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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.