the US to star opposite Carroll Baker in the Broadway production of "Come on Strong"
First film in three years and also his last starring role in features for years, "Wives and Lovers"; also his last of three films opposite Janet Leigh
Toured with nightclub act which was interrupted by operation for skin cancer
Starred in the CBS pilot "At Your Service"; was not picked up for a series
First TV-movie, "The Doomsday Flight"
Returned to features after four years in "Divorce American Style"
Starred in the CBS pilot, "Man in the Middle"; was not picked up as a series
Received a supporting Emmy nomination for the ABC miniseries "Rich Man, Poor Man"
Reprised the role of Marsh Goodwin, in the ABC spinoff series, "Rich Man, Poor Man: Book II"
Played a leading role in "Battle Command"
Replaced star Gene Barry in the long-running Broadway musical "La Cage aux Folles"
Starred in a St. Louis revival of the 1920s Broadway musical classic, "No, No, Nanette"
Left California Music Theatre's revival of "Show Boat" (played Captain Andy) during previews due to illness (September)
Appeared on the CBS interview special, "Burt Reynolds' Conversations With..."