Through most of his 125-plus films, former box office champ Van Johnson was famous for a boyish, All-American image that made Jack Armstrong look criminal by comparison. With a cherubic, freckled face, wavy red hair and a smile that seldom set, the star of some of MGM’s most successful romantic comedies and musicals charmed fans and even the powerful Hollywood columnists of the ’40s and ’50s. Three decades later Johnson’s sunny disposition is intact but more likely to be found splashed across canvas than the movie screen. “I paint,” says the 71-year-old actor, “to express my own inner happiness.”
Ample evidence was available in exhibit one: the Van Johnson Premiere Art Show—Pure Colours, the artist’s first major public showing, held in a Dallas gallery last month. Sixty-three paintings were exhibited, all exuberant renderings in dazzling color of pet cats, bright flowers, sun-drenched villages, city scenes and landscapes. Ranging in price from $1,200 to $10,000, the paintings showed no variation in gusto. It was the almost primitive “happy quality” of Johnson’s work, says Florence Art Gallery owner Estelle Shwiff, that led her to produce the show. Johnson’s paintings, she says, are “honest, bright, full of giving and open.”
Johnson uses bold acrylics straight from the tube and composes in what he calls his “Van Go” style: “I like to paint in one swell foop.”
That wasn’t always the case, though Johnson has been a serious amateur painter since the ’40s. “I was on the Onassis boat with Winston Churchill one time,” he says. “He got his canvas out and so did I. He was working away, and I was staring and thinking, and he growled at me, ‘Don’t just sit there and stare! Get some paint and splash it on!’ Greta Garbo was there and she just stared too. But he didn’t growl at her, I noticed. Edward G. Robinson lost his patience with me once and told me, ‘Son, just get some paint and mess up the canvas. Then straighten it out.’ Now I usually finish a painting in one day. I’ll start about 9 in the morning and finish by bedtime.”
Encouraged by MGM stablemates and Lionel Barrymore and Spencer Tracy to put his between-picture and on-location downtime to productive use, Johnson began attending Sunday afternoon painting sessions at Claudette Colbert’s house with a group of weekend painters that included Dinah Shore, Lilli Palmer, Tony Curtis, Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda. The atmosphere, Johnson says, “was like a church.” Fonda’s paintings were “like photographs. He’d draw for a year on one piece. Gary Cooper did the same sort of work. I like faster work. I’m too impatient. Lilli Palmer worked the same way I did, and everybody was wild about her work. Somebody was admiring Cooper’s fine, draftsman like work, and Claudette, who was very, very good—everybody respected her—said, ‘Well, you have to paint like Gary before you can learn to paint like Lilli.’ ”
Though he studied painting in high school, Johnson gave it up for show business. Born in Rhode Island in 1916, the son of a housewife and a plumbing contractor, he says that he arrived in New York in 1934 with a straw suitcase, $5 and instructions from home to “always wipe the silverware and never eat a rare hamburger.” Eager to make it in theater, the 6’3″ dancer impressed one chorus line director who, Johnson remembers, remarked that “no matter how far back I put that big, redheaded kid from Newport, he always seems to be standing in the spotlight.”
Screen-tested by a casting director who saw him lunching with old hoofer pal Lucille Ball while on a 1941 visit to Hollywood, Johnson spent almost 20 years under contract to MGM. The studio teamed him with such stars as Janet Leigh, Judy Garland, Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Lana Turner and Katharine Hepburn in a succession of hit films, including Brigadoon, The Last Time I Saw Paris, State of the Union, 30 Seconds Over Tokyo and The Caine Mutiny. “I was star struck,” Johnson recalls. “I was around people like Errol Flynn, Orson Welles, Charles Laughton and so many others. I was in awe most of the time. I couldn’t believe it.”
In 1947 Johnson, by then earning $8,000 per week, more than Gable or any other MGM star, married Eve Wynn in Juarez, Mexico, four hours after her divorce from his pal Keenan Wynn became official. The marriage, which produced one child (Schuyler, 39, lives on the West Coast and rarely sees Johnson), ended in separation 13 years later. Bitter court proceedings dragged on until 1968. “She wiped me out in the ugliest divorce in Hollywood history,” Johnson told reporters at the end of the ordeal.
When his MGM contract expired in the late ’50s, Johnson returned to the stage, appearing in London for a two-year run of The Music Man. Following successful operations for malignant melanoma in 1962 and 1964, he resumed acting in Broadway revivals and regional theater, making only a handful of films between Wives and Lovers in 1963 and Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo in 1985.
Although a critic once griped that Johnson projected just two emotions—”worried and happy”—the actor says he found real happiness becoming the King of Dinner Theater, as he jokingly dubs himself. The movies, he insists, can reel on without him. “Whatever happened to sweet, romantic films?” he says of Hollywood’s—and his—glory days. “Now the main ingredients of so many films have to do with smashing up cars or someone getting stabbed to death.”
Johnson still performs onstage occasionally—in 1985 he was on Broadway in La Cage aux Folles, and he ended 1987 by appearing in the musical The Twelve Dreams of Christmas in Richmond, Va.—and keeps a penthouse in Manhattan that he shares with three former stray cats. He says he has “been celibate for 10 years,” but isn’t lonely, and spends his free time painting. “As an actor you hit your marks and say your lines,” he says. “It’s almost impossible to maintain spontaneity. In painting, each stroke is new, unconditioned and very exciting.”
Johnson says that, for him, painting has the power to stop time as well as heighten the senses. “Flowers,” he says of a favorite motif, “have always meant a great deal to me. I’ve been to so many Hollywood funerals. I always say, ‘I want to see the flowers now, when I’m alive.’ ”
“Painting makes me feel young and close to the creative source,” he adds. “I have learned much about myself through canvas and brush. No deep hidden meanings, but a celebration of my love affair with life. I love every minute of it.”