Actor Van Johnson was born on August 25, 1916 in Newport, Rhode Island. Johnson was the embodiment of the "boy next door," playing "the red-haired, freckle-faced soldier, sailor or bomber pilot who used to live down the street" in MGM movies during the war years. At the time of his death on December 2008, he was one of the last surviving matinee idols of Hollywood's "golden age." Johnson performed at social clubs in Newport while in high school and moved to New York City after graduating from high school in 1935 to join an off-Broadway revue. He was an understudy to Gene Kelly in the Broadway musical Pal Joey. He was introduced to an MGM casting director by Lucille Ball. This led to a screen test at Columbia Pictures and then Warner Bros. Studios. His all-American good looks and easy demeanor were ill-suited to the gritty movies Warner made at the time, and the studio dropped him at the expiration of his six-month contract. Shortly before leaving Warner, he was cast as a cub reporter opposite Faye Emerson in the 1942 film Murder in the Big House.
His big break was in A Guy Named Joe (1943) with Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne. Midway through the movie's production, he was involved in a car crash that left him with a metal plate in his forehead and a number of scars on his face that the plastic surgery of the time could not completely correct or conceal; he used heavy makeup to hide them for years. Dunne and Tracy insisted that Johnson not be removed from the cast despite his long absence. With many actors now serving in the armed forces, the accident proved to be a major career break for Johnson. MGM built up his image as the all-American boy in war dramas and musicals, with his most notable starring roles including Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), Easy to Wed (1946), In the Good Old Summertime (1949), Battleground (1949), Go For Broke (1951), Remains to Be Seen (1953), and Brigadoon (1954). Johnson was dropped by MGM in 1954, after appearing in The Last Time I Saw Paris with Elizabeth Taylor. He enjoyed critical acclaim for his performance in The Caine Mutiny (1954).
During the 1950s, Johnson continued to appear in films and also appeared frequently in television guest appearances. In the 1970s, after twice fighting bouts of cancer, Johnson began a second career in summer stock and dinner theater. In 1985, returning to Broadway for the first time since Pal Joey, he was cast in the starring role of the musical La cage aux Folles. Van Johnson lived in a penthouse on Manhattan’s Upper Eastside until 2002, when he moved to an assisted living facility in Nyack, New York. He died there of natural causes on December 12, 2008. He had been ill for the previous year and receiving hospice care. His body was cremated and final disposition is unknown.
Who died on this date:
On August 25, 1967, actor Paul Muni died. The successful stage and screen actor was born Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund on September 22, 1895 in Lemburg, Austria. His parents were actors who toured small cabarets in Europe and immigrated to the United States in 1902. He and his parents toured small vaudeville theaters throughout the Midwest and by 1926, Muni had graduated to the bright lights of Broadway. In 1928, he signed with 20th Century-Fox studios and it was suggested that he change his name from Weisenfruend to Muni. His first film project The Valiant (1929) was not a box office success but it did earn him a best actor nomination in his first screen appearance.
Muni’s award winning film career spanned thirty years (1929-1962) and included twenty-three motion pictures major film credits include; Scarface (1929), The Good Earth (1937), Juarez (1939), and We Are Not Alone (1939). He was nominated for six best acting Oscars, winning once, his nominated films were The Valiant (1929), I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Black Fury (1935), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), The Last Angry Man (1959), and his only Academy Award win was for portrayal of scientist Louis Pasteur in The Life of Louis Pasteur (1936). In the early 1960’s, Muni tired of the Hollywood life style and retired from film making. He and his wife lived a simple, quiet life in Montecito, California until August 25, 1967, when the former actor died from a heart attack. Funeral services and burial were held at the Hollywood Memorial Park (now called Hollywood Forever Cemetery). Muni’s unassuming grave is found beneath a cypress tree in the center of the Plains of Abraham lawn (formerly section 14), space 57 at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.
www.michaelthomasbarry.com, author of Fade to Black Graveside Memories of Hollywood Greats, 1927-1950