Born Joseph Meibes in Düsseldorf, Germany in 1926, his family fled the Nazi regime when he was just a boy. He lived in the U.S. for enough of his youth that he was able to assimilate and become virtually indistinguishable as a foreigner. In fact, he went on to play creditably in many westerns. A slim, but fit, young man, he possessed a thick, beautiful head of wavy hair.
Studying at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts, his class included such varying types as Don Murray, Grace Kelly and Don Rickles. Will someone explain to me how I never knew that Grace Kelly and Don Rickles went to acting school together and probably played scenes in class?!
Things didn’t happen overnight for him, but by 1950 (already 24) he had landed in some TV anthology series and within a year was granted a huge break in films. He was selected by Fred Zinneman (out of three hundred auditionees!) to star in the romantic drama Teresa opposite Pier Angeli. Photo after photo after photo was shot promoting the actor (now re-dubbed John Ericson) both in and out of scenes from the picture.
His fresh, clean looks attracted many a young female fan, though his character in the movie was something of a whiny, troubled, helpless – and most importantly – not terribly sympathetic young man. Playing a soldier returning from the war with a new bride (who’s Italian), he is subject to various family and social pressures and doesn’t handle them very well. Most of the accolades went to the more sympathetic Angeli, granting Ericson’s film debut only middling promise.
He went back to Broadway and did enjoy a success there, the play Stalag 17, in which he had the lead. Unfortunately, when the film was made two years later, he was passed up and the role went to William Holden. (To rub salt in the wound, Holden took home an Oscar for the part!) Ericson eventually returned to the big screen in 1954 (after having married a Milly Coury in 1953) in a colorful and melodic romance, Rhapsody.
Here, he was part of a triangle that included Vittorio Gassman and a captivatingly lovely Elizabeth Taylor, who was making the transition from youthful parts to ingénue roles. He played a concert pianist who falls hard for the beautiful Miss Taylor even though she is already in love with Gassman. Again portraying an ex-G. I., circumstances in the story led his character to alcoholism, meaning that he was once more playing a flawed character on the big screen rather than a heroic one which might have helped build up his early career.
That same year he appeared in two other films. In The Student Prince, he was given third billing behind its leading players, but he’s really not in it much. Also, it is an operetta and he has no singing, further leading him out of the spotlight. Hair dyed blonde, he plays a military cadet in old Heidelberg, who takes umbrage at the title character and challenges him to a duel.
The film is mostly notable for the fact that the intended star, operatic Mario Lanza, walked off the picture and was replaced by non-singing Edmond Purdom. As a way of freeing himself from legal entanglements, Lanza allowed Purdom to lip-sync to his vocals (something Purdom does quite well, actually!) Ann Blyth, who played the leading lady, supplied her own vocals (the part had been offered to Deanna Durbin who steadfastly refused to come out of her remarkably early retirement from the screen.)
Rounding out 1954 was a role in Green Fire, a drama about emerald mining in Columbia that starred Stewart Granger and Ericson’s old classmate Grace Kelly. He played her brother, a young man keen on recovering all the emeralds he can while his sister is left to maintain their coffee plantation with little to no help. The film counts as a minor one on nearly all the participants’ resumes (and shouldn’t it be John and not costar Paul Douglas whose shirt is open that far?!)
The following year, Ericson had a good role in a really strong film filled with solid actors. Bad Day at Black Rock had Spencer Tracy as a man with only one good arm who comes to the title town to locate a man who is no longer there and who everyone keeps trying to avoid talking about. Among the great cast were Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, Walter Brennan, Dean Jagger and Anne Francis, who played Ericson’s sister. Ericson got to square off with Tracy as did virtually everyone playing a townsperson. I had no desire to see this movie, but one day it was on and its reputation and its 81-minute running time attracted me. It is well worth watching even if you are like me and don’t normally worship at the Spencer Tracy altar the way most people seem to.
Finally getting a leading role in a film all his own, he next starred in The Return of Jack Slade, a western that had him as the son of a gunman who exists under the weight of that legacy until he’s hired as a Pinkerton guard and makes a name for himself. Buried in the cast was newcomer Angie Dickinson in her first fully credited film role while Mari Blanchard had leading lady duties in this one.
Ericson and Blanchard were reunited a year later in The Cruel Tower, about the dangerous profession of constructing water towers and the complicated love lives of the workers. Already, during this period, Ericson was also appearing regularly on TV in shows such as Kraft Theatre, G.E. True Theater, Cavalcade of America, Climax! and Schlitz Playhouse.
A film called Forty Guns in 1957 put him as the brother of Barbara Stanwyck, though he was almost two decades her junior. The tough western had John maniacally running roughshod over anyone in his path, even it that included Stanwyck! Directed by Samuel Fuller, it was a stylish and interesting venture. There’s a special nook of The Underworld devoted to this movie because of the arresting sight of an outdoor bathhouse made up of six or so half-barrels with a sudsy cowboy in each one!
