Van Johnson, a biography

by Will Johnson

Van Johnson, movie star most known from his roles in the '40s and '50s has just died.


Charles Van Dell "Van" Johnson (25 Aug 1916 - 12 Dec 2008), U.S. actor most well known for his roles as a boy-next-door type in movies from the '40s and '50s for MGM and Columbia Pictures.

This Knol is part of my series: "Entertainment Biographies"

This article written and copyright 2008, by Will Johnson,, Professional Genealogist.  Original version at "Van Johnson" on  You may cite this article as "Van Johnson, by Will Johnson at".

Charles "Van" Johnson was born in Newport, Rhode Island, the son of Loretta Snyder and her husband Charles E Johnson, a Swedish immigrant.  Charles' mother, an alcoholic, left the family when Charles was a child.

Van went to New York City where he appeared in Leonard Sillman's annual revue "New Faces of 1936".  In 1939 he had a part in the Broadway show "Too Many Girls" starring Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, repeating his role in the 1940 film version.  Warner Brothers first put Van on contract but dropped him after several months.  At this time, he former co-star Lucille Ball introduced him to an MGM casting director and he was signed there.  While there he made several films including at least one in which he was the principal star.  He was built-up as the all-American boy-next-door in several pictures, and at one time was a major draw for movie patrons.  Among others, he played opposite June Allyson, Elizabeth Taylor and Esther Williams.  He also appeared with Roddy McDowell in "The White Cliffs of Dover" which also had a young Elizabeth Taylor.

Van had just signed a seven-year deal with MGM, when in 1943 he was involved in an auto accident which almost killed him.  With him in the car, were his closest friends Keenan Wynn (1916-1986) and Keenan's wife Eve Abbott (1914-2004).  Eve was a former stage actress, and Keenan was a television and film actor at the time.  (Keenan Wynn was also the son of Ed Wynn (1886-1966), the actor perhaps most famous today, as "Uncle Albert" in the film "Mary Poppins" with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.)

Four years later, Eve and Keenan divorced and on the same day she married Van.  Eve and Van had one child, a girl Schuyler.  Van Johnson was however fundamentally gay, the marriage, according to Eve had been engineered by Louis B Meyer who refused to renew Keenan's contract unless Eve married Van Johnson.  By this marriage, Van also became the stepfather to Edmund "Ned" Wynn and Tracy Keenan Wynn.

During the war, he starred in the film "Two Girls and a Sailor" opposite June Allyson, and Gloria DeHaven.  Also with June Allyson and Butch Jenkins he starred in 1948's "The Bride Goes Wild'.  Butch was a child star, son of actress Doris Dudley.  Van left MGM to join Columbia and appeared in several pictures there, including 1950's "The Big Hangover" with Elizabeth Taylor.  At this time, he had two of his most memorable appearances, in 1954 opposite Gene Kelly in "Brigadoon" and in 1957 as the title character in the "Pied Piper of Hamelin".  He also appeared with Humphrey Bogart in "The Caine Mutiny".  Starring vehicles for Van dried up, and he was consigned to playing sidekicks, neighbors and supporting roles, he also made sporadic appearances on television shows as a guest star for several years.

Van and Eve separated in 1961, but would not divorce until some years later in 1968.  Van would later state that, "Eve wiped me out in the ugliest divorce in Hollywood history".  After some years of retirement, he made a brief comeback in the mid-1980s touring with La Cage aux Folles.

Van lived his last years in a nursing facility in the small village of Nyack, Rockland County, New York where he died of natural causes at the age of 92.  He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6600 Hollywood Boulevard.

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