Van Johnson, heartthrob of the 1940s, dies at age 92

December 13, 2008|By Los Angeles Times

Van Johnson, who soared to stardom during World War II as MGM's boy-next-door in films such as A Guy Named Joe and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, and became one of the era's top box-office draws, died yesterday. He was 92.

Mr. Johnson, who most frequently was cast opposite June Allyson and Esther Williams during his MGM heyday, died at a senior residence in Nyack, N.Y., said Wendy Bleiweiss, a close friend.

With his broad smile, red hair and freckled face, the tall one-time chorus boy personified the wholesome young American man, MGM style.

A Guy Named Joe, the 1943 fantasy romantic-drama starring Spencer Tracy as a World War II pilot who is killed in action and returns to Earth in spirit form to help novice pilots, provided a breakout, critically acclaimed role for Mr. Johnson: He played a young pilot who falls in love with Mr. Tracy's girlfriend, played by Irene Dunne.

Mr. Johnson had become an MGM contract player only the year before, but his road to stardom nearly ended before he ever got in front of the cameras for A Guy Named Joe.

While he was driving to a screening at MGM with friends in March 1943, a car ran a red light in an intersection near the studio and smashed into the side of Mr. Johnson's convertible.

With a fractured skull, severe facial injuries, a severed artery in his neck and bone fragments piercing his brain, Mr. Johnson underwent several surgeries. He was left with a severely scarred forehead and a metal plate on the left side of his head, which exempted him from military service.

But his near-fatal accident and three-month hospital stay provided the kind of publicity that not even MGM could buy: The fan magazines ate it up. And his 4-F military status enabled him to continue his fledgling movie career at a time when many Hollywood actors were in uniform.

For his part, Mr. Johnson fought World War II on the big screen, the wardrobe department providing him with a constant change of GI garb.

Among other films of the period in which he played a serviceman are Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), Two Girls and a Sailor (also 1944, and the first time he received top billing) and Week-End at the Waldorf (1945).

By the end of 1945, Johnson had joined the ranks of the top-10 box-office stars for the first time, placing second (behind Bing Crosby) in the annual exhibitors' poll.

His popularity waned shortly thereafter, but Johnson continued working steadily. Between 1947 and 1954, he had co-starring and supporting roles in more than two dozen films.

Among his later film credits are Kelly and Me (1957), Wives and Lovers (1963), Divorce American Style (1967) and The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985).

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