Van Johnson

  1. Donald Curtis, Salute to the Marines, 1942.      Johnson, Marjorie Maine, future director Richard Quine and Lewis Stone were first announced by MGM as Wallace Beery’s co-stars for the flag-waving patriotism. When driving to a screening of Tracy-Hepburn’s Keeper of the Flame that year, Johnson was in a road smash requiring urgent surgery – a scarred forehead (only sometimes hidden by make-up) and a metal plate in his forehead.
  2. Richard Carlson, The Man From Down Under, 1942.   The adult Nipper was a toss- between Carlson and Johnson, while his Mary was always Donna Reed. When incest loomed, all turned out fine. Not siblings, after all. Hey, it’s an MGMovie!
  3. Tom Drake, Meet Me In St Louis, 1943.      Drake, Johnson, Peter Lawford, Robert Walker… Most of MGM’s young blades were in the frame for The Boy Next Door to Judy Garland – livid at 21 to be playing a teenager again until falling for the story and the director. Vincente Minnelli. (Liza arrived in 1946). Spencer Tracy was said to have developed a major crush – unrequited love – for Johnson.
  4. Gil Stratton, Girl Crazy, 1943.    As the August 1939 plan of Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell churned into the final MGM teaming of Rooney and Judy Garland, other choices were recast. And so Johnson’s touted singing debut was handed to Broadway’s Stratton.
  5. Paul Langton, Gentle Annie, 1944.    All change when director Woody Van Duke fell ill after a month’s shooting in 1942. Johnson (as Violet Goss!) Susan Peters, Marjorie Main and Charley Grapewin became Langton, Donna Reed, Spring Byington and John Philliber for new helmer Andrew Marton in ’44. Only James Craig and Morris Ankrum remained aboard – but in new roles. Indeed, Craig took over the lead from Robert Taylor.   
  6. Peter Lawford, Good News, 1946.   For his first MGMusical after dance-directing many, ex-actor-dancer Charles Walters had the pick of the lot’s 20-somethings for June Allysosn’s partner… Cooper, Van Johnson, Jackie Cooeper, even Mickey Rooney. Lawford was all wrong! His accent was too UK for a US college student. He was no singer-dancer. No actor either, if truth be told. Walters went on to better things: Easter Parade, Lili, High Society.
  7. Tom Drake, The Beginning or the End, 1946.     A-Bomb fever hits Hollywood! Rival studios MGM, Paramount and 20th Century-Fox scrambled to be first with an atomic drama. Metro won by merging its idea with Hal Wallis’ Top Secretat Paramount and having such stars as Clark Gable, Van Johnson and Spencer Tracy “being groomed for roles.” Not enough, it seemed… as they never appeared. Other actors played Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer and the Hiroshima bomber, Colonel Paul Tibbetts Jr.  
  8. Richard Widmark, Down to the Sea in Ships, 1948.  Head Fox Darryl F Zanuck wanted Widmark as First Mate Lunceford.  Director Henry Hathaway did not and tried every which gto get him fired. And not for the first time. He hadn’t wanted Widmark in his breakout debut,  Kiss of Death, either, in 1947.   They ended up as  good friends.
  9. Wallace Beery, Big Jack, 1948.    Like the movie (his last), Beery was not well. At one point, Johnson and Robert Taylor had been nominated to take over the rough, tough, but golden-hearted Big Jack Horner . Johnson was  31 years younger than Beery… who died on April 15, 1949, three days after the 1949 premiere, after  19 years as MGM.take over the rough, tough, but golden-hearted Big Jack Horner – despite being 31 years younger than Beery… who died on April 15, 1949.
  10. James Stewart, The Stratton Story, 1949.     A rare example of a biopic subject insisting on casting changes. MGM chose Van to be the Texan baseball star Monty Stratton. “I just couldn’t  pitch the ball in  a way to please him,” recalled Johnson. “He said he hoped I wouldn’t be offended but he was going to ask Mr Mayer if Jimmy Stewart could play the part. I wasn’t offended because I didn’t want to look ridiculous on the screen. But I asked:  How do you know Jimmy Stewart can pitch? He said: I don’t but [director] Sam Wood told me that Jim would practice time and again until he can.”

