Van Johnson: RIP

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Van Johnson has died at the age of 92.  Dare I admit I “got to know” him via his appearances on the Love Boat? I’ve found a clip from an episode of I Love Lucy, when he was a huge heart-throb.

Van Johnson & Lucy

One of the things I’ve always admired about those old stars was the fact that they were basically required to ‘do it all’ – sing, hoof, and act.  They also knew how to keep their private life just that – private, and not air their dirty laundry in public. Van Johnson was one of those.  He was gay, but like Randolph Scott, never advertised the issue.

…On April 1, 1943, his DeSoto convertible was struck head-on by another car. “They tell me I was almost decapitated, but I never lost consciousness,” he remembered. “I spent four months in the hospital after they sewed the top of my head back on. I still have a disc of bone in my forehead five inches long.”

“A Guy Named Joe” was postponed for his recovery, and the forehead scar went unnoticed in his resulting popularity. MGM cashed in on his stardom with three or four films a year. Among them: “The White Cliffs of Dover,” “Two Girls and a Sailor,” “Weekend at the Waldorf.” “High Barbaree,” “Mother Is a Freshman,” “No Leave No Love” and “Three Guys Named Mike.”

Though he hadn’t lost his boyish looks, Johnson’s vogue faded by the mid-’50s, and the film roles became sparse, though he did have a “comeback” movie with Janet Leigh in 1963, “Wives and Lovers.”

Also in the 1960s he returned to the theater, playing “Damn Yankees” in summer theaters at $7,500 a week. Then he accepted a two-year contract to star in “The Music Man” in London.

He explained why in an interview: “Because the phone didn’t ring. Because the film scripts were getting crummier and crummier. Because I sat beside my pool in Palm Springs one day and told myself: `Van, you’ll be 45 this year. If you don’t start doing something now, you never will.'”

For three decades he was one of the busiest stars in regional and dinner theaters, traveling throughout the country from his New York base. In the 1980s, Johnson appeared on Broadway in “La Cage aux Folles,” late in the run of the popular Jerry Herman us.

“The white-haired ladies who come to matinees are the people who put me on top,” he said in a 1992 in Michigan, where he was appearing at a suburban Detroit theater. “I’m still grateful to them.”    Television provided some gigs (“The Love Boat,” “Fantasy Island” and “McMillan & Wife”), and he also became a painter, his canvases selling as high as $10,000. …”

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