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Obituaries

Versatile Actor Van Johnson; Dubbed 'Voiceless Sinatra'

In this Feb. 9, 1963 file photo, actor Van Johnson, right, poses with actress Janet Leigh during the filming of
In this Feb. 9, 1963 file photo, actor Van Johnson, right, poses with actress Janet Leigh during the filming of "Wives and Lovers." Family friend Wendy Bleiweiss says Johnson died Friday at the Tappan Zee Manor, an assisted living center, in Nyack, N.Y. He was 92. (AP Photo/Donn Brinn, file) (Donn Brinn - AP)

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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 13, 2008

Van Johnson, 92, a disarming and popular Hollywood star of 1940s musicals and comedies who later proved effective as a G.I. in "Battleground" and a conflicted naval officer in "The Caine Mutiny," died Dec. 12 at Tappan Zee Manor, a senior citizens home in Nyack, N.Y. No cause of death was reported.

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Starting in the late 1940s, Mr. Johnson took many viewers and reviewers by surprise for his dramatic performances.

He was especially good as a presidential candidate's wily campaign manager in Frank Capra's "State of the Union" (1948) with Spencer Tracy as his client. Mr. Johnson also portrayed a sneaky aide to a general in "Command Decision" (1948); and a cynical rifleman in William Wellman's "Battleground" (1949), a film praised for its depiction of combat during the Battle of the Bulge.

Mr. Johnson was singled out by critics as the executive officer who sells out the paranoid Capt. Queeg (played by Humphrey Bogart) in "The Caine Mutiny" (1954), based on a best-selling novel by Herman Wouk. New York Times movie reviewer Bosley Crowther praised him for conveying the "distress and resolution" required of the part.

Those films almost totally reversed the screen persona Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio chief Louis B. Mayer first established for Mr. Johnson, a onetime Broadway chorus boy elevated to immediate stardom during World War II.

Injuries from a car crash prevented Mr. Johnson from being drafted during the war. Tall and freckled, with strawberry-blond hair, he was heavily promoted as "The Voiceless Sinatra" because of his appeal among bobby-soxers.

He was an easygoing fit for musicals with Judy Garland ("In the Good Old Summertime"), Esther Williams ("Easy to Wed," "Duchess of Idaho") and June Allyson and Gloria DeHaven ("Two Girls and a Sailor").

He also played romantically inclined wartime pilots in "A Guy Named Joe" and "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," both dramas in which he showed he could hold his own against co-star Spencer Tracy.

In the second -- in which Mr. Johnson played a pilot in the Doolittle raid over Japan -- movie reviewer Crowther wrote that Mr. Johnson gave "a warm and brave performance and managed quite well to achieve a moving tenderness in love scenes and rigid strength in the action field."

For the rest of his heyday, Mr. Johnson alternated between lighter pictures ("Brigadoon" with Gene Kelly) and efforts to expand his repertoire. He was a homicide detective in the low-budget noir "Scene of the Crime" (1949), an alcoholic in "The Big Hangover" (1950) and a blind detective in "23 Paces to Baker Street" (1956).

He said he saddled up for the middling western "Siege at Red River" (1954) for one reason: "For 12 years, I begged Metro to put me on a horse -- just once. No dice."

Charles Van Dell Johnson, whose father was a plumbing contractor, was born Aug. 25, 1916, in Newport, R.I.

His parents divorced, and he was raised by a strict father who discouraged his early interest in acting. His mother, an alcoholic, disappeared from his life until 1946, when he got her a studio job. She later sued him to increase her financial support, and they settled out of court.

After high school graduation, Mr. Johnson headed to New York with $10 to find work as an actor.

Within a few months, he won a part in the Broadway revue "New Faces of 1936," which also featured comedian Imogene Coca. He later said he got the part by mistake, when a director mistakenly ordered him to get onstage for a scene. He said he had only been in the theater to attend rehearsal with a friend in the show.

Afterward, he appeared in a series of stage and nightclub acts. Producer George Abbott cast him as a student in the Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart musical "Too Many Girls" (1939). The next year, Abbott rewarded Mr. Johnson with the part of Gene Kelly's understudy in the Broadway production of the musical "Pal Joey."

A Hollywood screen test led to his leading role in the Warner Brothers cheapie "Murder in the Big House" (1942), but the studio was unimpressed (so were ticket buyers) and let his brief contract expire. He had better luck at MGM, largely through the support of actress Lucille Ball, whom he had befriended.

At MGM, Mr. Johnson underwent an apprenticeship as the second lead in a handful of pictures, and played Mickey Rooney's older brother in the wartime tearjerker set on the home front, "The Human Comedy" (1943).

While starring with Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne in "A Guy Named Joe" (1943), he was in a car accident that resulted in a metal plate being inserted in his head. He was left with a scar that was often covered up, but which he let show in some of his grittier films.

He later spoke with appreciation of Tracy and Dunne having used their clout to halt filming during Mr. Johnson's three-month medical recovery. He won positive reviews for his work on the movie, which led to frequent work over the next several years. By 1945, only Bing Crosby was a bigger box office star.

Mr. Johnson reportedly turned down the role of Eliot Ness in the television crime series "The Untouchables" in 1959. His film work soon dwindled, but he returned for a small role in Woody Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo" (1985) as a patrician 1930s film character who has trouble improvising when one of the cast members (Jeff Daniels) jumps off the screen and into reality.

Mr. Johnson began to call himself the King of Dinner Theater, as he spent decades as a fixture on the regional stage. He also became a mainstay of guest spots on television dramas, such as "Murder, She Wrote."

A painter since his MGM days, Mr. Johnson had several one-man shows. He told People magazine he developed a devil-may-care style he dubbed "Van Go": "I like to paint in one swell foop."

Mr. Johnson had a famously difficult private life. He married Evie Abbott Wynn in Juarez in 1947 on the day her divorce became final from actor Keenan Wynn, who had been Mr. Johnson's best friend.

The Johnsons were divorced in 1962 in a bitter proceeding. Their daughter, Schuyler, became estranged from her father and wrote a scathing first-person account of him in 2005 that appeared in the Mail on Sunday, a London newspaper.


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