Lon McCallister Dies at Age 82; Onetime Star Eschewed Limelight

Actor Lon McCallister starred in the 1949 adventure film
Actor Lon McCallister starred in the 1949 adventure film "The Big Cat" with Peggy Ann Garner. McCallister willingly retired from acting at 30 and went into real estate. (National Screen Service Corp.)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 16, 2005

Lon McCallister, 82, the boyish star of peppy 1940s film fare who kept his vow to retire from acting at 30 and afterward became a successful California real estate speculator, died June 11 at a hospital in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. He had congestive heart failure.

His hallmark was a gee-whiz gentleness and all-American looks that prompted movie gossip Hedda Hopper to call him "the cutest boy the movies have hauled up out of obscurity since Mickey Rooney was discovered."

A veteran of bit roles, Mr. McCallister was spotted by an assistant to producer Sol Lesser, who was looking to cast "Stage Door Canteen" (1943). Brimming with a cast of screen and stage giants (including Paul Muni, Tallulah Bankhead, Helen Hayes) and big-band favorites (Benny Goodman, Xavier Cugat, Count Basie), the film portrayed a New York cantina where performers volunteered for kitchen duty while young starlets danced with soldiers and sailors on leave.

Playing a bashful recruit named California, 19-year-old Mr. McCallister made a favorable impression on critics and bobbysoxers. His part required him to exchange lines from the balcony scene of "Romeo and Juliet" with classically trained actress Katharine Cornell in her only onscreen role.

Mr. McCallister once said that Cornell, the more nervous of the two, had asked him for his advice on screen acting. "She kissed me," he said. "She asked me to write her when I get on a ship out in the Solomons or somewhere."

He was reserved about his career ambitions, telling Hopper, "I'm not an actor," and that he agreed to a long-term contract with Lesser solely to get the $5,000 signing bonus that would "take care of my mother, grandmother and my dogs while I'm in the Army."

The contract stipulated two points: that no false statements were to be released for publicity reasons and that Lesser, best remembered for his "Tarzan" movies, would never put him in a jungle picture.

Mr. McCallister was cast in a dozen films as a likable, small-town hero. They included: "Home in Indiana" (1944) with Jeanne Crain; "Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay!" (1948), with a fleeting appearance by a young Marilyn Monroe; and "The Big Cat" (1949), an adventure film with Peggy Ann Garner.

A welcome departure was the thriller "The Red House" (1947) with Edward G. Robinson, Judith Anderson and a sultry Julie London.

His looks and a less-than strapping physique stunted his career prospects -- a fact he had anticipated. His height (5-foot-6) allowed him to play a jockey opposite love interest Shirley Temple in "The Story of Seabiscuit" (1949).

Herbert Alonzo McCallister Jr. was born April 17, 1923, in Los Angeles, where his father was a real estate broker. After taking singing and dancing lessons, "Buddy" McCallister had bit parts in such films as George Cukor's "Romeo and Juliet" (1936) with Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard. The director, a close friend, once described Mr. McCallister as "the perfect choirboy" and showed him in close-up in that role.

After retiring from acting, he plowed his film earnings into property in Malibu, Calif., and ran a lodge in Northern California. He also made travel films with a companion, actor and producer William Eythe, who died in 1957. He maintained close relations with Carol Channing, who had an early part in an Eythe Broadway show, as well as with 1940s stars Jane Withers and Deanna Durbin.

Generous with friends and environmental groups, he also spent his money on world travel and video poker. He relished a low profile and disliked flaunting his acting career. It was once written about him that he "enjoys his privacy and the freedom of being anonymous."

Survivors include a brother, Lynn McCallister of Glendale, Calif.; and a sister, Kathleen Price of Henderson, Nev.

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