Johnson was born in Newport, Rhode Island; the son of Loretta (Snyder), a homemaker, and Charles E. Johnson, a plumber and later real-estate salesman. His father was an immigrant from Sweden, and his mother had German-American Pennsylvania Dutch ethnicity.
His acting career began in earnest in 1936 in the Broadway revue New Faces of 1936. In 1939, he landed a part in Rodgers and Hart's Too Many Girls in the role of a college boy (after being Gene Kelly's understudy in Pal Joey). RKO then signed him to a short-term contract to star in the film adaptation of the play, which became Johnson's film debut. MGM picked up his contract from RKO soon after and cast him in several bit parts.
In 1942, en route to a preview screening for Keeper of the Flame, he was involved in a car crash that left him with a metal plate in his forehead. This exempted him from service in World War II. After this incident, MGM built up his image as the "all-American boy" by co-starring him in films with June Allyson and Esther Williams, among others. He also had serious roles in films such as A Guy Named Joe, Week-End at the Waldorf, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and Battleground.
Johnson left MGM for Columbia Pictures to co-star in The Caine Mutiny (1954), to much acclaim. He also enjoyed one of his most memorable leading roles in the 1954 musical Brigadoon, with Gene Kelly. In 1955, Johnson made a memorable appearance on I Love Lucy.
Johnson guest-starred on television shows such as Batman as "The Minstrel" in two episodes in 1966, Here's Lucy and The Love Boat and in the mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man. In 1985, he enjoyed something of a comeback. He toured with the Broadway musical La Cage aux Folles and appeared in a supporting role in Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo.
One role for which he is fondly remembered, especially by children who grew up in the early 1960s, is his performance as the title character of the 1957 made-for-television film The Pied Piper of Hamelin, a musical version of Robert Browning's poem. This was originally broadcast as a 90-minute Thanksgiving Day special by NBC, and later syndicated to local television stations across the United States. Using Edvard Grieg's music, the film became a popular annual tradition for many years.
For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Van Johnson has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6600 Hollywood Blvd.
Fri 12 Dec, 2008 05:02 pm
Another fine old-timer bites the dust. The obit you posted, edger, doesn't say how old he was.
Wow! Sad; I took my wife to see Van Johnson at the Sheraton Palace Hotel when I was courting her to see "Bye bye birdie." He was not the best actor, but he played in the movie "Go For Broke" about the 442nd Infantry, 100th Battalion, during WWII.
Fri 12 Dec, 2008 07:45 pm
i didn't really know much about Van Johnson - but now i feel i know something - thanks, edgar