Tuesday, March 29

John Derek

Pretty Boy is what they called him and not just behind his back.  When he made costume dramas and had to wear tights, they told him he had pretty legs.  Despite the handsome looks and being the progeny of a Hollywood family, John Derek had a pretty tough time trying to make a name for himself in his birthplace, the city of broken dreams. He always said he found Hollywood to be a degrading place.  One wonders if he would have thought that had he found people to take him seriously.

Born in 1926 as Derek Harris, he was the pampered only child of Dolores Johnson, a great beauty who flirted briefly with some roles in silent films, and Lawson Harris, a failed actor who then turned to architecture and finally dabbled in some producing. Their marriage was not one of harmony and soon they divorced with young Derek being shuttled between both homes.  He was forever being complimented on his looks by friends, family and strangers alike and Mama shrieked with joy when acknowledged as the mother of a child who looked like him.  

Derek's father wasn't greatly involved in his life (as Derek would also not be in his two kids' lives) although he did take some pleasure in teaching his quite young son the rudimentary aspects of sex.  The youngster did have a good paternal image courtesy of his mother's boyfriend for a time, cinematographer Russell Harlan. Credit him with the great look he provided in such films as Blackboard Jungle, Lust for Life, To Kill A Mockingbird, Hatari and Darling Lili, among many others.  He also created in Derek a lifelong love of photography.

He spent most of his young life in military school where he was picked on because of his stand-out looks and the bullying increased as his looks became more chiseled, the lashes got longer, the broad smile dazzled and the honey-tinged voice made the girls swoon. 

Those looks undoubtedly propelled independent producer David O. Selznick (of Gone With the Wind fame) to inquire of Derek's old man whether the 16-year old had any interest in acting.  Soon the producer offered the kid a developmental contract and if there was anything Selznick liked to do it was develop movies and people. Soon the youngster was making goo-goo eyes at the teenaged Shirley Temple in both Since You Went Away and I'll Be Seeing You, both 1944. Blink and you'll miss him.  He and the curly-haired one had a little infatuation for a spell and managed to get themselves photographed for movie magazines.  

Soon he was drafted and fighting for Uncle Sam in the Philippines and Japan.  When he returned, Shirley was dating another good-looking John... Agar, and would soon do a brief stint as Mrs. A.  In 1948 Derek tied the knot himself.  It was no doubt his most conventional marriage, the only one with children, but one where he re-learned a lesson he really already knew... he wasn't standard issue and he couldn't do marriage the way everyone else did.

She was a Russian-born brunette, Pati Behrs, and was actually a princess although she was better known as a ballerina.  She arrived in Los Angeles hoping to be an accomplished actress but despite having mostly uncredited roles in seven famous Fox movies, her career went the way of her mother-in-law's.

Derek got on at Columbia and cornered Humphrey Bogart into getting him signed for the role of the unrepentant killer, Nick Romano, in 1949s Knock on Any Door.  The film didn't do so well at the time (it acquired more of a following later on) but Derek got good notices, although one critic said he was plainly an idol for the girls.  That same year he appeared in another socially-conscious film, the political drama All the King's Men.  He played Broderick Crawford's son (oh, I'm sure) but if Derek expected to make tongues wag again, most of the lapping up was done by still another John... Ireland.  

He opened the 1950s with Rogues of Sherwood Forest and the career would go downhill from there.  He played in soooo many B pictures... crime stuff, cheapo westerns, costume dramas... that someone must have had it in for him.  I suspect that man was Harry Cohn, the mean-ass head of Columbia who took no prisoners.  I'm betting the two butted heads and Derek lost.  One rarely did it any other way than how Cohn said it was to be done and that likely grated on Derek who came from feeling entitled, from hating his treatment by Hollywood and for a volcanic temper.

Two of his films from the 50s I have seen within the last six months. One was Saturday's Hero (1951) a football drama with Donna Reed as the love interest, and An Annapolis Story (1955), where he and brother Kevin McCarthy go into tomcat mode over Diana Lynn. Both fell into the category of his B work, but I enjoyed them and saw what a good actor he could be.   Also in 1955 he delivered a fine performance as John Wilkes Booth in Prince of Players in which he could easily have been smothered under the acting weight of Richard Burton as Booth's actor brother, Edwin.

