Retirement is a dirty word to Van Johnson, the freckle-faced ‘40s bobby sox-set idol who starred in such war-movie classics as “A Guy Named Joe,” “The Caine Mutiny,” “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” and “Battleground.”
After 53 years in the business, Johnson is still going strong. And he’s making a rare local stage appearance in the California Music Theatre’s revival of Oscar Hammerstein II-Jerome Kern’s “Show Boat.” Johnson is playing the venerable “Show Boat” owner, Capt. Andy. The musical begins previews Wednesday at Pasadena’s newly restored Raymond Theatre and opens Sept. 14 with a 75th birthday bash for Johnson.
“My birthday was Aug. 25,” says the dapper Johnson. “They’re going to have some kind of a band and Janet Leigh is coming down the aisle with a baton. Katie (Kathryn) Grayson will be there. Everyone is coming.”
Johnson, who lives in New York (“and on TWA”), began his career in such Broadway musicals as “New Faces,” “Pal Joey” and “Too Many Girls.”
“I never expected or thought about the movies,” he admits. “It was a never-never land out there. It was sooooo glamorous.”
During his two decades under contract at MGM, Johnson always had to pinch himself to realize he actually was a movie star. “Every day I drove on the lot I looked up at Leo the Lion and I couldn’t believe it was me, this little kid from Newport, R.I., up there with all those famous people,” he says. “I never got over it. I was always naive.”
When the star-struck Johnson first arrived on the lot, he’d run around the studio looking for stars like he was just off the boat. Of course, not all the lofty MGM stars were happy to see this newcomer on their sets. “I remember Hedy Lamarr was doing ‘White Cargo,’ and she said, ‘Get that redheaded kid with the autograph book off the set.’ ”