Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Fond Farewell: John Gavin, 1931-2018

The other day, February 9th, the world lost one of its most ideally handsome faces, that of 1950s & '60s movie actor John Gavin. Gavin, a somewhat polarizing figure among film buffs because of his gentle, understated style which many found stiff and wooden, wound up appearing in more than a few classic pictures, some of which rank among my own all-time favorites. When his acting career began to taper off, he turned to public service and found success there as well. He'd been suffering for a while from leukemia in recent years and was felled by pneumonia at age eighty-six. A full-on tribute to Mr. Gavin was done here years ago, but on the occasion of his demise we revisit him once again.
While serving in the U.S. Navy, Gavin was set to serve as technical advisor on a film, but upon glancing the 6'4" darkly handsome hunk, Universal Studios offered him a screen test. He was soon put under contract as a sort of back-up Rock Hudson, who many felt he resembled. He made two minor films in 1956.
He did resemble Hudson in some ways, yet in this photo one can see some of the previous dark-hued matinee idol of the 1940s, Tyrone Power. The brown eyes and hair came courtesy of Gavin's Spanish, Chilean and Mexican heritage. Born in America as Juan Vincent Apablasa Jr, not too many folks were aware that he was almost fully Latino. When his mother remarried, he became John Golenar until (upon release of this third film, Four Girls in Town, 1957) he was rechristened John Gavin.
Gavin's fourth movie was the western Quantez (1957), in support of Fred MacMurray and Dorothy Malone.
This promotional cigarette card of the period somehow manages to give him blue eyes!
Now with the moniker (and monogrammed shirts to go with!) of John Anthony Gavin, he was a stalwart, devastatingly handsome gentleman on the brink of stardom as a leading man.
Unfortunately for him, his first outing as the star of a motion picture was A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958.) Directed by Douglas Sirk, who had already made a star of the aforementioned Hudson, the dramatic WWII romance was released at a time when audiences preferred established stars and movies with less somber subject matter. He and Lilo Pulver were not exactly household names (though she had extensive European credits prior to this) and the downbeat nature of the movie failed to gather large audiences. 
Sirk utilized him once again, though, in 1959's Imitation of Life, as the love interest of Miss Lana Turner. The dazzling soap opera of mother love and racial intolerance was a gargantuan hit (the highest in Universal's history until dethroned in 1970 by Airport.)
Gavin began establishing himself (though certainly through no design of his own!) as a gallant, reliable leading man who might occasionally steal the audience's focus thanks to his own good looks, but had little chance of distracting anyone from the leading lady's acting histrionics. Here, he's seen with Sophia Loren in A Breath of Scandal (1960.)
Another film of his that will eternally stand the test of time was 1960's Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. In it, he played the secret lover of Janet Leigh, who later pairs up with her sister Vera Miles once Leigh goes missing (along with a small fortune in cash.)
No one was accusing him of out-acting the movie's star Anthony Perkins (Hitchcock referred to Gavin as "the stiff" at times during interviews), but he was desirable enough to make Leigh pilfer a huge wad of dough from her boss in order to steal away and create a new life with her handsome lover.
A change of pace came with Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960), in which Gavin played Julius Caesar. I'm not sure if they truly got the resemblance they seemed to be looking for here, but it scarcely matters... we just love his 5 o'clock scruff and tousled hair.
Gavin's scenes in the Roman bathhouse opposite Laurence Olivier are the stuff of legend and fantasy! Gavin, who had steadfastly resisted any sort of beefcake prior to 1960, displayed a physique to die for (and in more than one photo out there, Olivier seems to be unable to look away from it himself!)
