Today we pay tribute to a hunk who first caught my attention when he dove from the surface to swim with two prominent underwater costars, ones that are as diametrically opposed from one another as you can get, unless you were to ask, perhaps, Arlene Dahl. More on that later. For now, let’s look at the life and career of one of The Underworld’s most adored specimens, the athletic and beautiful Mister John Bromfield!
Born Farron Bromfield in South Bend, Indiana in 1922, his family moved within a couple of years to the sunny shores of California (Venice, to be exact) where he grew up swimming, surfing and playing any sort of sport imaginable on the beach. While in high school, he became a notable member of the football squad and also took up boxing, developing a muscular, but lean build. Adding to the development of his physique was a summer job on board a commercial fishing boat, pulling in the gargantuan nets full of tuna and mackerel.
His proficiency at football led to a scholarship at St. Mary’s College. There he continued to excel at football and eventually boxing as well. He also continued to spend his summers on tuna boats, usually sailing in Mexico. A man who loved the sea, he began work as a soup fin shark hunter and continued doing that after graduation, the money being good and the workplace and lifestyle suiting him.
One day, while sitting on the beach mending shark nets, some documentary filmmakers approached him to ask some questions about fishing, eventually leading to their offer for him to come along with them to Alaska for an adventure film about whaling! The arctic surroundings and temperature were shocking to a tan California guy, but he soon assimilated and spent half a year working on the film, chasing whales and observing the many other species and phenomena of the land. Eventually released as Harpoon, he played the virile and handsome skipper of a 19th century whaling vessel. (In 1947, Eskimos still relied upon whale meat, blubber and so on for nourishment and warmth. This was not a sporting expedition or case of killing animals for use in the film. Bromfield’s two whales – one seventy-one tons and the other eighty-four – were turned over to a grateful Alaskan tribe.)
Bromfield’s traffic-stopping looks (check out that mop of gorgeous hair and his amazing eyelashes!) in the film led a Hollywood agent to represent him. In short time, he was enrolled in the David Selznick drama school and soon was cast in a feature film alongside no less than Burt Lancaster! He had a small role as a detective in the classic suspense film Sorry, Wrong Number, which starred Barbara Stanwyck as an invalid whose demise is being planned.
His next film, Rope of Sand, had him working again with Lancaster in a small role as a guard, but, more importantly, it is where he met the French leading lady Corinne Calvet. A recent import from Paris, this was her first American film. The two hit it off and were swiftly married, their dual attempts at Hollywood acting careers providing them with much-needed publicity. (Calvet’s performance in Rope of Sand is often considered a debit, but she clearly won over young Bromfield!)
Soon after, he had yet another meager role in a Bob Cummings/Lizabeth Scott soaper, Paid in Full, playing a doctor. The film is more notable, if at all, for providing the film debut of one Miss Carol Channing, in a small, uncredited part!
His next assignment was the Paramount film The Furies, released in 1950. This was a fiery western that also starred Walter Huston, Judith Anderson and Gilbert Roland. Bromfield was cast as Huston’s son and Stanwyck’s younger brother. His meek character didn’t exactly stand out and, in fact, disappears from the film after a while, but he was making strides and working with some distinguished people. The Furies, by the way, enjoys a strong reputation nowadays and features a rousing Franz Waxman score.
He was buried in the cast of 1952’s The Cimmaron Kid and didn’t even warrant billing. The Audie Murphy Western (directed by prolific Budd Boetticher) featured Hugh O’Brian and Leif Erickson in more substantial roles. At least the picture after this allowed him a bit more opportunity to perform for the cameras, though it could hardly be called prestigious. Hold That Line was a Bowery Boys comedy in which the gang of ne’er do wells are the subject of a bet as to whether they can be passed off as classy college guys at a snooty school. Bromfield played the star football player (named Biff Wallace!) who was their chief antagonist.
His final assignment of 1952 brought a WWII film called Flat Top that featured Sterling Hayden and Richard Carlson. Bromfield was fourth billed, playing a character named Snakehips McKay! Also in the cast was Keith Larsen. Now mired in unimportant roles, he appeared for the first time on television in the anthology series Fireside Theatre and on a crime show called Racket Squad.
Fortunately, his still-amazing looks and, more importantly, his athletic physique were about to plunge him into a rather lavish setting, one which would help give him a footnote (albeit a small one) in the history of MGM musicals and the chance to work in color (and practically naked. Yay!)
Easy to Love was the latest (and almost the last) in a long string of Esther Williams’ water-oriented films. Starring her frequent onscreen love interest Van Johnson and also featuring singer Tony Martin, John had to settle for fourth billing. However, he plays a major role in some of her swimming sequences, one being a flower-strewn love ballet. The majority of his scenes place him in a small, snug, black swimsuit, no still photos of which can begin to do it justice, especially in black and white which negates his bronze tan.
