Van Johnson Learned No Man Walks Alone
Four short years ago, a freckled-faced young man half-heartedly gave his famous boyish grin, which had set so many bobby-soxers’ hearts aflutter, looked into his future and concluded that at the end of his rainbow there was no pot of gold.
For years, Van Johnson had been winning young hearts as the boy-next-door; the boy who at the end of the picture carried the girl into a rainbowed sky and a life of eternal bliss. But at thirty, Van Johnson no longer felt like the boy-next-door; he could see no future in it, neither could the studios. And while he wondered what to do next, he slipped from star billings to second leads, finally found himself without even a part. For Van Johnson, back in 1951, the future seemed only to lead to failure. To imagine then that he would play the dramatic role of Maryk in “The Caine Mutiny” or win hearts, not with a boyish grin but by a sensitive and moving portrayal of a reformed alcoholic and father in “The Last Time I Saw Paris” would have been lunacy. He wasn’t an actor in 1951, he admits, he was a personality. Such roles went only to established dramatic stars.
A lot has happened since then to Van, to his career and to him personally. You can feel this when you talk to him. When Van speaks today, the old Van is still there—warm, gentle, friendly, but there is a subtle difference. There is more fire to the warmth, more assurance in the friendliness and more strength in the gentleness. The eternal boy the studios had prepetuated has disappeared. Van now speaks with the authority of a man who has lived long with the questions concerning his faith and has arrived at three satisfying conclusions.
“I have the things no man can take from me: my faith in God; my wife’s, my children’s and my friends’ faith in me; and a growing faith in myself,” he said recently. “I’ve gone through all the phases: naive, starry-eyed, awed, sophisticated, finally came back to the elementary truths. The great things in life are simple. I think we’re discarding the phony facade of sneering sophistication of the last era and coming home to honesty, faith and out-going love.
“Look,” he said suddenly, with the familiar gesture of running his hands through his hair, “this is all pretty personal and a rather probing subject to delve into. But if by reading of my struggles to take the crosses and blessings of life, someone else will get belief and hope then sure, let’s talk—we can talk all night in fact. Okay? Okay.
“In my search for happiness amid confusion and sometimes even despair three things helped me. They are my faiths.
“The first of my three faiths is in God. My father and mother were separated when I was three, so I thank God that my father, who raised me, believed in the Scripture: Train a child in the way he should. go and he will not depart from it. For Sunday school and church were habit to me. Every Sunday morning I waited for Virginia Sullivan, nee Cutter, a dear family friend, to pick me up. I learned of God and His mercy, grace and love; and for me, the most important of all, blind faith as a built-in armor for the human fears, insecurities and uncertainties that come to every man. There, in the old Trinity Church in Rhode Island, I learned enough to help me keep a balance and a sense of values when I finally spread my wings and tried to fly by myself.
“The second is the deep and abiding faith of my wife, Evie, and my friends which was a wonderful revelation to me. Although I had gathered a hope chest of New England antiques for a future home, I was still living in hotels, feeling free and unattached, and enjoying my success when the sudden pang of loneliness hit me. At thirty, I was what men like to call a confirmed bachelor and what women call eligible. I became aware of Evie just a shade before I became aware of my loneliness,” Van laughed. “Somehow it didn’t take the confirmed bachelor long to realize that he had been missing the most important part of life—sharing it. Sharing love and fun a man expects from marriage, but certainly the faith and belief that Evie has in me is way beyond what any man should expect. Too, my friends, and sometimes strangers, have reached out in faith to make the difference between success and failure.
“And the third part, the faith I have in myself, is much less of a driving force than the other two,” Van said soberly. “For I am filled with the same self-doubts, lack of confidence, lack of vision and faltering faith as other men. Insecurity itself fired my early ambition.
“When I sit in church on Sunday, memories of the old Trinity Church and my childhood flood over me. I feel a sadness at the loss of that child’s purity of acceptance. As the entire congregation unites in prayer and I can feel the full power of it, I wonder how many others are trying to recapture the simplicity and blind faith of a little child.