Okay, I've been dreading this.  It's something I've never told anyone except my partner... and now you.  Do be discreet and be kind enough to never bring it up in person should we ever meet or in the case of some of you, when we meet again.  This is difficult.  Ok. Here goes.  My favorite John Derek movie is called The Adventures of Hajji Baba (1954).  Roll that around on your tongue.

OMG.  Are you still there?  Well, for the few who are and fewer still who care, I can now share with you that it is a breath-takingly unbelievable, ridiculous, embarrassing piece of silly, cotton-candy hokum nonsense... that I dearly love.  I did in 1954 and still do to a degree, although I confess I no longer get sweaty palms or don shemaghs while aboard a rented stallion.  The sight of Derek as a poor barber in the Persian desert escorting a fiery princess (the sexy Elaine Stewart) disguised as a boy as they try to escape a warring tribe of women was irresistible to a 9-year old kid.  Hmmmm, the DVD is sitting just over there on my shelf.  Hmmm.

Well, I can assure you, I liked Hajji Baba one helluva lot more than Derek did.  The crappy westerns filmed at the Corriganville Ranch were one thing (he was bewitched by horses) but the costume dramas really put him over the top. They might have worked for Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, Cornel Wilde and Stewart Granger, but definitely not for John Derek.  Still, he did them and even opted to do a couple he didn't get, Prince Valiant and The Silver Chalice. He was more than annoyed when he didn't win a role in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train.

One wonders how he was even thought of for the role of the stonecutter, Joshua, in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956). Had the director dashed off to his local cinema to watch The Adventures of Hajji Baba in the back of the theater?  Derek, doing his usual capable work, was billed seventh.   He was paired with Debra Paget, a looker herself, and an actress whose career paralleled his in that she was talented and not given many parts that were not beauty-oriented.  Even being in such a prestigious film caused no one in Hollywood to take another look at either of them.

One day on the Commandments set in walked a teenage Swiss-German actress named Ursula Andress.  Derek could not have known during those early days that she had kept pictures of him on her bedroom walls.  They were both stung by Cupid's arrow and soon he left his family.  When his divorce became final, he and the nubile, pouty 18-year old dashed off to Vegas to get married, where their cab driver was best man. The blonde invasion had begun. Within a short time they would head for Europe and would not move back to the States for four years.

Wives 2-4, Ursula, Linda and Bo

He continued working in one forgettable movie after another until he was signed to play Paul Newman's good friend in Otto Preminger's 1960 epic, Exodus.  Here was an opportunity to work in a good film or at least an ambitiously expensive one and he is again billed seventh in the cast.  He headed the casts in the junkier movies and got lost in the cast of top productions.  More good work from Derek and still the phone didn't ring for anything important.

When the Dereks returned to California they were broke and he not only took up television work but briefly starred in a western, Frontier Circus (1961).  In 1962 life changed for the couple when Mrs. Derek was offered a starring role in the James Bond opus, Dr. No.  Derek advised her not to do it but she found the role of Honey Ryder an irresistible one.  I'll bet she did. Watching her coming out of the sea was a revelation.  She became the first Bond girl and in doing so cinched her fame.

Derek must have experienced a powerful aha when he decided to take up directing his sexy wife in some movies.  In time he would also engage in producing, writing, cinematography, editing and just about anything else that made him the man with the power.  He became known far and wide as a control freak with a volatile temper and the Hollywood suits avoided him all the more.  He would find the derriére smooching in the hunt for financing and distribution most unpleasant.

The movies he directed and starred in with Andress were all released in 1965-66.  The first was the little-seen The 26th Cavalry. Next up, the best of the trio but still no great shakes, was Nightmare in the Sun, concerning a drifter who arrives in a small town and begins a messy affair with a local beauty.  Finally there was the very stinky Once Before I Die, a Philippines war yarn that ended Derek's career as a theatrical movie actor. 