Set partly in Cypress Gardens and filmed there as well, he got to work for famed choreographer Busby Berkley, who staged the swimming set pieces. Even out of his trunks and in his pastel sportswear, Bromfield is deliciously delectable. As a rival for Williams’ affections with both Johnson and Martin (who winds up happy enough at the end of the movie with real-life wife Cyd Charisse popping up as in in-joke), he seems to have gotten the attention of Johnson in a still photo or two and who can blame him?!
Williams cited this as one of her favorite films, which is surprising because it is not one of the better known ones, does not feature her hunky hubby Fernando Lamas and was one of her last, a status that might, in other players, have indicated that the formula was wearing thin, but apparently not for her. (It was wearing a bit thin for audiences, though, necessitating a shift to more straight dramatic parts that ultimately didn’t suit her particularly well, though she was a better actress than she’s usually given credit for.) One reason, apart from her familiarity with and affection for Johnson, that she might have enjoyed this movie was that, for once, she had a swimming partner who could keep up and remain afloat without her help! Too often, she’d have a ballet partner who was in danger of going under or giving up as the routine wore on.
1954 brought Ring of Fear, a Batjac Production (John Wayne’s company) featuring the Clyde Beatty Circus, which, at the time, was a fairly major outfit. Starring the real Clyde Beatty and also crime novelist Mickey Spillane as himself (yes, there was a brief period of time that he acted), Bromfield played a trapeze artist married to a woman whose former lover wants her back. The real circus acts were the primary attraction here though, despite there being many such movies, I have never been able to get too interested in circus acts in the cinema (or in real life much, either!) Considering what Johnny was wearing during part of the movie, I think I need to see this one, though. Stat!
That same year, he appeared in The Black Dakotas, a western that starred Gary Merrill (Mr. Bette Davis at the time.) This time out, Merrill was the bad guy, surprising given his top-billing, and Bromfield was the one trying to stop him from stealing government gold intended for some American Indians.
The next year, Bromfield appeared in another underwater odyssey, this time not in the arms of the lovely Esther Williams, but near the grasp of the dreaded Creature from The Black Lagoon. The original film (which didn’t contain him) had been released in 3-D and caused quite a stir. The sequel Revenge of the Creature had him encountering the webbed monster along with John Agar and Lori Nelson.
In this movie, the creature is sought out, captured and taken to an aquarium in Florida, giving the story a sort of King Kong-style spin. There he is rather cruelly tormented as part of his “training,” putting more than a little audience sympathy on his side rather than on his captors.
Best of all is that Bromfield, who by now was at his hunkiest and beefiest, is outfitted in a snug, pale swimsuit that highlights his beautiful physique. His role is something of a throwaway, but he’s far more appealing than leading man Agar. This was the most profitable of the Black Lagoon trilogy (a third film followed this one and was the least successful of the three.) About midway through the film, he has on the flimsiest li’l pair of briefs anyone ever saw in the movies and they can’t help but reveal John Jr.
But as I said earlier, he’s just as good looking when dressed in street clothes. Just look at that classic, handsome, chiseled face as he sits behind Agar and Nelson in the stands. His hair had been tipped golden by all the sun and water, his strong arms draw the eye and his easy, manly face (with every feature in exactly the right spot) just leaps from the screen.
This was the film that brought Bromfield to my attention. Well, really what happened was that I saw a picture of John with Tab Hunter, a now legendary and infamous shot of the two of them listening to a telephone together with Tab in a shirt and gingham trunks and John, for no obvious reason, in revealing briefs with his initials embroidered on them! Once I figured out who JB was, I needed to see one of his movies and this was the first, followed by Easy to Love. I know I have this shot already on my page devoted to Tab, but a thing done well is worth repeating!
The same year as Revenge, John Bromfield finally achieved top-billing in a motion picture, albeit in a B-movie. The Big Bluff had him playing a sexy conman/gigolo who seduces Martha Vickers, a wealthy young woman with only months to live. Problems set in when it turns out she’s actually going to make it! It was directed by Billy’s brother, W. Lee Wilder, who helmed over thirty films, though they were virtually all cheap, forgettable productions that couldn’t touch Billy Wilder’s worst efforts.
With his marriage to Calvet over with in 1954, he then married a dancer he’d met on Easy to Love named Larri Thomas (yes, it was a woman! LOL) His career was also undergoing change. He’d begun to star in films, but they were lesser, unimportant films shown as second features. He also started to appear on TV with more frequency, such as on Ford Television Theatre and Frontier.
At least some of his films from this era are pulpy, noir-ish hoots like Three Bad Sisters, all about a trio of female siblings who are left a fortune when their father dies in a plane crash. Unfortunately, one of them wants the money all to herself! He plays the pilot of the plane who becomes entwined in the sisters’ lives (while also giving the grateful audience the requisite shirtless and swimming scenes.) In weaker moments, I pretend he's pitching a pup tent here.