  11. Mark Stevens, Please Believe Me, 1949.  According to a  MGMpublicity  release, Johnson had begun shooting the movie. Not for long.  It became Stevens’s first gig since leaving 20th Century-Fox. He never   made another MGMovie.  Apparently,  Metro did not know what to do with  Peter Lawford, either.  Everything would; have gelled better if the roles were swapped between  Lawford  and Robert Walker – back on-screen after two years recovering from being dumped by his wife, Jennifer Jones, for  producer  David O Selznick
  12. Howard Keel, Pagan Love Song, 1950.    Van and Cyd were the leads. Then, Charisse proved pregnant. The  script was re-spun for Esther Williams  – although she was also pregnant.  Van was not and invited to stay as he had been in Esther’s previous frolic, Duchess of Idaho, 1950.
  13. Farley Granger, Small Town Girl, 1952.    Talk about meet cute… Rich kid gets arrested for speeding in a tiny township – and falls for the sheriff’s daughter. No question that Jane Powell was to be in the MGMusical – supplying not one but two numbers for That’s Entertainment in 1973. But MGM had such difficulty finding the playboy among its own ranks – Johnson, Peter Lawford, Dean Miller and Ricardo Montalban – that it loaned Granger from Samuel Goldwyn Productions. Of the MGM boys, only Miller won a role. As Mac. (There’s always a Mac). Title apart, no connection with Metro’s 1935 rom-com.
  14. Danny Kaye, Hans Christian Andersen, 1952.   “This is not the story of this life, but a fairy tale about this great spinner of fairy tales…”Producer Joe Pasternak bought Sam Goldwyn’s rights  – for Johnson. And the British Red Shoesballerina Moira Shearer.  Tbey turned into Danny Kaye and  “Jeanmaire The Famous French Ballerina.”
  15. Montgomery Clift, I Confess, 1952.    Alfred Hitchcock had first been intrigued by  Paul Anthelme’s 1902 play, Nos deux consciences/Our Two Conscience) in the 30s.   Mrs Hitch, Alma Reville, got him interested in  the project again in 1948. They worked on the script and offered Johnson(!) the lead  – a Roman Catholic priest suspected of murder. Next? The Master’s future regulars: Cary Grant and James Stewart. Which is, perhaps, why Clift drank too much; Hitch got co-star Karl Malden to warn him off the bottle.
  16. Gene  Kelly, Crest of  the Wave, 1954.    He  was Kelly’s sidekick in his previous film,  Brigadoon,  but now Johnson’s MGMoment was over. Particularly after CA Lejeune’s reviews like:  “Van Johnson  does  his best: appears.”
  17. Tom Ewell, The Seven Year Itch, 1954.    Johnson opposite Little Miss Allyson…  in a Marilyn role !!  Ah, but this was when MGM was trying to secure  the rights to the Broadway hit comedy. Although the Production Code said it could not be filmed.  “Adultery must never be the subject of comedy or laughter.”   Nobody told the French…
  18. Jack Lemmon,  You Can’t Run Away From It, 1955.    For his third gig as director,  ex-song-and-dance man Dick Powell chose a musical version of It Happened One Night.  Couples suggested for the 1933 Clark Gable-Claudette Colbert roles, were Johnson-June Allyson (Mrs Powell), Robert Mitchum-Constance Towers and, ultimately, Jack Lemmon-Allyson (still sleeping with the director!). Prophetic title as Powell’s previous assignment, The Conqueror,  1955, led to terminal cancer for 90 of the 220 cast and crew (including John Wayne, Susan Hayward and Powell.  himself) – after shooting at an obviously still radiaoctive 1953 atomic bomb test site in Yucca Flat, Nevada.   
  19. John Rait, The Pajama Game, 1956.      Frederick Brisson, Robert E Griffith and Hal Prince bought the 7 Cents novel for a stage musical  about a strike at a  pajama factory. (Honest). And immediately started courting Grant, Marlon Brando, Bing Crosby (too expensive), Van Johnson, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra   – surely one would agree to Broadway and Hollywood!  No ? OK, they’ll discovered a new star. And did. Except Rait was wrong. No A-Star.  
  20. Victor Mature, No Time To Die (UK: Tank Force), 1957.  When they ran Warwick Films in London, Cubby Broccoli used his Hollywood contacts  to win the stars –  Johnson, Alan Ladd (three times and passing on three others when Shane struck gold), Victor Mature (six times!), Ray Milland, Jack Palance, Robert Taylor, Richard Widmark  – and Irving Allen kept the purse-strings taut for such oldies. A mere  $200,000 a pop, for example,   compared to the $2m offered to the current 1963 hot-shot George Peppard for The Long Ships. (And he refused to sail).   When Cubby left to make the Bond films., he took most of the Warwick production crew – andthis title (of Ronald Kemp’s 1954), finally used for Bond25… 62 years later!

