On Sept. 1, as actress Connie Stevens sat by Troy Donahue’s hospital bedside in Santa Monica, a nurse leaned over to her. Donahue, she whispered to Stevens, “was my heartthrob.”
As he was to a generation of girls in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Donahue, who was 65 when he died Sept. 2 after heart surgery, was, says director John Waters, who cast him in 1990’s Cry-Baby, “a Technicolor movie star. He looked great in those teen melodramas.”
Born Merle Johnson Jr. in New York City in 1936, Donahue, whose father was a vice president at General Motors (his mother, Edith, was a stage actress), studied journalism at Columbia University but then moved to Hollywood. His big break—and official debut as a teen idol—came in 1959 with A Summer Place, in which he costarred opposite Sandra Dee. He went on to appear, often with Stevens, in such teen romances as Palm Springs Weekend and the TV series Surf side 6 and Hawaiian Eye. By 1965, as well-groomed teenagers went on the endangered species list, his movie career fizzled, and alcohol and drug abuse, long a presence in his life, took center stage. Homeless for a time, he was reduced, one summer, to living in New York City’s Central Park.
Donahue got sober in 1982, but his career never recovered the golden glow of his youth. Married four times-his first, to Rome Adventure costar Suzanne Pleshette, lasted just eight months in 1964—he continued to pick up small parts, including a cameo in The Godfather, Part II. The father of two grown children also worked on cruise ships, giving acting lessons to vacationers to whom his name was still magic. In 1991, on a cruise from Vancouver to Tahiti, he met and began a romance with Zheng Cao, now 35, a Chinese-born mezzo-soprano; they became engaged in 1999, and she was with him when he died. After seeing some of his early movies, says Cao, she immediately understood the secret of his long-ago stardom. “I was just like those girls,” she says. “I completely fell in love.”