Technically then, if there is no more acting, my job is done here, but we'll tidy up a bit.

In 1966 Andress went off to the Far East to make Up to His Ears and she left Derek for the film's star, Jean-Paul Belmondo.  The Derek divorce became final the following year.  Andress had a succession of famous lovers but she never had another marriage. 

In 1968 Derek married his second gorgeous blonde, Linda Evans, mainly a TV actress of The Big Valley and Dynasty fame.  She, too, had kept a photo of him in her bedroom. Now this is getting weird. Derek and Evans were married for seven years and it appeared to outsiders that their marriage was a good one.  Perhaps it was.  His children were a bit more involved in this marriage than the others, which may have caused some hassles although Evans and Derek's daughter became good friends.  The couple also apparently had some serious money problems.  He worked very little during their marriage, focusing only as a director on two films, one of which starred her.  

He appeared to me as someone who would have preferred sitting in his comfy chair, putting on a headset and listening to music for hours on end while hitting on a joint and watching the waves crash outside his door.  I do recall him giving an interview once where he said he'd rather not work but would prefer to just watch his beautiful lady all day.  Or if someone had to work, maybe she could. (That last sentence is my idea.)

Suddenly that beautiful lady changed and Evans was most unhappy to realize it was no longer her.  Derek took a page from the Andress Playbook and fell for his new leading lady, a teenager named Cathy Collins. After they married she became far more famous as Bo Derek.  There has always been a lot of talk about him being a Svengali.  But the new Mrs. Derek was usually painted as some empty-headed, blonde trophy who never stood up to him and I don't think that was ever the case.

She was undoubtedly egged on, as well, by the former Mrs. Dereks to speak her mind... even more than they did.  He took more charge of her career than he did theirs so she needed to stand up to him more.  Evans didn't feel as warm toward Derek after the divorce as Andress did but that was attributed to the fact that he left Evans for another woman whereas Andress left Derek for another man.  But all of the wives were friends... at least the blonde wives and even occasionally the brunette one.  Oh my... only in Hollywood... and Utah.  Perhaps it says something about the force that was John Derek.   

Derek would direct Bo in four films... Fantasies and then Tarzan, the Ape Man, both 1981.  Bolero was in 1984 and Ghosts Can't Do It in 1989.   None of these films were very successful, certainly not with critics.  I only saw one, Tarzan, which was a heck of a lot more about Jane than it was Tarzan, although who could forget the loin-clothed Miles O'Keeffe?, for heaven's sake?  I didn't hate it like most did but it did feel a little like soft-core porn or perhaps more like a man who liked to photograph his hot wife and the hell with everything else. That notion certainly gave rise to the whispers that Derek exploited her... damn that mean ol' Svengali.  They became co-producers and formed their own company, Svengali Productions.  At least they had some humor.  She was married to him the longest... a month shy of 22 years.  Bo, to my knowledge, has never said anything but loving things about him. He gave her a love of horses and a love of life. 

He seemed like someone who would live to be 100... on his 10th beautiful, blonde, ever-younger wife, still bossing people around, still a pain in the ass.  But John Derek at age 71 died in Santa Maria, California, after heart surgery.

Next posting:
A good 40s film


  1. Yes, J.D. wasn't a great actor but in those days Hollywood was crowded with extremely handsome young actors with little acting qualities. At least at the beginning of their career. J.D. was one of them. Apparently he was missing that special 'something' which turns an actor in a star. But who cares. He was so lovely to look at!

  2. Hello, TheMovieMan:

    Nice work. I've seen a lot of summaries that scramble the facts badly, but that's not the case with this review of John Derek's life, career, and marriages. You've clearly spent your time in "Cast of Characters," the memoir that came out in 1982 and was written by the John Derek's daughter, Sean Catherine Derek.

    Only one tweak seems necessary. "The 26th Cavalry" and "Once Before I Die" were one and the same movie, which also had a working title of "No Toys for Christmas."

    Mr. Anonymous