Famous for his matinee-idol looks and boy-next-door quality, Johnson achieved his greatest stardom in the 40s and 50s. His early life was inauspicious, as he was deserted by his alcoholic mother and ignored by his father, a plumber. He headed to New York with $10 in his pocket, and landed in the chorus of New Faces of 1936, which included Imogen Coca in its cast. He understudied Gene Kelley in Pal Joey, (with whom he would later appear in the film Brigadoon, above) and was in the chorus of Too Many Girls when it moved to Hollywood to be filmed. Desi Arnaz was in the cast, and Lucille Ball was one of the film's players; he became friends with the new couple. Johnson gives Ball credit for igniting his film career when she introduced him to the MGM Head of Casting. During the 40s, he rivaled Bing Crosby as the studio's number one box office draw, and for the next two decades, headlined musicals and dramas with Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Elizabeth Taylor, Deborah Kerr, June Allyson, and Judy Garland.
Johnson lead a stormy private life as he struggled with his sexuality. When he hit 30 without a steady girl, Louis B. Mayer apparently forced him into a marriage with his best friend's wife, Mrs. Keenan Wynn, only four hours after her quickie divorce from her husband. It was said that the studio honcho threatened to drop Keenan's contract if he did not allow the union. Evie Wynn Johnson provided a daughter but not much comfort to the marriage, which ended in a bitter divorce in 1968.
As Johnson's film career slowed, he returned to the stage in the original London cast of The Music Man, which he played several years, and was a regular on the summer stock / dinner theatre circuit. He made regular television guest shots, including two episodes of the campy Batman series, in which he played "The Minstrel" (at right). He appeared on Murder, She Wrote, MacMillan and Wife, The Love Boat, and other episodics. He spent the majority of 1985 in the original Broadway production of La Cage Aux Folles, inheriting the "masculine" role of Georges earlier played by Gene Barry and Keith Michell. Below is a backstage shot of Johnson and his co-star George Hearn during the run, with Janet Leigh and her daughter Jamie Lee Curtis:
In his retirement he became a painter, and held several one-man shows displaying his artwork. He continued to live a solitary life throughout his 70s and 80s. Johnson died of natural causes this week.
Scroll down to the next entry, or click here, to enjoy Johnson cutting a rug with Lucille Bremer in 'Till the Clouds Roll By," 1946.