Wartime heartthrob Van Johnson was born Charles Van Dell Johnson August 25th, 1916, in Newport, Rhode Island, the only child of Loretta Snyder and Charles E. Johnson. Drawn to the stage even in his early years, Johnson attended Rogers High School, and, as a teenager, frequently performed in local Newport social clubs. Upon his graduation in 1934, young Johnson packed his bags and moved to New York City, eager to pursue his acting dreams. He quickly secured his first major role in the off-Broadway production Entre Nous, and began touring throughout New England, continuing to land roles in revue shows and Broadway musicals throughout the late thirties.
With his striking red hair, freckled complexion, and All-American style, it didn’t take long for Johnson’s star to rise. Introduced to a Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer studio executive by friend and fellow actor Lucille Ball (I Love Lucy), Johnson made his silver-screen debut in the 1940 Warner Brothers’ film Too Many Girls, co-starring Ball and her husband, Desi Arnaz—an adaptation of a 1939 play of the same name in which Johnson had also acted. After taking on a few more small roles in Warner Brothers productions, Johnson soon signed on with Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer (MGM). The positive reception to his roles in the 1942 films Somewhere I’ll Find You and The War Against Mrs. Hadley landed him a larger role in the Dr. Kildare film series, playing the titular mentee in 1942’s Dr. Gillespie’s New Assistant. He later reprised his role as Dr. Randall Adams in the 1943 follow-up, Dr. Gillespie’s Criminal Case, followed by 3 Men in White (1944), and later in Between Two Women (1945).
Despite becoming a familiar face in the wartime cinema scene, Johnson’s own military ambitions were quashed in 1943, when, en route to a movie screening, he was involved in a traumatic car accident which left the actor with a metal plate in his skull and facial scarring. Fortunately, Johnson made a full recovery, and though his injuries barred him from enlisting, he continued to enjoy a successful career in Hollywood throughout the duration of WWII. On the silver screen, he donned the uniform many times, including in The Human Comedy (1943), Pilot No. 5 (1943), Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), The White Cliffs of Dover (1944), Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944), and Battleground (1949), among many others.
During this period of his career, Johnson starred alongside some of the top names of the Golden Age of Hollywood, including Mickey Rooney, Clark Gable, Gene Kelly, Katharine Hepburn, and Judy Garland. Throughout his career, Johnson was often described by his colleagues as friendly and passionate about his work. One of Johnson’s more well-known roles came in 1954, with the release of the naval courtroom drama The Caine Mutiny. In his role as Stephen Maryk, Johnson refused the cosmetics often used to conceal his facial scars, citing the authenticity he felt they lent to the character. This was the first time Johnson had acted without makeup since his 1943 accident, and his performance was met with critical acclaim.
In spite of his professional success, Van Johnson’s personal life was fraught with conflict and secrecy. Johnson was not particularly close with his immediate family—he did not have a strong relationship with his father, and his mother, Loretta, was an alcoholic, who had abandoned Van and Charles when her son was still young. In 1947, he married the actress Eve “Evie” Abbott, mere hours after she had officially divorced fellow actor Keenan Wynn. Though Johnson had been a close personal friend of both Evie and Keenan—the three had even been in the car together on the night of the 1943 accident—this was not a love match: it was known throughout Hollywood that Johnson was, in fact, gay. During the 1940s and 50s, homosexuality was not widely-accepted in the entertainment industry, and as such, Johnson’s orientation could have posed a significant publicity risk for MGM studios. As Evie Wynn Johnson later admitted, her divorce from Keenan Wynn and subsequent marriage to Johnson had been completely fabricated by the studio: “They [MGM] needed their ‘big star’ to be married to quell rumors about his sexual preferences, and unfortunately, I was ‘It’—the only woman he would marry.” Evie further stated that her decision to marry Johnson was made under duress, claiming that, if she didn’t go through with the plan, the studio had threatened to cancel Keenan Wynn’s contract with them. With Evie, Johnson shared two stepsons and a daughter, Schuyler Johnson. The pair officially split in 1961, and were engaged in hostile divorce proceedings until 1968. Johnson remained estranged from his ex-wife and daughter for the remainder of his life.
Following his initial stardom, marriage, and contentious split, Johnson continued acting all the way through the 1990s, landing parts on both stage and screen. Despite the public secrecy around his sexual orientation, Johnson did go on to play an openly-gay role in 1985’s La Cage aux Folles on Broadway. He also guest-starred on many popular TV shows over the decades, including I Love Lucy, Batman, and The Love Boat. Johnson officially retired from acting in the 1990s, and continued to live a quiet life in New York until his passing in 2008. In all, Van Johnson starred in 80 films and 27 TV shows, and was the recipient of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.