Biography

The quintessential blue-eyed, blonde-haired, freckle-faced Boy Next Door, Van Johnson was the son of a Rhode Island plumbing contractor. Making his Broadway bow in The New Faces of 1936, Johnson spent several busy years as a musical-comedy chorus boy. After understudying Gene Kelly in Pal Joey, he came to Hollywood to recreate his minor role in the film version of the Broadway musical hit Too Many Girls. Proving himself an able actor in the Warner Bros. "B" picture Murder in the Big House (1942), Johnson was signed by MGM, where he was given the traditional big buildup. He served his MGM apprenticeship as Lew Ayres' replacement in the "Dr. Kildare" series, latterly known as the "Dr. Gillespie" series, in deference to top-billed Lionel Barrymore. While en route to a preview showing of an MGM film, Johnson was seriously injured in an auto accident. This proved to be a blessing in disguise to his career: the accident prevented his being drafted into the army, thus he had the young leading-man field virtually to himself at MGM during the war years. Delivering solid dramatic performances in such major productions as The Human Comedy (1943) A Guy Named Joe (1943) and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), Johnson rapidly became a favorite with the public--particularly the teenaged female public. He remained a favorite into the 1950s, alternating serious characterizations with lightweight romantic fare. One of his best roles was Lt. Maryk in The Caine Mutiny (1954), for which he was loaned to Columbia. When his MGM contract came to an end, Johnson free-lanced both in Hollywood and abroad. He also made his London stage debut as Harold Hill in The Music Man, a role he'd continue to play on the summer-theater circuit well into the 1970s. His TV work included the lead in the elaborate 1957 musical version of The Pied Piper of Hamelin (released theatrically in 1961) and his "special guest villain" turn as The Minstrel on Batman (1967). He staged a film comeback as a character actor in the late 1960s, earning excellent reviews for his work in Divorce American Style (1967). And in the mid-1980s, Van Johnson again proved that he still had the old star quality, first as one of the leads in the short-lived TVer Glitter, then in a gently self-mocking role in Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), and finally as Gene Barry's replacement in the hit Broadway musical La Cage Aux Folles (1985). ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi