You can come out from under your chair now. Not Gavin McLeod… John Gavin, that most handsome and gentlemanly of 1950s leading men! Born John Anthony Golenor in Los Angeles in 1931, it is a lesser-known fact among many of his fans that he was half-Mexican. His father was an Irishman whose ancestors had been landowners in California and his mother was a member of the prominent Pablos family who had lived in Sonora, Mexico. Later, his mother would remarry a Ray Gavin and John eventually took the name as well.
Gavin was schooled in a military academy, followed by enrollment at Stanford University where he studied Latin American economics and received a B.A. degree. Having participated in naval ROTC at Stanford, he was commissioned in the U.S. Navy during The Korean War where his language skills (both Spanish and Portuguese) allowed him to serve our country most ably. Following the war, he offered himself as a technical advisor to a film about the U.S. Navy, but after one look at the dashing, 6’4” hunk in his uniform, he was offered a screen test instead by Universal-International execs. Looking at the early publicity photo above, I do believe he was eventually given a leaner nose (and perhaps even had his ears worked on!)
Immediately offered a contract (and whether he knew it or not, was retained as a threat to U-I’s rising star Rock Hudson), he was put to work in a small role in the western Raw Edge (under the temporary screen name of John Gilmore.) Next, he played a prison escapee in Behind the High Wall, which starred Tom Tully and Sylvia Sidney. Gavin’s love interest was portrayed by Betty Lynn, who would later be known best for playing Don Knotts’ gal Thelma Lou on The Andy Griffith Show. Gavin showed much promise in this early role as a small time crook who wants to go straight.
After appearing in the Hollywood filmmaking drama Four Girls in Town with many of his fellow contract players (and Gia Scala, with whom he shared most of his scenes), he was cast in the western Quantez. Here, in support of Fred MacMurray and Dorothy Malone, he is acting in the type of role that would very soon seem completely out of character for him. He played an unshaven(!), tough, bad guy. One of his scenes involved a down and dirty fight sequence that ended up in a mud bath. That he would practically never do anything like this again is demonstrative of the kind of smothering, cookie-cutter typecasting that was standard for the time and would very soon envelope him.
By now having shown that he was not only impossibly handsome on screen, but also adept at delivering lines, he was granted a huge buildup in a film all his own. A Time to Love and a Time to Die was a Douglas Sirk-directed romance/war drama based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque (who wrote the classic All Quiet on the Western Front.) Gavin played a German Soldier returning from the punishing Russian front to find his home destroyed and his parents missing. He meets a young lady (Lisolette Pulver) who offers him comfort during his struggle. The grim story could not have been any more out of step with the fun, free and frothy year of 1958, but under Sirk’s direction, it is beautiful and Gavin, with his hair trimmed short in the back, is divinely easy on the eyes. He even has a very brief shirtless scene, but the demure John was never, ever one to capitalize on his exquisite body, certainly not at this stage of his career especially.
Among the supporting cast were Jock Mahoney, Don DeFore, Keenan Wynn and even the author himself, Remarque, as Pulver’s professor father, who is shuttled off to a concentration camp for political reasons. Though it remains only a middlingly familiar title among Sirk’s catalogue, Jean-Luc Godard considered it his favorite of the director’s films. Though Gavin would go on to many other successes, this was one of the few times he would be the primary focus of a film. He’d most often play leading man to a series of very famous and, often, very beautiful actresses.
In 1959, he was a key part of one of the most supreme cinematic soap operas ever, the richly appointed, high strung Imitation of Life, also directed by Douglas Sirk (his last American film, in fact.) A remake of a 1934 Claudette Colbert film, this plush, eye-popping movie concerned a burgeoning actress (Lana Turner) and mother of a young girl who takes in a black mother and daughter creating a foursome with all energies aimed at making the actress a success. Then with success comes much unhappiness as the black daughter wishes to pass as white and the actress’s daughter is emotionally disconnected from her mother. Gavin played the earnest and suave boyfriend of Turner who can’t compete with her drive to succeed and who eventually becomes the object of affection of the daughter, played by Sandra Dee. The tear-jerking sudser became Universal’s top moneymaker of that year (and for a while, of all time!), though there was the fact that Gavin’s own participation in it was not among the more standout features remembered by most audiences.
1960 proved to be quite a year for Gavin. First up was the film A Breath of Scandal, starring Sophia Loren. Gavin played a good-looking American gentleman who runs into Loren and winds up falling for her, not knowing at first that she’s a princess! Also on board were Maurice Chevalier as Loren’s father and Angela Lansbury as a gossipy troublemaker. Gavin enjoyed canoodling with Sophia during the shoot, but later joked about having to pick her and her attributes up! You can see him admiring her best features in the shot attached here. Sadly, for him, he was beginning to demonstrate a level of understatedness in his performing (and speaking) that many described as wooden.
