Oscar Actors: Heflin, Van–Supporting Actor Winner–Johnny Eager

Emmett Evan “Van” Heflin Jr. was born on December 13, 1908; he died July 23, 1971.

He played mostly character parts over the course of his career, but during the 1940s had a string of roles as a leading man.

Heflin won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in Johnny Eager (1942).

He also had memorable roles in Westerns such as Shane (1953), 3:10 to Yuma (1957), and Gunman’s Walk (1958).

Heflin was born in Walters, Oklahoma, the son of Fanny Bleecker (née Shippey) and Dr. Emmett Evan Heflin, a dentist. He was of Irish and French ancestry. Heflin’s sister was Emmy-nominated actress Frances Heflin (who married composer Sol Kaplan).

Heflin attended Classen High School in Oklahoma City, and attended the University of Oklahoma, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1932; he earned a master’s degree in theater at Yale University.

Heflin began his acting career on Broadway in the late 1920s. He appeared in Mr. Moneypenny (1928), The Bride of Torozko (1934), The Night Remembers (1934), Mid-West (1936), and End of Summer (1936), which led to a contract by RKO Radio Pictures.

Heflin made his film debut in A Woman Rebels (1936), opposite Katharine Hepburn. He followed it with The Outcasts of Poker Flat (1937), billed third after Preston Foster and Jean Muir, and Flight from Glory (1937), a Chester Morris programmer where Heflin played an alcoholic pilot.

Heflin was given his first lead role in Saturday’s Heroes (1937), playing a star quarterback.

Heflin returned to Broadway for Western Waters (1937–1938) and Casey Jones, (1938), at the Group Theatre, directed by Elia Kazan.

In Hollywood Heflin had a support role in Back Door to Heaven (1939). He returned to Broadway where to play Macaulay Connor opposite Katharine Hepburn, Joseph Cotten and Shirley Booth in The Philadelphia Story, which ran for 417 performances in 1939–1940.

It led to Heflin being offered a choice character part in the Errol Flynn western Santa Fe Trail (1940) at Warners, playing a villainous gun seller. The movie was a hit and led to a contract offer from MGM.

MGM initially cast Heflin in supporting roles in films such as The Feminine Touch (1941) and H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941).

Oscar Award: Johnny Eager

Heflin had an excellent part as Robert Taylor’s doomed friend in Johnny Eager (1942), which won Heflin the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and was a box office success.

Note:

If you want to know more about the Oscars, please read my book, All About Oscar:

Heflin was leading man in B movies, playing starring role in Kid Glove Killer (1942), directed by Fred Zinnemann, and Grand Central Murder (1942), two popular films.

MGM cast him as Kathryn Grayson’s love interest in a musical, Seven Sweethearts (1942), then as the embattled President Andrew Johnson in Tennessee Johnson (1942), playing opposite Lionel Barrymore who, in the role of Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, failed to have Johnson convicted in impeachment trial.

Heflin was Judy Garland’s love interest in Presenting Lily Mars (1943), then he enrolled in the army. Heflin served during World War II in the United States Army Air Corps as a combat cameraman in the Ninth Air Force in Europe and with the First Motion Picture Unit. He appeared in a training film, Land and Live in the Jungle (1944).

MGM loaned him to Hal Wallis to appear opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). He was in the all-star musical Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), then was loaned to Warner to co-star with Joan Crawford in Possessed (1947).

Back at MGM he co-starred with Lana Turner in Green Dolphin Street (1947), a big prestige film for the studio and their biggest hit of 1947. He was reunited with Stanwyck in B.F.’s Daughter (1948) and was loaned to Walter Wanger for Tap Roots (1948), where he was top billed; both lost money.
MGM cast him as Athos in The Three Musketeers (1948), a huge success. He was top billed in Zinnemann’s Act of Violence (1949), and supported Jennifer Jones in Madame Bovary (1949). Both movies were acclaimed but lost money.
Heflin made a third film with Stanwyck, East Side, West Side (1950), although he was now billed beneath James Mason. It made only a small profit.
Radio[edit]
The Adventures of Philip Marlowe was a radio detective drama that aired from June 17, 1947, through September 15, 1951, first heard on NBC in the summer of 1947 starring Van Heflin (June 12, 1947 – Sept 9, 1947). He also acted on the Lux Radio Theatre, Suspense, Cavalcade of America and many more radio programs.

