Nineteen year-old Van Johnson headed to Broadway in 1935. He landed in the chorus of a few shows and became the understudy for all three male leads in George Abbott’s production of Too Many Girls. His experience with the show led him to Hollywood and uncredited role in the film version of Too Many Girls opposite Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
Van had plans to move back to New York to give Broadway another chance, when Lucille Ball took him to the famous Chasen’s Restaurant and introduced him to a casting director for MGM Studios. Now, with a Hollywood “in,” Van was given screen tests with several studios, until he was offered a contract with Warner Brothers. Van was cast in a few films, but his contract was not renewed, citing his “boy next door” good looks as not fitting in with the gritty movies the studio was making at the time.
MGM offered Van a place with them. He was groomed by the studio and featured in a succession of “feel good” films supporting the USA’s involvement in World War II. He starred as pilots, sailors and soldiers in a number of MGM productions, straight war dramas as well as musicals suited to his “All-American Boy” image. In 1945, Van was among Hollywood’s top leading men and box-office draws.
In 1947, Van married actress Eve Abbott — one day after her divorce from actor Keenan Wynn was finalized. According to Eve Abbott’s posthumously-published memoir, the marriage was arranged by studio head Louis B. Mayer in an effort to squash rumors regarding Van Johnson’s homosexuality. Abbott claimed that Van’s bright and cheery on-screen persona was a direct contrast to his actual demeanor. Although the union produced a child, Abbott said Van was moody and depressed because of a difficult childhood. Their marriage broke up when Van began an affair with a male chorus dancer during a stage production of The Music Man. He divorced Abbott in 1968.
Van passed away in 2008 at an assisted-living facility in New York. He was 92 and had been estranged from his daughter for years.