That same year, he was cast in Psycho as Janet Leigh’s lover, a man who later must trail after her when she makes off with a large sum of money. Publicity photos for the now-legendary film featured Gavin, Leigh and Vera Miles (as Leigh’s sister) in a variety of mysterious and spooky poses, though they are never actually all three together at any point in the film! Hitchcock wanted there to be mystery as to who the psycho of the title even was. (By the way, Miles was forced to wear a wig for the film because she had completely clipped all the hair off her head for her previous movie, 5 Branded Women, about five ladies who are tormented and shunned for having consorted with the enemy during the war.)
The film opened with Leigh and Gavin in a scantily clad (for that time) bedroom scene with him shirtless and her in a bra and slip. Gavin had always adamantly avoided beefcake shots or exploitive sequences, though his body was in stunning shape. For Hitchcock, he did what he was instructed to do (though Hitch also found him to be less than animated, referring to him later as “The Stiff!”) In the abysmal remake by Gus Van Sant in 1998, Viggo Mortensen went one step further than Gavin and showed rear nudity.
The casting of Gavin, though surely mandated by the studio, made for an interesting contrast in the film, for he was a confident, strong, sexually assured male in deep contrast to Anthony Perkins who played a meek, insecure, jittery, inhibited person with exceedingly similar coloring and hairstyle. They are frequently shown facing each other, like some sort of opposite sides of a coin. Once again, Gavin was part of an immensely successful film, but one in which his contributions to it are not among the most remembered aspects.
That trend continued when he played (the unlikely role of) Julius Caesar in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. Kirk Douglas had the title role with Tony Curtis as his right hand man. It’s hard to imagine how in the world the debonair and contemporary looking Gavin wound up in such a part, but there he is. His ordinarily razor-sharp side part was done away with as he wore his hair cropped forward. Certainly, it was no surprise that he looked chiseled and handsome in his toga finery and gladiatoresque garb. He was also hobnobbing with some major league actors including Peter Ustinov, Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton.
If he looked great in his cloaks and breastplates, he looked even better in the Roman bathhouse scenes in which his dead-sexy physique was covered up only by a white towel. Laughton was an amazing actor, but anyone could look great next to him in these scenes, however! The film was yet another rousing success, one that is still well thought of today, but he is not the first person in it that people recalling the cast would name. It was a trifecta of smash hits and a trifecta of only moderate artistic and/or critical personal success.
Amazingly, he still had one more film come out in 1960 and that was the ultra-glossy suspense flick Midnight Lace. Doris Day played the pretty wife of a British Diplomat (Rex Harrison) in London who is tormented repeatedly by harassing and disturbing phone calls. The name brand cast also included Roddy MacDowall, Herbert Marshall and Myrna Loy.
Gavin, like most of the rest of the performers played someone who may or may not be behind the phone calls. Just as it was in so many other films, his dark good looks contrasted beautifully with his light blonde leading lady. Publicity stills from Gavin’s career seem to disproportionately feature him in profile, often snuggling against or looking down upon an attractive, usually blonde, leading lady. The result is that it is surprisingly hard to find photos of him that feature his eyes or his whole face! His strong profile tended to be favored in the bulk of the photos.
In 1961, he was costarred with Sandra Dee twice in a row. First up was Romanoff and Juliet. Based on a successful Broadway play, it was a sort of updating of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to the Cold War era. Peter Ustinov adapted the play, directed it and starred in it, ensuring that he would be given ample spotlight and enjoyable dialogue, thus Gavin and Dee leaned more toward the area of window dressing, despite the title.
Things went even further south (at least where he and his career were concerned) when he and Dee did the comedy Tammy Tell Me True, a sequel to Debbie Reynolds’ Tammy, with Dee taking over the title role of a country bumpkin. He played a college speech professor who wins Dee’s heart. Frankly, if any of my professors had looked like John Gavin, I might still be in school myself!
1961 also brought one of his more enduringly popular films, at least amongst aficionados of the women’s picture set. Back Street was a luxurious soap opera (based on an old Fannie Hearst novel, which had already been filmed twice before.) This version bore precious little resemblance to the source novel, but offered up many treats of its own, especially to fans of those glossy tearjerkers that could only come from the 50s and 60s.
He played a wealthy department store chain owner who falls in love with a young lady (Susan Hayward) who dreams of becoming a fashion designer. Circumstances prevent them from staying together upon first meeting, but later they run into each other again once she is successful. They meet over the fallen down body of his drunken wife (and recent Psycho costar) Vera Miles! He has been married to Miles and has two children by her, thus complicating the resultant reunion between him and Hayward.
Miles couldn’t possibly be more deliciously nasty as his hateful, vindictive shrew of a wife. Hayward does a lot of suffering. Gavin tries to maintain some semblance of nobility despite knowing that his choices are painting him as an unfit father to his snot-nosed, amazingly unappealing son. It was not an important film, but it pleased many a fan. (Even now, VHS copies of the out-of-print movie sell for $42 to $69 new at Amazon.com! Mine is in a fur-lined, diamond encrusted lock box with a Rotweiller guarding it.)