“I’ve never admitted this before,” Van said sheepishly, “but when I was a kid, I used to dream of high, long gray walls and long corridors. I figured it out then that they had to be a movie studio. It was a recurring dream. The desire to act came at an early age and never diminished. That dream of high, long gray walls and corridors was filled with longing and untapped ambition. Years later, after a lot of hunger and hoofing, Warners brought me to Hollywood. The studio was exactly like my dream—except the walls were beige. Warners dropped my contract and the inevitable conclusion of the pattern came when I was signed by M-G-M. It was exactly like my dream with gray walls. And M-G-M is where I stayed for years and became the boy-next-door, with a grin.”
From a dream of burning ambition for a boy to relaxation for a man is making a lot of use of just one dream. Maybe it was the Swedish heritage and New England upbringing that kept Van stubborn or determined enough to stick to one dream—one ambition throughout the rough times that followed.
Van put time limits on himself. The first time limit was one year. He’d finished high school and was doing nothing but writing letters for his dad and keeping the books on the plumbing business. Then he was asked to the Newport Army Base parties. He met kids from all over the world. Their homes were decorated with the beauties of Hong Kong, London, Paris and Vienna. They talked a different language. They lived in a brand-new wonderful world and Van started wanting. He became excited and discontented.and full of the wonder about the world outside.
Van started for New York and a new world with his father’s, blessing, the faith of his friends and the feeling that God was on his side . . . and very little money. He had given himself a year to prove his ability. He looked forward to seeing his mother and stepfather in New York. He had not seen his mother in fifteen years.
“I want to say right now that I’m all for taking the plunge in extreme youth, for youth does not know that it is suffering or fighting the impossible. Frustrations and despair? Yes. But youth naively and stubbornly holds on to a dream.”
When one looks back at the expended energy, the force and limitless drive that go into the first impossible effort to establish oneself, one turns pale. For Van it was endless agents’ offices, tramping from theatre to theatre, being hungry and being locked out of his hotel room. It meant wiring Dad collect in desperate humiliation for the nine bucks that would let him back into his room.
“Somehow Dad always came through. But I didn’t,” Van sighed. “I became so engrossed in myself that I couldn’t see what I was doing. Caught up in the coldness of New York and the fear of myself, I discarded my spiritual life. Trudging from one agent’s office to another I comforted myself with the thought, ‘If God be with me,’ and suddenly I realized that I had left God out. The aloneness I felt was not New York, but in me. I had been stumbling along on my own without faith. I turned into a Christian Science Reading room and sat quietly reading and restoring my soul for two hours. Every day after that I made a point of including the reading room on my daily routine of looking for a job. Although I am an Episcopalian, I received spiritual nourishment there when my food for the day consisted of only a hot dog.”
Persistence started paying off. Van began getting little jobs. His first was at the Entre Nous for fifteen dollars a week for four weeks. By the time “Too Many Girls” came along, his time limit had been upped to five years. He’d made some friends and some headway in show business. He was still hoofing and singing in the chorus, but he was kicking higher and singing louder than anybody else and it was then that the faith of a friend gave him another boost on the way. At 11 A.M. every morning, Jerry White drilled him in the understudy parts. Van went on in the chorus at night, but during the day Jerry taught and prodded. Climbing to the balcony he’d roar, “I can’t hear you,” or “Pick up those feet.” Finally one night, Van got his chance. He took one of the leads when a star fell ill. It would be nice to say he was discovered and that was that, but unfortunately, it was only an opening wedge.
Later Jerry White pushed him for a role in “Pal Joey” and George Abbott, the director, agreed. By the time the show reached New York, Van had acquired ten lines, and a song reprise because Gene Kelly was too winded by a very intricate dance routine to sing it. He wasn’t a star, but it was enough to be noticed. So, in his sixth year, Van was on his way. During those six years he’d spent every extra penny on dancing and singing lessons. He didn’t relax for a minute. He was dedicated and dedication takes work.
“It always amazes me,” says Van, “to hear people say carelessly, ‘Oh, he has a natural talent.’ The best truck driver is a man who works at understanding his machine, getting the best from the truck and using his knowledge to the best advantage. Every profession is the same. Nothing is so natural that it doesn’t take work on our part and the desire to be the best. It’s like the so-called naturalness of Spencer Tracy’s acting. That kind of acting is the finest and the hardest. To appear so completely natural that the audience becomes engrossed in the characterization and forgets the actor is the essence of acting. To me and lots others, Spencer Tracy is the epitome. Naturalness is a practiced art.
When Van really started working in Hollywood, it was a dream come true. He worked so hard he literally knocked himself out. He went into one picture after another without a breather. At the studio at 7 A.M. and home just in time to fall in bed exhausted.
“When I did go out socially, I was so stage-struck and awe-stricken by glamour of the names I was meeting,” Van grinned, “I didn’t have confidence enough in myself to meet them as people.”
He started wearing his now famous red socks strictly as a conversation piece. Those socks were social crutches and they served their purpose. He still wears them, partly as habit now, partly as a reminder of the big boy from New England with the stardust in his eyes.
“When I went to London and Europe I was overcome by the crowned heads, titles, sophistication and wealth,” Van explained with embarrassed remembering. “I was like a small boy looking in the window of the greats in the world. And like a boy, I was shy and inarticulate. I felt out of place.
“It was five years later that it dawned on me that I was considered a star. I went back to New York and the full impact hit me. People would say, ‘Why he hasn’t changed a bit. Stardom hasn’t gone to his head.’ I hadn’t honestly known it was happening. I was frightened, and yet, excited and triumphant too. I felt proud and humble at the same time and prayed to God to make me worthy and help me do better work. This realization, too, helped me to regain my sense of humor and my sense of values where people were concerned. I’ve always liked to meet and know people, and I started then meeting them as individuals instead of names. I found then, as now, that the greatest personalities are the ones who have returned to the simplicity of life. Full of outgoing interest, honesty and warmth, they are stimulated by the prospect of tomorrow.
“Two of those greats,” Van said soberly, “are Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne. They reached out and touched me with faith when my life and career hung in the balance. We had worked only two weeks on ‘A Guy Named Joe, when Evie and Keenan Wynn rode to the studio with me that day my car was sideswiped and a guy named Van ended up in the hospital with a possible brain injury and the verdict he wouldn’t be able to work for a year. M-G-M could have easily scrapped the two-weeks’ work and replaced me, but Irene and Spencer insisted on waiting for me. When the studio decided to hold up production, I was deeply grateful. I realized that everything happens for a reason. As I lay quietly in that room, I understood the reason. I knew that people were praying for me. I felt those prayers and the vibrations of them in that hospital room. After years of rushing activity, I was quiet. I was alone and thinking. I had no visitors. Objects in the room began to take on meaning. The flowers that filled the room daily became friends. For the first time I clearly saw the contour of a rosebud, the indefinable spreading of a flower into full bloom, the pure and absolute beauty of color. I even weaved imaginary images of the florists’ lives. I became fully aware of the deeper dimension in man when he takes the time for quiet and aloneness. I have jealously guarded the right to quiet ever since.
“With prayers vibrating around me and the inner serenity of peace and understanding, my body and head knit long before the year the doctor predicted. I was out of the hospital in four months, with a scar on my forehead and a glowing gratitude in my heart,” he said softly.
“When Evie and I were married, I realized two things immediately. One was that I had been missing the most important things of life. Giving and receiving love, sharing and becoming responsible for someone else help round out the complete circle of a man’s life. The other thing I learned was that I’d been a bachelor too long! In thirty years a man manages to settle into some pretty solid ruts of living. I was no exception. My first problem was for the first time in my life sleeping in the same room with someone, let alone the same bed. Now, I find I’m miserable if I’m on location and Evie isn’t in the same bed to nudge me occasionally. Becoming a father overnight,” grinned Van, “also came as a shock to my bachelorhood.
“I found the boys, Ned and Tracy, quickly take over moods. I used to stagger out of bed at 8 A.M. and drive them to school. I will admit that I am not the happiest of men when I wake up. But I didn’t realize that I was putting a damper on the boys until one morning they turned and asked me why I was mad. That jolted me. I wasn’t mad; I was being selfish. I was healthy, the sun was shining and I was working, so I decided to change my moods in the A.M. I found a cold shower helps immensely. You may be numb when you drive your kids to school at 8 A.M., but you won’t look mad, you’ll just look startled.
“By the time Schuyler was born, I’d learned a lot about being a father, including the children’s almost blind faith in me and my desire to live up to it. Evie and I discovered that the times they woke up crying in the night were the times we’d forgotten to go up and tuck them in or were hasty in saying our good nights. After prayers and their good-night kiss, we try to leave them with a feeling of love and affection. Now, even after a dinner party, I go in and check the kids. I always kiss them and say something reassuring. Maybe it gets through or maybe it doesn’t, but I have warm memories of being tucked in by my dad or my grandmother.
