Actor Troy Donahue, the handsome heartthrob of teen films in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, died Sunday at a Santa Monica hospital of a heart attack he suffered last week. He was 65.
The tall, blond star of such films as “Rome Adventure” and “A Summer Place” was admitted to St. John’s Hospital and Health Center on Thursday after having a heart attack in his Santa Monica home shortly after returning from the gym.
Bob Palmer, a publicist and manager who knew Donahue for 40 years, said the actor had not been in ill health. “He was very active,” Palmer said Sunday.
Donahue’s career and life had numerous ups and downs after a burst of success in the late 1950s that put him briefly at the top of the list of teen idols with Pat Boone and Elvis Presley.
A decade later, he was battling drugs and alcohol and was virtually out of Hollywood. At one point, he later said, he lived for a time in the bushes of New York’s Central Park with his only belongings fitting into a backpack.
More recently he had appeared in a number of straight-to-video movies, toured in a production of the stage musical “Bye Bye Birdie” and taught acting on a cruise ship for Holland America Lines.
Chiseled Good Looks
“He had his own income, so he wasn’t in avid pursuit of his career,” Palmer said of Donahue’s recent activities. “He didn’t consider himself a very good actor. He took his career lightly.”
Over the years, most critics agreed with Donahue’s assessment. He was remembered more for his chiseled good looks than his acting prowess. His talent was even ridiculed in a lyric from the 1975 musical “A Chorus Line": “If Troy Donahue could be a movie star, then I could be a movie star.”
Born Merle Johnson Jr. in New York City, Donahue attended Columbia University, where he majored in journalism. But he was interesting in acting, appearing n stock productions that led to a bit role in the 1957 film “Man Afraid.”
He came to Los Angeles soon after to pursue a career in films and got a new name in the bargain. It was legendary Hollywood agent Henry Wilson, the man who gave Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter their distinctive names, who took one look at the actor and said “You’re Troy, Troy Donahue.” The lanky young Donahue was being hailed by Universal Pictures as “the new Gary Cooper.”
For several years, Donahue was riding high in Hollywood. In 1959, he signed a multiyear contract with Warner Bros. and later received the Golden Globe Award for most promising male newcomer along with James Shigata, Barry Coe and George Hamilton.
Warner Bros. quickly cast him in the glossy 1959 melodrama “A Summer Place.” Directed by Delmar Daves, “A Summer Place,” was a huge hit as was the Max Steiner theme song.
In his first starring role, Donahue played the earnest, clean-cut boyfriend of Sandra Dee, then the No. 1 female teen star. But the film was controversial for its day with its themes of teen pregnancy--Dee becomes pregnant with Donahue’s child--and adultery among their parents, played by Dorothy McGuire, Richard Egan, Constance Ford and Arthur Kennedy. Though older teenagers flocked to the soap opera, many parents cast a wary eye on the film.
He later recalled being stunned at the movie’s success.
“I saw it in a regular theater for the first time in Pasadena--looked around, heard the music, and thought, ‘We might have something here.’ It was pretty heady stuff for a kid 22 years old.”
Between 1959 and 1965, Donahue appeared in seven movies for Warner Bros., including “Parrish,” “Susan Slade” and “Rome Adventure,” in which he starred opposite Suzanne Pleshette, who became the first of his four wives.
As he was making movies, Donahue starred in two popular ABC series produced by Warner Bros. In the 1960-62 “Surfside Six,” he played detective Sandy Winfield, and from 1962-63, Donahue played hotel social director Philip Barton on “Hawaiian Eye.”
His last film for Warner Bros. was the forgettable 1964 Raoul Walsh western “Distant Trumpet,” in which he appeared with Pleshette.
By the mid-1960s, Donahue’s clean-cut image was in sharp contrast to the rising counterculture and the realities of the Vietnam War. Warner Bros. decided not to pick up his contract and his career foundered. In short order his life did too.
A drinker since the seventh grade, Donahue’s dependence on alcohol took a turn for the worse. Unemployed, he ended staying with various friends.
He left Los Angeles in 1969 and moved to New York, where he later said, he let his “hair grow and did quite a bit of dope. I was very gloomy.”
He managed to get a few acting jobs, including a stint in 1970 on the CBS daytime soap “The Secret Storm.” Between acting gigs, he survived mainly from the generosity of strangers.
In 1974, he turned up in “The Godfather, Part II,” cast as Talia Shire’s down and out playboy boyfriend, ironically named Merle. Director Francis Ford Coppola was a school chum from the New York Military Academy. Donahue was paid $10,000 for the small part, but he wasn’t able to capitalize on the role because, he later said, he was too steeped in booze and drugs.
‘Very, Very Sweet Guy’
In 1982, he decided to straighten out his life and joined Alcoholics Anonymous.
“Really I had no choice,” he told the Toronto Star years later. “It wasn’t a matter of ‘I think I’ll stop drinking so I’ll have better clothes and a better car.’ It was because I was dying. I was using painkillers, amphetamines, cocaine and marijuana. And I would use them in unison.”
Since turning his own life around, Palmer said, Donahue “couldn’t do enough for you if you were sick or in trouble. He was like that. He was a very, very sweet guy.”
And though his life circumstances improved, his career opportunities did not. He landed a supporting role in the 1984 film “Grandview U.S.A.,” but most of his films were forgettable fare.
Donahue is survived by a daughter, Janine; a son, Sean; and three grandchildren.
He was engaged to his longtime companion, opera singer Zheng Cao.
“He loved Zheng and he loved traveling with her,” Palmer said. “Troy loved women. He had nothing but high praise [for them.]”
Funeral and memorial plans are pending.