In the thriller Midnight Lace (1960), it was back to providing a (strong, gorgeous) shoulder for the leading lady, in this case a hysterical Doris Day.
1961 brought two films opposite Sandra Dee, with whom he'd worked in Imitation of Life two years prior. The movies were Romanoff and Juliet (directed by and featuring his Spartacus costar Peter Ustinov) and Tammy Tell Me True, in which he played a college English teacher.
He was the love interest of Susan Hayward (fourteen years his senior) in the plush soap opera Back Street (1961.)
The movie is a huge favorite of mine, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't due in large part to the hyper-bitchy role that his Psycho costar Vera Miles plays in it.
After Back Street, Gavin moved to television, in Universal products. He starred in the short-lived series Destry (as shown here), worked twice on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and attempted a second series, Convoy, which, like his prior attempt, only lasted 13 episodes before cancellation.
Taking career matters into his own hands in 1967, he headed to Mexico and starred in Pedro Paramo (based on a famous novel there), in which he was able to put his fluent Spanish to great use. Though little-seen in the U.S., the film is considered by many to be quite excellent and was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
While filming Pedro Paramo in Mexico, he read about the casting of a new movie musical called Thoroughly Modern Millie, produced by Ross Hunter. Gavin had worked in four prior Hunter-produced movies and suggested that if the movie needed a genial, charming, but straight-laced, type of guy then he'd be perfect for it! Thus, he wound up in the colorful escapade alongside Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore.
From this he headed to the European-made OSS 117 Murder for Sale (1968) an obvious rip-off, one of dozens at the time, of the popular and profitable James Bond 007 series of blockbusters.
What was notable about this one, and Gavin, is that 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service had featured a new James Bond - George Lazenby - when Sean Connery had departed the role and Lazenby was not coming back for the follow-up film. Until Connery finally opted to return (with much coaxing and monetary consideration), Gavin was on deck to portray the famed spy in Diamonds Are Forever and, in fact, was paid his full salary by United Artists without ever having set foot in front of the camera!
Gavin continued to make the odd low-budget film, TV appearances (including The Doris Day Show) and TV-movies, but turned his attention to the stage, surprising many with his baritone voice in The Fantasticks and then replacing Ken Howard in Broadway's Seesaw, a musical based on Two for the Seesaw, opposite Michele Lee. He also toured the U.S. with that Michael Bennett-directed show opposite Lucie Arnaz.
Divorced from his first wife since 1965, Gavin met and married actress Constance Towers. Their forty-four year union ended only with his recent death and was a happy one for them both.
In projects like the TV-movie Doctors' Private Lives (1979), he was still appearing frequently. Gavin portrayed Cary Grant in Sophia Loren's 1980 televised biography, Sophia Loren: Her Own Story. He made the rounds on The Love Boat and Fantasy Island as well as Hart to Hart. But Gavin's own heart now lie elsewhere and he gave up acting entirely in 1981.
That chiseled granite face would now be put to use in business and public service. He'd already served as vice-president and president of SAG in the early-'70s. Sensing a need in the country from which his ancestors sprang, he was appointed by President Reagan as the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, a position which he fulfilled with considerable praise. Following that stint, he proceeded with many business ventures while also remaining active in charitable causes.
We adore Mr. Gavin for not only the physical beauty he brought to the screen in many projects, but also for the gentle, comforting, appealing personality he lent to his parts. Many stars of old are criticized by contemporary viewers for their overacting. That's something that Gavin need never have worried about! But his underplaying may make his work more accessible to those young'ns who are looking at classic films now.
The End.

