I liked Troy Donahue. Closer to the truth is that I liked Troy Donahue movies. I was in my early 20s when he was at the height of his popularity which lasted just five years. He made films that appealed to my age group. For me he also made them with people whose films I usually saw... Sandra Dee, Dorothy McGuire, Karl Malden, Dean Jagger, Arthur Kennedy... and most of the crowd at his home studio, Warner Bros. They made the hot youth movies of the time.
Was he a good actor? Of course not. I realize it's unlikely Laurence Olivier ever phoned him about working together. And while I am bonkers over great actors, I don't mind just sitting back and ogling some glam actor (male or female) who makes me spill my buttered popcorn. Donahue was one of those glam people... we all thought so.
For a long time gay rumors dogged him. After all, he had those sullen, blond, good looks, could be rather secretive and was a client of Hollywood's most notorious gay agent, Henry Willson. And he had quite a roster of gay clients. Henry famously changed their names to something catchy. Roy Fitzgerald was renamed Rock Hudson, Art Kelm became Tab Hunter, Robert Moseley was changed to Guy Madison, Francis Cuthbert was dubbed Rory Calhoun and Merle Johnson Jr. became Troy Donahue.
After an 8-month marriage to Suzanne Pleshette, the rumors escalated. (Funny, when Ernest Borgnine and Ethel Merman were divorced around the same time, after a mere 32 days, no one accused him of being gay. Hmmm.) You may have noted in my piece on Pleshette, I mentioned that Donahue's second wife told me he wasn't gay. Donahue used to say that folks got him mixed up with another hot, blond actor of the time... an obvious reference to Hunter (who was better-looking and a better actor). Interestingly, when Hunter bought his way out of his Warners contract, Donahue was brought on board to replace him.
He first saw the light of day in late January, 1936, in New York City. Merle Johnson Sr. ran the motion picture division of General Motors and Mama was an aspiring actress. Merle Jr. was a cute, blond, rich kid who seemingly wanted for nothing. He first began acting at Columbia University where he was a journalism major.
It's unknown where Willson spotted Merle Johnson Jr., but he saw movie star material and soon Universal took notice and put him in several movies without credit... Man of a 1000 Faces and The Tarnished Angels come to mind. I remember seeing him in a Debbie Reynolds film, This Happy Feeling (1958) but he played a nerd and I was paying more attention to John Saxon.
The following year was the start of his five good years. In Imitation of Life, he had a brief but memorable scene as Susan Kohner's boyfriend who beats her up after learning that she is passing as white. How odd, I thought, that such a scene would endear him to so many young women but he was on their radar.
Universal saw no potential in Donahue but Warner Bros. did and they immediately put him in one of their most popular television series, Hawaiian Eye, and then into Surfside 6. In both he ran around in swimming trunks and a tan. The large bags of fan mail told WB they had a star. Soon he was whisked into his signature role, cast opposite Sandra Dee in Delmer Daves' colorful tale of young love and parental adultery in A Summer Place. It became a favorite film of mine and remains so... the 46th of my 50 favorite films. It/he/she/they swept me off my feet. Don't let anyone tell you that I bleached my hair. They can't prove it.
I have before and I may again but let's briefly discuss Sandra Dee. When she made A Summer Place, she was already a star... a big star. After A Summer Place, he would be, too. She would be the first of Donahue's costars who was just as good-looking, acting was no worse than his and luxuriated in fame. His movies partly were as successful as they were because he was scrupulously paired with popular young actresses.
The next year, 1960, the studio threw him into The Crowded Sky, an enjoyable but unremarkable all-star opus about the crash of a heavily-loaded airliner piloted by Dana Andrews with a Navy jet piloted and co-piloted by Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Donahue.
Then came Parrish (1961). We won't discuss much because it's the posting up next. For here though, let's say that Donahue was becoming aligned with the color red. There was a splash of it in every film and the red windbreaker and red pullover sweater must have been on mannequins in the WB costume department.
The following year came Rome Adventure, not close to an Oscar winner, but one I quite liked. As an American working in Rome but also a boytoy for a rich woman, Donahue meets and falls for Suzanne Pleshette, another American who has just moved to the Eternal City. Dark beauty meet blond beauty. We were following him from film to film.
Delmer Daves directed Donahue in A Summer Place, Parrish, Susan Slade and Rome Adventure. Maybe that's good, maybe it isn't. It seems there have been other not-so-talented actors who worked frequently with the same director. Certainly it can be said the director never managed to get Donahue to stretch beyond the pretty boy thing.
Next came the ill-advised Palm Springs Weekend. Pleshette, a new movie star, went on suspension rather than accept a role in it, even with her new boyfriend. It did reunite him for the last time with Connie Stevens, but they were involved with others in the weak, nauseous story that was a Where the Boys Are ripoff. It probably helped ruin the movie careers of Ty Hardin and Robert Conrad and it perhaps did less for Donahue because he was top-billed. Never ever watch it...!
A Distant Trumpet marked the end of my affair with Troy Donahue. I guess it was not meant to be. This film, while certainly neglected by anyone with good taste, was a pretty damned good western. You know I'm a cowboy. Donahue gave one of his better performances as well under a great and cantankerous director, the venerable Raoul Walsh. But this also became Walsh's swan song, causing tongues to wag that he quit after the exasperation of working with Donahue.
A Distant Trumpet marked the end of Pleshette's time with Donahue, too. She had married him before they began making the film and shortly after its release they were divorced.
I have wondered if all of his remaining films have been released. I've never heard of most of them or known of them to play in theaters I attended. To me, he disappeared. He had abused alcohol for some time. I recall reading once that it started when he began acting because he had a case of nerves and booze, he said, calmed him. He got to the point that when he walked by liquor in someone else's home, he would take secretive swigs from the bottle. He turned into a full-blown alcoholic and later a drug-addict who would steal and lie to get what he needed. He would spend a period of time being homeless.
In 1974, he did manage to clean up and work with his old college buddy, Francis Ford Coppola, who gave him a small role in The Godfather Part II. Amusingly, Donahue's name in the film was his real name, Merle Johnson.
He married three times after Pleshette and would father a son with a woman he apparently knew briefly. He would bounce back in the 1980s by becoming clean but his career never recovered. In the early 90s he appeared in John Waters' Cry-Baby but it did nothing to ignite any flames for Donahue. The last time I heard anything about him, he was teaching acting on some cruise ship.
He died in 2001 in Santa Monica at age 65 from a heart attack. A few days later, his A Summer Place and Susan Slade costar, Dorothy McGuire, also died.
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