The handsome red-headed star ran off with his best friend's wife, married her on the day of her divorce and produced a daughter. He eventually left her for a chorus boy.
Charles Van Johnson was born Aug. 25, 1916, in Newport, R.I., a town known for its gorgeous mansions, tennis tournaments and yachts. His parents divorced when he was three and his father was given custody of their only child. Charles grew to be a six-foot-one, red-headed, freckled, wholesome-looking, star-struck kid who appeared in school plays. He began his career appearing as a chorus boy on Broadway in Entre Nous, and then in New Faces of 1936. Soon he landed a role as a college boy in a Rodgers and Hart musical, Too Many Girls, and was spotted by RKO Studio agents who hired him to re-create his role in the 1940 film version starring Lucille Ball, in which he became chorus boy #41.
Johnson signed a six-month contract with Warner Bros. Pictures, where he had a bit part in Murder In The Big House ( 1941 ) . While driving with passengers Keenan Wynn and wife Eve to a screening of the Kathryn Hepburn and Spencer Tracy film Keeper of the Flame ( 1942 ) , Johnson was nearly killed in a car accident that spared his passengers but left him having a metal plate inserted in his head. Spencer Tracy was his co-star in the movie he was working on and insisted that the film, A Guy Named Joe ( 1943 ) , the first of five movies he made with Esther Williams, be held up until Johnson recovered at the Wynns' home.
The crash and resulting scar that showed up in some of his films seemed to enhance his career. Now exempt from military service in World War II, he received a seven-year contract with MGM Studios, where he made musicals with the most popular stars. Johnson, a great dancer and charming singer, was also a very good actor equally at home in musical comedy or serious drama. He became a favorite of teenagers, then called bobby soxers, who inundated his studio with thousands of their fan letters. Even though he could sing well, he was often called 'The Voiceless Sinatra,' stemming from his similar popularity among the same young crowd. In 1944, he first received top billing in Two Girls and a Sailor ( 1944 ) , opposite June Allyson, with whom he made five films. For two years, Johnson was rated one of Hollywood's top 10 box-office draws, placing second in 1945 and third in 1946.
On Jan. 27, 1947, Johnson married Eve Lynn Abbot, who had divorced his best friend, actor Keenan Wynn, on that very day. Johnson's movie, The Romance of Rosy Ridge, was released that year and a year later, the Johnsons produced a daughter, who years later stated in the tabloid The Globe that her father was a cold and disinterested parent. The Johnsons separated in 1960 and divorced in 1968. Johnson's stepson, Ned Wynn, proclaimed that his father left his wife for a male dancer during a stage production of The Music Man. In 1999, a few years before her death, Eve told the press that their marriage had been arranged by MGM to cover up his sexual orientation.
In the 1950s, Johnson declared that he had been a movie star and now wanted to be an actor, stating, '… a man just gets to his beautiful period when he is forty.' His problem was that, although he was a bit heavier and had acquired a more worried expression on his face, he did not look much different at 40 than 20, and his boyishness hurt his work at sustaining belief in portrayals of maturity, even though he gave great performances, such as in The Caine Mutiny ( 1954 ) , in which his scar showed prominently. Johnson made numerous television appearances throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Some of his other films include Wine & Lovers ( 1963 ) and Yours, Mine, and Ours ( 1968 ) . In 1985, Johnson made a comeback touring with the Broadway musical La Cage Aux Folles, and appeared in the Woody Allen film The Purple Rose of Cairo.
This year, Mr. Johnson turned 90 years old—still sporting his trademark red locks.
Sources: The Stars by Richard Schickel; The Movie Stars Story, edited by Robyn Karney; Van Johnson Web sites.
Steve Starr is the author of Picture Perfect-Art Deco Photo Frames 1926-1946, published by Rizzoli International Publications. A photographer, artist, designer, and writer, he is the owner of Steve Starr Studios, specializing in original Art Deco photo frames and artifacts, celebrating its 39th anniversary in 2006. Steve Starr's personal collection of over 950 gorgeous Art Deco frames is filled with photos of Hollywood's most glamorous stars.
STARRLIGHT-Starr's column on movie stars of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, appears in various publications that include Entertainment Magazine Online, the Windy City Times, and the Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine.
STARRGAZERS-Radiant Photography by Steve Starr is available privately.