Movie Stars: Johnson, Van–MGM Star of 1940s and 1950s, Dies at 92 (Gay Hollywood)

Decmber 12, 2008–Van Johnson, the 1940s wholesome heartthrob actor, best known for his movies “A Guy Named Joe” and “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” died Friday in Nyack, New York. He was 92.

Johnson co-starred with Elizabeth Taylor in “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” and with Deborah Kerr in “The End of the Affair,” appeared in musicals like “Brigadoon” and romantic comedies such as “Weekend at the Waldorf” and “The Bride Goes Wild.”

Born in Newport, R.I., he started in the chorus in “New Face of 1936.” He made his film debut in “Too Many Girls,” and was signed to Warner Bros. When Warners dropped his contract after “Murder in the Big House,” he was about to return to New York, when Lucille Ball invited him to dinner at Chasen’s restaurant, where he met Billy Grady,  MGM’s influential casting director.

While working on “A Guy Named Joe,” he suffered a serious car crash that left him exempt him from service in the war.  After recovering, he finished “A Guy Named Joe” and appeared in other WWII films such as “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.”

MGM cashed in on his stardom with three or four films a year, including: “The White Cliffs of Dover,” ‘Two Girls and a Sailor,” ‘High Barbaree,” ‘Mother Is a Freshman,” ‘No Leave No Love” and “Three Guys Named Mike.”

On TV, Johnson is often remembered for his appearance on “I Love Lucy,” and later appeared on “Batman” as the Minstrel as well as on “Here’s Lucy,” “The Love Boat,” “Maude,” “McCloud,” “Quincy M.E.,” “MacMillan and Wife.” He also appeared on several episodes of “Murder, She Wrote” and returned to film in Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo.”

For three decades he was one of the busiest stars in regional and dinner theaters, traveling all over the country. 

He returned to Broadway in the 1980s as a replacement in “La Cage aux Folles.”

Van Johnson’s Homosexuality–Covered Up with Arranged Marriage

Johnson married former stage actress Eve Abbott in 1947, the day after her divorce was finalized from actor Keenan Wynn. In 1948, they had daughter Schuyler. By this marriage, Johnson gained stepsons Edmond Keenan (Ned) and screenwriter Tracy Keenan Wynn. The couple separated in 1961 and  divorced in 1968. Eve had said that MGM had engineered their marriage to cover up Johnson’s homosexuality. “They 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.”

Johnson’s biographer Ronald L. Davis writes that it was well known in the film industry that Johnson had homosexual tendencies, but this was covered up. As was the norm, studio head Louis B. Mayer went out of his way to quash any potential scandal regarding Johnson’s being homosexual.

In contrast to his “cheery Van” screen image, wife Eve claimed that he was morose and moody because of his difficult early life. He had a difficult relationship with his father growing up, and he was estranged from his daughter at the time of his death.

See Review of Vincente Minnelli’s musical, Brigadoon.