9 comments:

Martin said...

Is there anything more beautiful than John Gavin in Spartacus, wearing nothing but a towel? I don't think so. I can stare at pictures from that scene for hours....

F. Nomen said...

His scene with Anthony Perkins in Psycho is one of the most weirdly sexualized scenes in cinematic history.

Tom Peeping said...

I never checked his birth name and had no idea he was Latino. John Gavin suited him perfectly. This Wilson guy sure had an eye and a talent for sexy names. Any film with Gavin is worth a look and a look again...

Gingerguy said...

So sad, but still had to laugh because my boyfriend kept asking me who Constance Towers was when we were reading the obituary, I still don't know but here she is in your photos. This was a glorious tour and thanks to you I realized that his quiet demeanor and low key acting style enhanced his looks. He's not just gorgeous although that's plenty. I also didn't realize until seeing them back to back in photos how many of my all time faves he was in. Millie, Midnight Lace, Backstreet, and Imitation, it's like my gay hall of fame. Funny about the spy movies, the character of OSS 117 showed up recently in two movies with Jean Dujardin, which are absolutely hilarious and highly recommended.
John Gavin was a dreamboat and lived a very admirable life, I think he would have appreciated this tribute very much.

VanceMan said...

I had no idea he was Latino, but once you said it, his whole career and ambassadorship made a lot more sense. Thanks for shining a spotlight on the late Mr. Gavin.

Stefano said...

I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Gavin last April when he signed up for a card at the library I work at. Still handsome in his mid 80s! I told him I was a fan, and had seen "Pedro Paramo" in one of its rare screenings (at LACMA); he said the film was not what it could have been, that Luis Bunuel was initially to have been the director. He thanked me warmly on leaving; I don't think he came back, but the image of him dressed in rancho white complete with cowboy hat will be a fond memory.

Rick Gould said...

Hey Poseidon,
Terrific tribute to John Gavin.
Never thought much of him as an actor, but he filled a need as a leading man to great leading ladies, much like George Brent did in a previous era.
And I never thought he looked like Rock Hudson, as much as they were the same type: Tall, dark, and handsome.
I'm glad this his ethnicity became more well-known as time went by, where stars could celebrate their diversity rather than have to play it down.
Gavin managed to star in some key films of his era, and that's something to be proud of.
Nice write up and lovely pics of the handsome Gavin.
Cheers,
Rick

Poseidon3 said...

Hello, my loves. Thanks for taking time to comment on this. Martin, John is just stunning in that towel. The widescreen high-depth captures of him are like art as far as I'm concerned. They should have edited that scene even longer and with more bathing! LOL At least they finally put Larry and Tony's "oyster-snail" scene back in. But even the publicity shots of Gavin in his gladiatorial toga are great!

F. Nomen, I almost wrote about how in "Psycho," a film with quite a few mirror images, Gavin is like a sort of reflection of Perkins, but the opposite. He's securely sexually, manly, etc... where Perkins is awkward and sexually confused. I think he was the perfect man for that job.

Tom Peeping, there was a fair amount of confusion out there for a while. Many times his birth name was listed as John Golenar, but in recent years someone has been attempting to correct it. I didn't want anyone to come down on me for misuse of the term Latino; lineage is not my forte, but he had a wide mix. I had once read earlier that there was also Irish in there! Whatever it is, he was handsome.

Gingerguy, Constance Towers was in a couple of John Ford westerns (I believe "The Horse Soldiers" and Sergeant Rutledge") and then worked twice to good effect for Sam Fuller. His two movies with her are RIGHT UP YOUR ALLEY! "The Naked Kiss" and "Shock Corridor." You'd adore them, especially the former. Then she was on the daytime soap "Capitol" in a principle role. For my part, I really need to see those OSS movies because I ADORE Jean Dujardin.

VanceMan, thank you! I'm really glad you liked this (and him!)

Stefano, that is amazing! I know Mr. G. lost his hair, but his face seemed to have held up as he aged. He always had such good physical bearing & posture, it seemed. It must be a great memory to have met him.

Thanks, Rick! I know he wasn't the next Spencer Tracy or Fredric March, but he was an amiable and appealing person in most movies he appeared in. I find his voice so soothing for some reason. I think so many times actors focus on their looks and their expressions and neglect the voice which, in the theatre anyway, is the thing that most patrons are able to discern the most clearly unless they're up close!

Gingerguy said...

Poseidon you just blew my mind,"The Naked Kiss" is one of the most shocking, deranged, and fabulous movies I have ever seen. I sure do know who Constance Towers was. John Gavin had great taste. Thanks!