Following the familiar pattern of supporting roles in more important films and leading roles in secondary ones, Ericson found himself starring in Oregon Passage, an old-fashioned U.S. Cavalry versus Indians yarn. If you’re an Indian about to be done in, I guess there are worse ways to go than with John Ericson’s genitals pressed up against your ribcage. I’ll take that over a random gunshot from a distance.
Day of the Badman, a western starring Fred MacMurray, was a rehash of High Noon. Ericson plays the pompous and ineffectual sheriff of the town in which MacMurray is a judge being victimized by the family of a murderer he is about to sentence. Ericson would work frequently on television from this film until two years later when he starred in Pretty Boy Floyd as the title character. The film is more notable now, if at all, for an appearance by Peter Falk and the film debut of Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis in a rare dramatic role.
Under Ten Flags concerned the warfare between British Naval Admiral Charles Laughton and German Captain Van Heflin and was based, in part, on fact. Ericson played a German serving under Heflin (who, in order to make things more palatable, was depicted as not being entirely in line with Hitler’s plans.)
John’s film career began to slow down around this time. As he now had a wife and three children to support, he continued to appear on television, but also began working in Italian productions. He found, as many of his peers had, that good salaries were being paid to name brand American actors who were willing to appear in overseas productions, many of which were sword and sandal epics, westerns or the occasional spy flick.
One of the few Hollywood films he did at this time was 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, a George Pal fantasy starring Tony Randall as the title character who (with the help of elaborate makeup) enacts various different legendary figures as part of his traveling act. Ericson played the heroic and forthright newspaper editor of a small western town who is trying to fight a corrupt land baron, but who is also enamored of a pretty widow played by Barbara Eden. One of the vignettes of the film had Randall as the sexually alert Pan and he eventually transforms into Ericson as Pan, creating a pretty lusty moment for a movie aimed at children!
The opportunity to work regularly on a TV series came when Honey West was produced. Based on a character from 1950s pulp crime novels, the series starred Ericson’s costar from Bad Day at Black Rock, Anne Francis, as the title character and he played her sidekick Sam Bolt. Francis’s sexy black jumpsuits were akin to Diana Rigg’s get-ups from The Avengers. The show lasted for 30 episodes before being cancelled, but it inspired a cult following that still exists today.
Ericson continued to make the occasional American film while heading off intermittently to Italy or Spain to headline something there. Often in these foreign films, he was the only English-speaking actor (and familiar name to U.S. viewers) in the cast. These films also contained a little more skin than U.S. viewers were used to, though that would soon change.
His American films were certainly not of any tremendous caliber and most of them are little known today. The Money Jungle had him with blondes Lola Albright and Leslie Parrish as he tries to determine who is killing geologists from major companies. The Destructors was a spy film starring Richard Egan and Michael Ansara that had a team battling Red China over some rubies that help to power a strong laser weapon.
The Bamboo Saucer had him once again battling the Red Chinese over a missing spacecraft that has fallen in their territory. Most sci-fi fans consider the film better than the title and obscure reputation suggests, but it was still a minor effort, even with the declining Dan Duryea in the leading role.
In 1971, Ericson had a part in the Disney musical, semi-animated extravaganza Bedknobs and Broomsticks. The mammoth film was hacked down at least twice to make it a manageable length for children and still it was not the success that the studio was expecting. Ericson played a Nazi who is thwarted by the spells of amateur witch Angela Lansbury. He was also making many guest appearances on popular TV shows such as Ironside, Marcus Welby, M.D., The Virginian and Medical Center.
By late 1973, feeling that his career could use a jump-start, he agreed to pose for Playgirl magazine in the January 1974 issue. Romping naked through Lion Country Safari with a cub or two used as props, he was shown from behind and with an occasional, partly obscured peek at John Jr. Later, when the magazine wanted to rerun some of the photos for a “Best of” compendium, he agreed so long as the pictures were cropped of any genital exposure and providing his headshot was featured on part of the cover. When the magazine failed to place him on the cover, he sued, winning an eventual $12,500 in damages.
The exercise did very little, if anything, to reignite his career and in time he felt that the layout came off as rather silly. He also married for the second time in 1974, though I don’t know what effect, if any, the layout had on cementing or challenging the relationship. John and Karen (nee Huston) remain together to this day. Though he continued to work regularly on TV, the best he could get for a movie was the sleazy Hustler Squad, a sort of rehash of The Dirty Dozen only with females sleeping with the enemy during WWII in order to beat them! Wife Karen costarred in this gem as well.
John Ericson managed to look younger than he actually was for quite some time. Consider that when he was busily guest-starring on Fantasy Island, CHiPs, The A-Team and Knight Rider, he was well over 50 and didn't seem so. There were some cheap, straight-to-video action movies and the obligatory stop on Murder, She Wrote, among other things, until he went into semi-retirement. He is 84 years old now and worked as recently as 2008 in the cable series Crash. Content mostly to paint at the home in New Mexico he shares with his wife, he has no need to continue working. Surprisingly, his career in TV and movies lasted close to sixty years! He was not able to reach a significant level of stardom, but he worked with some of the top names in the cinema and stayed busy working for most of his lengthy career.