  21. Charlton Heston, Ben-Hur, 1958.     
    Sword and sandal epics were in.  And producer Sam Zimbalist, who’d made one of the biggest – Quo Vadis, 1950 –  was back in Rome in charge  of the better (well, William Wyler was directing) re-make of the 1923 silent Ben-Hur, racing chariots and all.  Sam even considered retaining his Vadis trio: Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner, Stewart Granger. Friendly rivals Marlon Brando and Paul Newman were up for the titular Judah.  Still smarting  from his  1954 debut,  The Silver  Chalice, Newman hated  ancient Rome costumes,-  cocktail dresses he called  them. Sam also short-listed  Richard Burton (from The Robe, 1953), , Montgomery Clift, Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson (furious with Universal refusing to loan him out), Van Johnson (no, really!),  Burt Lancaster (an atheist with no interest in Christianity commercials,  although he had earlier tried to mount his  own version), true Brit Edmond Purdom… plus Italians, known and unknown: Vittorio Gassman  and Cesare Danova.  MGM voted Heston, CB De Mille’s Moses in The Ten Commandments, 1954. According to “contributing writer” Gore Vidal, Willie Wyler called Heston wooden. Brando, for one, would not disagree. Yet, Judah Ben-Heston  won his Oscar on April 4 1960.

  22. Dean Martin, Rio Bravo, 1958.
  23. Jules Dassin, Pote tin Kyriaki (Never On Sunday), Greece-US, 1959.     For their little film that conquered the globe, the blacklisted  and exiled US director Jules Dassin wanted Johnson as the US scholar falling for a prostitute played by Mrs Dassin, the mercurial Melina Mercouri (co-best actress at Cannes, 1960). But Dassin couldn’t afford him. (Imagine not being able to afford Van Johnson! Now that is really a low-budget operation). “So,” she recalled in ber autiobio, I Was Born Greek, “he flew to Rome which was supposed to be a tank of good actors. Didn’t find any.” That is when she told him she knew someone. “Who?” “You!”   He said: “Have you seen my face?” And so he became Homer Thrace, of Middletown, Connecticut – Dassin’s birthplace.
  24. Robert Stack, The Untouchables, TV. 1959-1963.    After Van Heflin passed on being Elliott Ness, so did Van Johnson. There being no other suitable Vans available, the role went to a bicycle –  the robotic  Stack.
  25. Tony Curtis, Boeing-Boeing, 1965.     Chosen to start his five-year deal with  producer Hal Wallis at Paramount. He turned to TV instead – for nothing of any value.
  26. Bob Crane, Hogan’s Heroes, TV, 1965-1971.   When creator Bernard Fein  started casting his pilot, he naturally wanted  his actor pal Robert Hogan as hero. The character was named after him, after all.  However, CBS wanted a name actor.   Van Johnson passed, Richard Dawson  backed away and Bob Crane couldn’t wait to get started… on some 158 episodes in the famous leather jacket first worn the year before  by Frank Von Sinatra in Von Ryan’s Express.
  27. Tyrone Power, The Edddy Duchin Story, 1956.    Tried to land the title role but Power was adjudged perfect by Duchin’s  son, more so than Kim Novak – “the girl of my wet dreams” – as his socialite mother.



 Birth year: 1916Death year: 2008Other name: Casting Calls:  27