Following Back Street, Gavin entered a whole new realm. He broke into the world of public service as a special advisor to the secretary general of The Organization of American States. He held the position until 1973. It was only the first of many civic and governmental positions he would assume over the rest of the course of his life. In 1965, he joined the board of the Screen Actors Guild, a very important show business union of which he would eventually be president for several years.
His acting career continued. He was in two short-lived television series, Destry and Convoy, both produced by Universal (by then Universal/MCA.) He also worked in episodic TV (including an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.) He divorced his wife (and the mother of his two children) in 1965 with whom he’d been married since 1957. (Incidentally, this wife – Cicely Evans – had been cast in Imitation of Life as one of his lady friends.) In 1967, he returned to the big screen after a six-year absence in a surprising film. He played the love struck suitor of Mary Tyler Moore in Julie Andrews’ musical Thoroughly Modern Millie.
Next, he starred in the French-Italian made James Bond rip-off OSS 117 – Double Agent. Duded out in a tuxedo for part of the time, he made the most of this one of many take-offs on the other successful franchise starring Sean Connery. Rarely seen now, what really takes the cake for Gavin fans is a scene in which he is awoken from slumber and has to fight for his life while wearing nothing but a bed sheet! Eventually, even that is disposed of and he is left with only a newspaper to cover himself up. At age 40, he was still showing off a jaw-dropping body at a time when exercise was not at the top of everyone’s list of favorite (or necessary) things to do.
By now determined to stretch himself and not fall back into the generic romantic leading roles he had previously been pigeonholed into, he found himself among the varied supporting cast members of Katharine Hepburn’s The Madwoman of Chaillot. His work in this project placed him alongside Yul Brynner, Oskar Homolka, Paul Henreid and Donald Pleasance. Playing a reverend, he might have been able to get even me into a pew.
In 1970, Gavin was cast in a sequel to What’s New Pussycat? that was disowned by everyone associated with the original. Pussycat, Pussycat, I Love You had Ian McShane recounting his sexual exploits to a psychiatrist. Gavin played a Hollywood star named Grant Granite, which was a nod to his infamously rigid style (even his own sister reportedly once referred to him as “Mr. Park Bench!”)
By now, Gavin was not only losing his footing amidst the sweeping (and permissive) changes in the cinema, but he was becoming more and more interested in pursuing business interests as well as positions within organizations he admired. He still appeared in the odd movie and increasingly turned to guest spots on TV (in series like The Doris Day Show, Mannix, Medical Center and even The Love Boat.)
In 1974, he married the statuesque Constance Towers, an actress and singer he had first met back in the 50s when they were married to other people. Rekindling their interest in each other, they formed a family with their two kids apiece and started over together. Gavin also appeared on stage in The Fantastiks and worked on Broadway in Seesaw opposite Michele Lee, showing off a previously unheard baritone voice. He toured with that show as well with Lucie Arnaz. When Dennis Weaver won the presidency of SAG over him in 1973, he flew from New York City where he was in Seesaw to shake Weaver’s hand. It was an act that endeared him to his former rival.
As the 70s drew to a close, Gavin had appeared in the TV miniseries Doctor’s Private Lives and in the Carrie knock-off Jennifer, in which he played a senator whose troubled daughter has the power to summon snakes to carry out revenge on her tormentors! This gem (unseen by me as of yet!) has Nina Foch, Jeff Corey, Wesley Eure and Bert Convy among its cast!) In 1980, Sophia Loren starred as her mother and as herself in Sophia Loren: Her Own Story and cast Gavin as her old costar and defeated suitor Cary Grant!
Within a year, Gavin would exit show business completely and become fully ensconced in the world of diplomacy. President Reagan appointed him Ambassador to Mexico and he and Constance lived there for five years as he negotiated various deals and policies on behalf of the Mexican people. (She, starring on the daytime soap Capitol, made 3000-mile commutes to L.A. during this time!) Rankled at first by the idea of an ex-actor as their representative for the U.S., his deep commitment to his post (and his long held ability to speak Spanish fluently) eventually won over most of his critics. His ebullient Mexican mother also filled in occasionally for Towers, further hushing his detractors. He’s shown here surveying the damage from the 1985 Mexico City earthquake with Miss Nancy Reagan. He continues to participate in many charitable causes, companies and events.
It’s hard to believe that someone with hair as thick and dark as Gavin’s was would face losing it, but that’s exactly what happened as he entered his 50s. Having given up his acting career forever after 1981, he no longer needed to be concerned with so shallow a concern, though he still, at almost 80 (!), cuts a dashing figure with his stylish wife when they attend various public events. (She has been playing Helena Cassadine on General Hospital for about a decade now.)
Gavin had a film career that included some bona fide classics, but he never won tremendous praise for his acting. Perhaps it is because, from the very start, acting was a detour from the type of work he really longed to do. He was too smart and too dignified to really dive off the cliff into the sort of roles that get attention. And with his looks and in the time he was carving out a career, he was hamstrung from being much of anything beyond a supportive dreamboat. A meticulous and detailed man (he has been known to straighten skewed silverware at place settings), he maintained his dignity and his health over the long haul while allowing us to revel in his carved beauty for a period of time.