Heflin began appearing on TV on episodes of Nash Airflyte Theatre and Robert Montgomery Presents (an adaptation of Arrowsmith).

Heflin had the lead role in a Western at Universal, Tomahawk (1951) and starred in a thriller directed by Joseph Losey, The Prowler (1951).

At Universal he made a family comedy with Patricia Neal, Week-End with Father (1951), then played an FBI man in Leo McCarey’s anti-Communist My Son John (1952).

He appeared George Stevens’ hugely popular Shane, as the honest married farmer, opposite Alan Ladd.

Heflin then made action films at Universal: Wings of the Hawk (1953), and Tanganyika (1954). He starred in an independent Western, The Raid (1954) and was one of many stars in Fox’s Woman’s World (1954).

Heflin stayed at Fox to star in Black Widow (1954) and he was top billed in Warners’ Battle Cry (1955) based on Leon Uris’s best seller which was a major hit.

After a Western, Count Three and Pray (1955), Heflin starred in Patterns (1956) based on a TV play by Rod Serling. He also did a Playhouse 90 written by Serling, “The Dark Side of the Earth,” “The Rank and File,” and “The Cruel Day” by Reginald Rose.

Heflin returned to Broadway to appear in a double bill of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge and A Memory of Two Mondays which ran for 149 performances under the direction of Martin Ritt.

Heflin had an excellent part in 3:10 to Yuma (1957) with Glenn Ford, followed by a Western with Tab Hunter, his old Battle Cry co-star, Gunman’s Walk (1958). At Columbia, Heflin signed a contract of making one film a year for five years.

He was billed after Gary Cooper and Rita Hayworth in They Came to Cordura (1959); Hunter was also in this one.

Heflin went back to Europe for 5 Branded Women (1960), which he starred in for Martin Ritt, Under Ten Flags (1960), and The Wastrel (1961).

Heflin shot in the Philippines the war film, Cry of Battle (1963), which played at the Texas Theatre in Dallas on November 22, 1963. It was that theatre where Lee Harvey Oswald was apprehended after President Kennedy’s assassination.

Heflin had another Broadway hit in the title role of A Case of Libel (1963–64) which ran for 242 performances.

Heflin appeared as an eyewitness of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from death in the 1965 Bible film, The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Heflin returned to MGM for a support part in Once a Thief (1965), followed by the remake of Stagecoach (1966). He the went to Europe to star in The Man Outside (1967) and Every Man for Himself (1968).

In the U.S. he was in the TV movies A Case of Libel (1968), and Certain Honorable Men (1968) and he had supporting part in The Big Bounce (1969).

Heflin’s last feature film was the enormously popular Airport (1970), as “D. O. Guerrero,” a man who schemes to blow himself up on an airliner so that his wife (played by Maureen Stapleton) can collect life insurance policy.

His last TV movies were Neither Are We Enemies (1970) and The Last Child (1971).

After a six-month marriage to actress Eleanor Shaw (née Eleanor Scherr, died 2004), Heflin married RKO contract player Frances Neal. They had two daughters, actresses Vana O’Brien and Cathleen (Kate) Heflin, and a son, Tracy. The couple divorced in 1967.

Heflin was the grandfather of actor Ben O’Brien and actress Eleanor O’Brien. He was also the uncle of Marta Heflin and Mady Kaplan, both actresses, and director Jonathan Kaplan. Heflin’s brother, Martin, a public relations exec, was married to theatre producer Julia Heflin.

On June 6, 1971, Heflin had heart attack while swimming, but after weeks at the hospital, he failed to regain consciousness. Van Heflin died on July 23, 1971, aged 62.

A biography, Van Heflin A Life in Film, by Derek Sculthorpe, was published in by McFarland & Co., Inc., of Jefferson, N.C.

Share this:
Share this page via Email Share this page via Stumble Upon Share this page via Digg this Share this page via Facebook Share this page via Twitter