And I am not the only one who thinks he was one seriously good-looking man. The fan rags at the time would occasionally place him in the same ranks as other handsome actors. Though I do think several of the actors pictured here are attractive, I don't think any of them can top Bromfield for sheer good, old-fashioned leading man features.
Manfish, a truly dreadful title, was a potboiler about the search for sunken treasure, costarring a few old pros including Lon Chaney Jr. and Victor Jory (with Barbara Nichols tossed in for good measure.) Manfish was actually the name of a boat and was probably responsible for a lot of viewers thinking they were attending a horror movie and winding up very disappointed. This was another film done for W. Lee Wilder. At least Wilder had the good sense to keep his leading man only partially disrobed most of the time. Look at his impromptu cut offs!
Crime Against Joe paired him with Julie London (not shown here.) As a Korean War veteran who has opted to become an artist, he was not exactly perfect casting, but once the story continued (in which he is accused of murdering a singer he’d become involved with), it became less noticeable. The mid-‘50s continued with him appearing (usually as the lead) in low-budget or at least low-profile films. He made five in 1956 alone. Quincannon, Frontier Scout reunited him with Tony Martin, horrendously miscast as the title character. Bromfield portrayed a cavalry lieutenant stationed in Indian country (though the film took some strides to portray them more three-dimensionally than had previously been the case.) Here, Tony appears to be planning to cauterize one of John's wounds!
Frontier Gambler had him cast as a Deputy Marshal in what was really a sort of western remake of Laura! Hot Cars (what a title…) cast him as the father of a sick boy who continues to work at a place selling stolen cars because he needs the dough for his son. If these sound bad (and, actually, some people really like these little known “gems”), it all went even further downhill with Curucu, Beast of the Amazon. Beverly Garland, an actress known for her proficient screams in cruddy B-level monster movies, was his costar as the two hacked their way through Brazilian jungles in search of the title terror. Film buffs have laughed themselves silly over the years at the revelation of Curucu. The film is probably better after a few shots of Curacao! Oh, and Bromfield's character is amusingly named Rock Dean.
By now a veteran of twenty movies, none of them of any particular importance (with the exception of Sorry, Wrong Number, in which was had only a small role), Bromfield took the opportunity to work on his own TV series. Desi Arnaz, though his studio successful studio Desilu, created Sheriff of Cochise for Bromfield. Not the western it sounds like, it was actually a police series with John as the title character in the city of Cochise, Arizona.
As Bromfield said himself years later, working on a television series exposed him to many, many times more audience members than working in his movies did. Suddenly, thanks to the international distribution of Sheriff of Cochise, he was known to many viewers, including many children. The series was fairly successful, with Bromfield filming over fifty episodes between 1956 and 1958, but Arnaz thought that changing the concept a bit might open up more story opportunities and give the program more variety. So the title was changed to U.S. Marshal and Sheriff Frank Morgan became Marshal Frank Morgan, traveling around the country to work on various cases. That series ran for more than sixty episodes and last until 1960.
With the final episode of U.S. Marshal in the can, John Bromfield, aged forty-eight (and still lookin' good), decided that he’d had enough of the business and returned to his original love of outdoor life as a fisherman. His second marriage had ended in 1959 and he was free to pursue life as he saw fit. Sheriff of Cochise was wildly popular in Japan, however, and he was contacted to appear in a color film that paired his character with the Tokyo Police! His voiced was dubbed for the project by a Japanese actor and the movie was a big hit there. In the wake of this, he would never again act in front of the camera. He never filmed a guest spot on a hot TV series and wasn’t even resurrected like so many others for The Love Boat or Murder, She Wrote. He was simply done!
He became a commercial fisherman off Newport Beach, California and otherwise worked only on a few specials that had solely to do with fishing or other sportsman-style activities such as safaris. In 1963, he met a singer and dancer named Mary Tillotson and they soon wed, becoming inseparable partners in everything whether it be work, travel or charity endeavors (something they took pleasure and pride participating in.) This third marriage lasted forty-three years until John death in 2005 of renal failure. Sadly, he had been diagnosed with both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases prior to that, but he and Mary did share an enjoyable life together for the most part (he sort of began to resemble Rod Taylor in his old age, if you’ve seen any pictures of an older Rod.)
John Bromfield is a nearly forgotten name these days (except, surely, in Japan!) and his legacy of film work is limited. To those in the know, though, he was a beefy, hunky, handsome presence in several movies and an amiable performer both in those and on his TV series. He has a small shrine in The Underworld in honor of his deep-sea dives with those creatures, both horrible and divine, with special thanks for the swimwear selected. Much love to you, wherever you are, JB!