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Actor Van Johnson, Dead at 92

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Actor Van Johnson, known best for his many film roles in the 40s and 50s, died yesterday in New York at 92.

He was born Charles Johnson in Rhode Island, and moved to New York after finishing high school in 1935 to pursue acting, where he eventually landed small parts in two Rodgers & Hart musicals that caught the attention of Hollywood casting agents. Although he earned a role in a Warner Bros. film, his contract with the studio was dropped after 6 months. In 1942, thanks to his friendship with Lucille Ball, then herself a studio contract player, the soon-to-be iconic redheaded gal helped her struggling redheaded pal get a screen test at MGM, which won him a contract.

It was another chance run-in that shaped Johnson's personal and professional life just one year later, when he was on his way to a screening of (what would amount to be the worst Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy film the duo ever made) Keeper of the Flame he was involved in a terrible car accident. In the car with Johnson was his good friend, actor Keenan Wynn and Wynn's wife Eve. According to the Associcated Press via Long Beach Press-Telegram:

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On April 1, 1943, [Johnson's] 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."

The incident may have left him with a scar that was largely unnoticed, but it made him exempt from military service in WWII, brought him a popularity with the public on which MGM immediately capitalized, and his recovery was spent in the care of the Wynns.
For the next several years Johnson was a matinee idol in MGM pictures; known sometimes as the "non-singing Sinatra" he was a favorite of the young women fans who were referred to as "Bobby soxers." His films in the mid-40s included Till the Clouds Roll By, Easy to Wed, Thrill of a Romance, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, The White Cliffs of Dover, and Two Girls and a Sailor. He often played a military man, although had no real experience as such thanks to the car accident.

Thanks also to the '43 car accident came his marriage to Eve Wynn, which took place in Mexico just hours after her divorce from Keenan Wynn was official, in 1947. They had one daughter, Schuyler, but the marriage ended badly. Johnson is quoted as saying "She wiped me out in the ugliest divorce in Hollywood history"--a comment pre-dating by decades some of the truly ugly divorces in Hollywood history, sadly. Rumors of bisexuality allegedly surfaced in later years in various biographies of the star, who never remarried.

Johnson continued to work in films in the 40s and 50s; he had three roles in major films of 1954: The Last Time I Saw Paris, Brigadoon, and The Caine Mutiny. Once again his friendship with Lucille Ball helped out, and he made a guest appearance as himself in one of I Love Lucy's best "Hollywood" episodes, where she dances and sings with him in the hotel nightclub act--not bad for a "non-singing" kind of guy.

For the next several years Johnson wound up working mostly in television, and he endeared a new generation of fans:

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. (Wikipedia)

He made many other TV appearances in the 60s and 70s (Batman, Here's Lucyand, of course, The Love Boat) and was still working in the 80s--guest starring on Murder She Wrote, touring in a production of La Cage aux Folles and taking a small part in Woody Allen's 1985 film The Purple Rose of Cairo.Johnson's star on the Walk of Fame here in Hollywood is located at 6600 Hollywood Blvd. He died yesterday of natural causes at the age of 92 in an assisted-living home in New York state.

Photo of Van Johnson taken in Brentwood in August 1944 by John Florea via LIFE magazine's online archives