“We can go down to the pool and carry Van Johnson up here without waking him up. And then we could put him on the couch, and when Carolyn gets here, we’ll say he’s a friend of ours, and he just dropped by to take a nap.”
In Hollywood, where the lives of the rich and famous are shrouded in cobwebs of mystery, there was once a shameful tale about film stars appearing on television, but as time progressed, the stigma was eclipsed by other celebrity myths.
Believe it or not, at one stage there was a stigma about critically acclaimed film stars transitioning into television. Back in those days it was considered a hasty descent for Hollywood personalities to appear on the small screen. Many actors refused to take the plunge, fearing that it would put their career in danger, while others were willing to give it a try.
This was a common occurrence towards the end of the classic era. With modernism starting to dominate the movies, a plethora of once successful actors were finding that they were being surpassed by the younger stars who were just starting out in the industry. The studios were mostly catering for the newcomers, and all the established screen veterans were discovering that due to their age, their opportunities were limited. Apart from occasional roles in “B Grade movies” or campy horror films, some actors had to rely on the television medium to help bring in an income.
“I’ll name my next child after you, if I have one. If I don’t, I’ll change the name of the one I already have.”
Transitioning into television was not necessary a bad decision. A large number of stars traveled down that avenue, and were lauded for the territories they charted. The renowned character actress, Agnes Moorehead enthralled audiences with her memorable portrayal of Endora, the meddling mother of Samantha on Bewitched, Barbara Stanwyck transferred her talents to the medium when her film career was in wane, and captivated millions worldwide with her portrayal of Victoria Barkley, the matriarch of the family in The Big Valley, while James Garner transformed success into eternal popularity after starring in The Rockford Files and Maverick.
Then there were those stars who were approached about making guest appearances in episodes of the most successful television series to ever grace our screens. The long running television spectacular, I Love Lucy is among the pantheon of shows that required the presence of Hollywood top-liners for certain episodes.
This is where Van Johnson enters the picture. Noted for his amiable and neighborly persona, Johnson’s presence was a welcoming addition to the film industry. During the “Bobby-Soxer Blitz”, Johnson was a favorite at the box office. His strawberry blonde hair and wholesome image were top features that helped catapult him to super-stardom. Film critics revered him, and audiences held him in high esteem, but unlike most stars of his caliber, his motion picture career never seemed to wane.
After spending years under contract with MGM, Van Johnson embarked on the freelance path in the 1950’s. During this period he became a frequent guest on television. He made his foray into the medium in 1955, when he appeared as himself in the I Love Lucy episode, The Dancing Star.
Without rehashing too much of the plot, The Dancing Star is among those episodes set in Hollywood. When Lucy’s friend, Carolyn Appleby announces that she is flying to Los Angeles to pay her a visit, Lucy finds herself in a state of quandary. Lucy has continuously boasted to Carolyn about her alliances with cinemas highly exalted stars, but now that Carolyn’s arrival is imminent, she must try and find a solution that will help resurrect her fantasies about her cordial associations with Hollywood’s elite. The answer comes from Ethel ( Vivien Vance ), who conjures up a plan that has Lucy engaging herself in a conversation with a sleeping Van Johnson down by the pool.
Problems arise when Lucy tells Carolyn that her relationship with Van Johnson has entered the bounds of intimacy on a mutual level. Instead of trying to patch the obstacle up, Lucy proceeds to tell Carolyn that she can sneak her in to watch her dance rehearsal with Van. Due to Carolyn’s poor eyesight, Lucy thinks that she can get away with this story, but, unfortunately for Lucy, her plan is foiled when the airlines find Carolyn’s glasses. In a panic, Lucy is forced to visit Van in the ballroom to persuade him to dance with her.
It was not surprising that Van Johnson made a guest appearance on I Love Lucy. Back in the early days of his career when Johnson was a struggling actor trying to make big in Hollywood, Lucille Ball became the instrumental force behind the launching of his tenure in motion pictures. The two first crossed paths in 1940, when Johnson had an unaccredited role in the film adaptation of Too Many Girls, which starred Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. It is also interesting to note that Johnson and Arnaz were two of the original cast members of the Broadway production of Too Many Girls, and became close friends, but it wasn’t until his appearance in the film version that he and Lucille Ball formed a friendship.
With no future among the stars ahead of him, Van Johnson was about to move back to New York when Lucille Ball invited him to have dinner with her at Chasen’s Restaurant. The idea was to introduce the young actor to MGM’s casting director, Bill Grady, who was sitting at the next table. As fate would have it, Grady was instantly impressed with Johnson, and after a few screen tests with the Hollywood studios, Johnson soon discovered that his negative thoughts about not achieving fame was suddenly extinguished with the positive news that victory and prosperity were on the horizon.
Luckily, Lucille Ball witnessed the great potential that this aspiring actor possessed. If it weren’t for the famous red head whose unparalleled flair for comedy would soon be gracing television screens, the legend known as Van Johnson may have never materialized.
The scene with Lucy dancing with Van Johnson in her feather dress is actress Fran Drescher’s favorite I Love Lucy moment. Fran said on the 50th anniversary special that, as a child, she would watch this scene in awe and amazement of how beautiful and talented Lucy was, and that this was one of the things that inspired her to be an actress. She loved the realism of Lucy patting her face with nervous excitement backstage after she finished dancing. Fran was such a big Lucy fan that she even had an I Love Lucy-themed episode of her hit show The Nanny.
Ray Bolger was initially slated to be the guest star in this episode, but due to Lucy and Desi’s close friendship with Van Johnson, the well went to Johnson.
Lucille Ball: Born, Lucille Désirée Ball on August 6th, 1911 in Jamestown, New York. Died: April 26th, 1989 in Los Angeles, California. Aged: 77.
Van Johnson: Born, Charles Van Dell Johnson on August 25th, 1916 in Newport, Rhode Island. Died: December 12th, 2008 in Nyack, New York. Aged: 92.
Vivien Vance: Born, Vivian Roberta Jones on July 26th, 1909 in Cherryvale, Kansas. Died: August 17th, 1979 in Belvedere, California. Aged: 70.
Desi Arnaz: Born, Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III on March 2nd, 1917 in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. Died: December 2nd, 1986 in Del Mar, California. Aged: 69.
William Frawley: Born, William Clement Frawley on February 26th, 1887 in Burlington, Iowa. Died: March 3rd, 1966 in Hollywood, California. Aged: 79.