Born Charles Van Johnson in Newport, RI on Aug. 25, 1916, he was raised by his father, a plumber named Charles Johnson, after his mother's alleged alcoholism led to divorce. A star-struck only child, Johnson was performing at local social clubs while in high school while helping to support his father through various odd jobs. At 19, he moved to New York to find work in the musical theater, and landed a job in the off-Broadway revue "Entre Nous" in 1935. Other stage credits soon followed before legendary director-producer George Abbott gave him his big break by hiring him as understudy to one of three male leads for his production of "Too Many Girls" in 1939. Johnson would eventually replace one of the actors, Richard Killmar, which gave him his Broadway debut. The following year, Abbott cast him again as a chorus boy and Gene Kelly's understudy in Rodgers and Hart's groundbreaking musical, "Pal J y."Johnson made his film debut in the chorus of the screen adaptation of "Too Many Girls" (1940) starring Lucille Ball and a then unknown Broadway performer, Desi Arnaz, and, after a pit stop at Warner Bros., was signed by MGM. En route to a screening of the Katherine Hepburn film "Keeper of the Flame" (1942), Johnson was injured in a car accident and needed a metal plate inserted in his forehead. Being unable to serve in WWII turned out to be a big career break for the boyish young actor. Filling the gap left by more established stars that were in the military, Johnson became the go-to actor for amiably idealized, small-town leads and support in features. After replacing Lew Ayres in the continuation of the popular Dr. Kildare series as "Dr. Gillespie's New Assistant" (1942), he earned his true breakthrough in a pair of wartime dramas - "A Guy Named J " (1943) and "The Human Comedy" (1943). In the former, he was the inexperienced fighter pilot tutored by Spencer Tracy's ghostly flyboy, while "Comedy" cast him as the best pal of star Mickey Rooney.With his earnest manner and youthful good looks, Johnson became a major teen favorite of his day. Because of such fans, Johnson, despite his very pleasant singing voice, acquired the nickname, 'the voiceless Sinatra.' He made the annual exhibitors' poll of top ten box-office stars in both 1945 and 1946, and over the next decade, made five films - each with two of MGM's most typically escapist stars, June Allyson and Esther Williams. His best films with Allyson included their first together, the peppy musical "Two Girls and a Sailor" (1944) and their last, the amusing mystery farce, "Remains to Be Seen" (1953). With Williams, he teamed for the decent comedy remake "Easy to Wed" (1946) and got big laughs when he campily imitated her ultra-femme swimming backstroke in "Easy to Love" (1953). Johnson also partnered Judy Garland for the fair but disappointing "In the Good Old Summertime" (1949) and stole the show as the sardonic second lead of the poor musical adaptation, "Brigadoon" (1954). Though Johnson was largely perceived as a light musical lead, he was occasionally cast in more serious fare, including several fine war pictures and dramas, including the gripping "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" (1944), which cast him as real-life Navy pilot Lt. Ted Lawson, who participated in Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle's historic raid on Japan in 1942. One film, "Weekend at the Waldorf" (1945), even indirectly dramatized his injury, with Johnson as a soldier endangered by shrapnel near his heart. Johnson also played a major role in one of the finest of all WWII films, "Battleground" (1949), about an Allied platoon in the Battle of Bastogne, and "Go for Broke!" (1951), both for director and real-life veteran Robert Pirosh.Sometimes, though, Johnson's attempts at more serious acting were hampered by his early screen persona. "State of the Union" (1948) emphasized Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, and "The Caine Mutiny" (1954) threw all the acting meat to Humphrey Bogart, Jose Ferrer and Fred MacMurray; leaving Johnson with routine heroics. As middle-age dawned, Johnson's features became heavier and acquired a slightly worried look, but he did well in offbeat entries while free-lancing. "The Bottom of the Bottle" (1956) was unabashed melodrama, but gave Johnson a complex role as an alcoholic. He also did very well as a blind detective in the fondly remembered "23 Paces to Baker Street" (1956) and he reteamed with Vera Miles from the latter for the British-made "Beyond This Place" (1959). Johnson was also a regular in homes during the Thanksgiving holidays, thanks to his turn as "The Pied Piper of Hamlin" (NBC, 1957), a musical TV-movie based on the p m by Robert Browning.Films like "Kelly and Me" (1957), which teamed Johnson with a performing dog, did not help his film career, and feature film work since the 1960s was irregular. With his MGM contract now expired, he freelanced for other studios, working frequently in nightclubs and musicals; most notably in London productions of "The Music Man" (1961) and "Come on Strong" in Broadway's 1962 season. Operations for skin cancer and the removal of a lymph gland took him out of the picture in the mid 1960s, but he was back on television and in features by the end of the decade. Now firmly established as affable support, he appeared in family comedies like "Yours, Mine and Ours" (1968), thrillers such as "Company of Killers" (1970) and even several genre pictures in Europe.A late career high came in 1976 with an Emmy nomination for "Rich Man, Poor Man" (ABC), which led to more work on the small screen in "Superdome" (1978) and "Glitter" (1984). Throughout the 1980s, he was busy in dinner theater and the straw-hat circuit. In 1985, he received critical and box-office acclaim when he returned to Broadway as one of original star Gene Barry's replacements in the flashy but warm gay-themed musical, "La Cage aux Folles," and he gave an amusing turn as one of the stars in the film-within-a-film that highlighted Woody Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo" (1985). The 1990s saw Johnson on stage in productions of "No, No, Nanette" and "Show Boat," though he was forced to abandon the latter due to health concerns in 1991. A regular on television documentaries about the Hollywood of yore, he was a genial and informative interview subject, most notably for "Burt Reynolds' Conversations With " (CBS, 1991), for which he was joined by the likes of James Stewart, Ricardo Montalban and his "Human Comedy" co-star Mickey Rooney. After retiring to an assisted living facility in the new millennium, Johnson died Dec. 12, 2008 at the age of 92. His legacy was a true rarity in movie circles - he had outlasted virtually all male actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood and had managed to work solidly way into his golden years, unlike many of his peers.
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