“To me, Evie is the nucleus of this good life. She is everything to everybody and always has a little extra to spare in case of an emergency. Her belief in me is over-powering and has bridged many a possible disaster or crisis. She spoils me by matching her mood to mine. She understands me so well that she knows without a word whether I’m happy, content, worried, depressed or miserable. She has the right answers at the right time. Maybe the fact that she was a fine actress helps, but she’s the greatest ad-libber out of show business. She also indulges,” Van admitted shamelessly, “in my rather peculiar social urges. I run in cycles. I like to go on mad splurges of dinner parties and constant comings and goings. Then just as suddenly, I want to change the whole routine to Evie’s cooking in the kitchen and doing the dishes together, barbecues with the kids and nothing but the family and home sweet home. Evie’s only complaint is that she’s just getting her second wind and enjoying one routine when I want to switch.”
Even without the routines, they could keep busy. Friday nights they show movies for the kids and their friends. Evie and Van are constantly planning trips. He’s a closet cleaner-outer, and it would be impossible to clock their time schedule on trips to the dentists, dancing school, piano lessons and kid’s club meetings. Also Evie and Van are going to take up golf. They’ve decided to leave tennis to the youngsters like Walter Pidgeon.
“But Evie is more than a wife, mother and companion,” Van pointed out proudly. “She has a theatrical judgment that I respect deeply. She has become my conscience and rock of faith in my career. It was in fifty-one that I knew that playing the boy-next-door had to end. I couldn’t see any sunlight at the end of the tunnel. All I could see was Van Johnson, the grinning boy next door, carrying off the girl-next-door into the sunset. I carried my dilemma of indecision home with me and my wife stopped looking at me as a wife and started talking objectively. I was so bogged down in type casting that I was beginning to believe it myself. Evie knows me very well. She knew I had to prove something to myself, so she suggested I prove it.
“Partly from her confidence in me, a little faith in myself and a lot of faith in the Lord, I decided to accept a club date in Las Vegas. I had twelve days to get and learn material, work with the piano player, be fitted by the tailor, get my nerves to a white hot pitch and start having the same old nightmares. The first couple of days on any picture, I always go home exhausted and dream that I’m back in the chorus and I can’t remember the routines and everybody’s laughing. Great proof of faith? Did you ever decide to leave a comfortable niche you’d carved for yourself and change jobs and use tools you hadn’t used in years?” Van asked wryly.
“I was scared stiff. It was Evie who talked back to my nerves for me. She calmed me down, bolstered my waning courage and practically held my deflated ego in her hand. Even after opening night and I was considered a success, I woke worrying and continued gnawing at my raw nerve ends until show time. Then my faithful friend, Marlene Dietrich, walked in while I was muttering, ‘This isn’t for me. What am I doing up here?’ She took one look at me and s planting the seed. ‘What are you talking about?’ she demanded. ‘Why do you make yourself miserable all day? Accept the fact that at a certain hour every night you will be frightened and have butterflies. But only at that hour. Everybody who is good gets butterflies.’
“That next evening when suddenly the band sounded my entrance, the m.c. said my name and the spotlight came rushing past the curtain to pick me up in the wings, I walked out to meet that audience on blind faith and thrust in Someone bigger than myself. That moment wiped away the twelve days of fright and faltering faith. I was as a child again, blindly believing and trusting. I proved myself, but not by myself.”
He was still playing Las Vegas when Stanley Kramer came up to discuss “The Caine Mutiny” with him. Van had read the book and was excited about the prospect of working in the picture. By the end of lunch, the deal was closed. As Van rose to leave, he said, “Thank you very much. I can’t wait to start on Willie Keith’s lines.” Stan stared at him a moment and then said, “I want you for Maryk—not Willie Keith.” Van took the bomb home to Evie, and quickly she saw the challenge for him in the role. She realigned Van’s thinking until he was stimulated and excited about the picture.
“Sometimes I think I could be a bum,” Van grinned, “just painting or making straw hats on the beach at Acapulco if Evie didn’t have the knack of exciting my imagination about a role until I’m eager for it. A lot of people are hard workers because they know they are basically lazy. I’m one. I’ve never really had a chance to be lazy, but sometimes I daydream about being a terrific beachcomber!”
Evie’s ability to constructively assist Van professionally provides an outlet for her own talents. And Van’s appreciation, awareness of Evie, his honesty in openly praising her is a trait deeply desired in all husbands. Professionally, Evie deals with the problem at hand like an excellent director. She never tells Van how or what to say or do. She merely creates a picture for him to fill in. This talent alone is one that many working directors would love to possess. A typical example is Van’s drunk scene in “The Last Time I Saw Paris.” Most actors are afraid of an unknown quantity they have not experienced before. Van is no exception. He had never enacted a drunk and he was worried. Evie scanned the well-worn script and read a couple of lines. Those lines opened up his entire concept of a drunk.
Evie brushes off her prowess over and beyond the call of marriage by turning her thoughts to Van. “I’ve worked with the best of them,” she points out. “John Gielgud, Maurice Evans, Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson, Paul Muni and from the very moment I saw Van I knew he was as good as the best of them. He calls it a belief; I call it knowledge. I knew he was ready for the switch to mature acting long before he realized it. But the conviction had to come from him. It was true that he went on opening night in blind faith, trusting Someone bigger than himself. He was gambling with his career. He had to prove that he was more than the boy-next-door. And he proved it. The pattern that followed has put the stamp of maturity on his acting. First, ‘The Caine Mutiny,’ then the three-dimensional Charlie of ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris,’ and he just finished his best to date, Columbia’s “The End of the Affair. The leading man of a Graham Greene novel is forced to prove his versatility. Van is more than ready to show his versatility. With his additional talents he can make musicals or Westerns along wi comedy and drama. Van is growing, faster than he realizes, into the actor’s actor dream he has. When he discarded the boy-next-door, once and for all, he started moving toward his idol, Spencer Tracy.”
Evie’s enthusiasm does not come from an over-zealous wife, but an astute judge of theatre and human nature. Van depends on her keen reception of life, people and scripts. Although Van would have you believe that she is the seer of the family, Evie will tell you quite calmly that Van is right in nine out of ten discussions. She is aware of her weaknesses and one of them is too-quick decision. She will say that’s the end of it in a quick burst of irritation, but Van will hold back with, “No, no, now wait a minute.” And when the air clears, as Evie says, Van is usually right.
“For all his moods,” she reflected, “he is a chameleon. He can shed his moods much more quickly than I. They never take him out of the house alone. He loves his home and can’t be coaxed into spending a night out ‘with the boys.’ Sometimes I wish he would go out and then I could catch up on a few domestic duties. But then I say to me, ‘Evie, count your blessings!’ Van is also very sensitive and I’m glad. All interesting people are sensitive, I think. At least with Van, there’s never a dull moment.”
Perhaps because of his broken home in childhood, Van has made his home a cherished symbol. He is giving his children everything that was important to him and many of the things he didn’t receive. Above all he is instilling in them a faith to live by. For the child who sat in the Old Trinity Church has vivid memories. And he wants his children to have the same self-knowledge.
“I couldn’t live without faith and love and hope,” Van said quietly. “I wouldn’t get through a day. Faith communicates and works for me. The law of compensation has never changed. We get out of life what we put into it. I congratulated the man who played the chaplain in ‘Battleground’ on his reading on Lux Radio Theatre the other night. I was moved by the depth of understanding he put into the long speech he had. He smiled and said that it was the second time I had been good to him. Then he told me that a few years ago he’d been called in from the next set at the studio to do a small part in a hurry. It was a Senate scene and there were five hundred extras and me waiting for him to start. He was shaking and nervous and glanced around for just one look of sympathy. He said I smiled at him and he found the courage to relax, keep his churning stomach under control and read his lines. It seemed so little . . . it was so little, I began to wonder how often I let the lines of my face go up instead of down.
“Later,” Van continued, “I met a tiny old lady outside the station door. I knew from the look on her face what she was going to say. She asked me for an autograph and then said, ‘You remind me of my son so much. He was killed in the war.’ When we parted, both our eyes were filled with tears. Can I say I loved her in her sorrow? Sometimes we catch a glimpse of a great truth. Both those incidents were man’s reaching out to man for compassion, sympathy, understanding. That outgoing love is the answer to all man’s struggle for peace, understanding, and tolerance.
“And that love begins at home. Success or failure today, I still have a bright hope for tomorrow. I have the three things that no man can take from me: My faith in God, my wife’s and children’s faith and a growing faith in myself.”
—BY DEE PHILLIPS
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE MARCH 1955