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John Payne: Living Out the Dream

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Posted: Thursday, June 16, 2011 12:00 am

John Payne never especially wanted to be a movie star; he wanted to be a writer. Never the typical actor type, he was more of a thinker and a doer, but he took special pride in one of his movies. Believing in the unbelievable was a key spiritual value to him, and that is why Miracle on 34th Street (1947) was so important to him. He liked the film because it was about belief, and the importance of belief was something he took care to impress upon his children.

He had noticed the original story, by Valentine Davies, in a magazine, and pressed 20th Century-Fox to make a movie of it. It was right after World War II and studio chiefs were more inclined to make lavish musicals than a simple little story about a department store Santa taken to court on lunacy charges.

Years later, after Miracle on 34th Street had become a holiday favorite, his daughter Clancy Payne, learned that Fox agreed to make it only after her father put up his own money. According to Clancy, her dad even suggested some of the movie's sweetest touches, such as having Santa and a little orphan girl speak in Dutch, and the closing-scene discovery of Santa's cane by the fireplace.

The film made a strong impression on his daughter. After all these years, Clancy still recalls her debates with schoolyard skeptics. Whenever one said there was no Santa Claus, she would declare, "My father was the lawyer who proved there is."

He was born into a wealthy family, the second of three sons to George Washington Payne and Ida Hope Schaeffer Payne, on May 23, 1912. He was named John Howard Payne after an ancestor who wrote the song "Home, Sweet, Home." John and his brothers, Peter and Robert, grew up on an estate near Roanoke, Virginia, complete with grounds, stables, and swimming pool. John was a shy child and to help him overcome this, his mother had him take singing lessons. Mrs. Payne had been an opera singer and had played supporting roles in operas at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.

John attended Broad Street School in Salem, Virginia, before being sent off to Mercersburg Academy, a prep school in Pennsylvania. The summer he was fifteen he served as a ship's steward on a voyage to Cuba. There, he signed on to a hemp boat, which came back by way of South America. "My job was to keep watering the hemp so that it didn't catch fire." No stranger to the sea, he explained, "Fishing has always been one of my favorite sports, especially deep sea fishing."

Payne's father, a businessman, died when John was 17. With three boys to raise and the nation in the grips of the Great Depression, Ida Hope Payne struggled to hold onto their 1825 Colonial-style mansion at Fort Lewis, west of Salem, Virginia. John, nearly 6-foot-four with broad shoulders and a narrow waist, looked like a movie star even as a teenager. At the time of his father's death, John was a student at Roanoke College, but he was forced to suspend his studies in order to help support his struggling family. In an effort to make ends meet, the young man took on a variety of jobs, including working as a male nurse to a neighboring widower's two children. He also sang at local radio stations. After a while, he was able to enroll at the Pulitzer School of Journalism at Columbia University. "While working for my keep while a student in the extension division of Columbia University, I had a program [airing] over 18 stations. 'The South Singer,' I was known as 'in them there days,' as Fibber McGee would say, and I teamed up with an organist and a violinist for three broadcasts a week. My end of the take was eight dollars a week. The year was 1935, however, and a man could buy a lot of nourishment for eight dollars!" He also earned money as a boxer and later, a wrestler, billed as Alexei Petroff, the Savage of the Steppes. Also, he was sometimes known as "Tiger" Jack Payne.

"When my money ran out, I ran the elevator, operated a switchboard and took care of a pool room," Payne recalled in an interview with famed columnist Hedda Hopper. "I'd been studying voice so I got a job on radio. Then the Schuberts offered me a part in a road company. I told the Schuberts I could do anything. They took me at my word, for $40 a week. I ended that tour with $3.20 to my name. But show business was in my blood by then."

After his stint with the Schuberts, Payne landed a job as the understudy for Reginald Gardiner in a popular musical, At Home Abroad. It turned out to be a break. According to legend, Payne was spotted by Sam Goldwyn, who signed him to a contract and gave him a bit part in Dodsworth (1936), starring Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton. However, the small role was Payne's only screen work for a year, and he was released from his contract.

He made the rounds of the movie studios, and the following year Payne starred opposite Stella Adler in Paramount's slapstick comedy Love on Toast. He also performed with Mae Clarke in Hats Off, a musical for Grand National.

From July 1937 to February 1938 John Payne and Betty Grable made twenty-six semi-regular appearances on the CBS radio program Song Time on Saturdays. He later recalled, "Back in 1937 while I was under contract to Paramount, I sang on a five-minute radio program with another contract player from Paramount. A girl who's done rather well since—Betty Grable. Betty and I didn't do so well then, though. We couldn't find a sponsor, and finally gave up the program. I sang low tenor—or should I say, high baritone."

At a cocktail party in 1937 he met Anne Shirley, the 18-year-old actress who had recently made a hit as the daughter in Stella Dallas. She told a fan magazine the story of how they met. He had promised to call, but she sat home waiting a week in vain. Finally, she had some tickets to a preview and wondered if it would be all right for her to call him. She did, but when he said he had another engagement, Anne broke down and cried. The next day a dozen gardenias arrived from Payne. The following week a dozen camellias came, then a dozen orchids, and then roses. He claimed he wanted to play hard to get at first, but once the campaign started, he wasn't fooling. He fell just as hard as Anne had. On August 22, 1937, they were married. After three years, they had a daughter, Julie Anne Shirley Payne, born on July 9, 1940.

Friends thought the couple enjoyed a perfect marriage, but they were wrong. On February 28, 1943, they divorced, and John began to carry a torch. Although he would date Jane Russell briefly, he was very unhappy. When they were making To the Shores of Tripoli together in 1942, his co-star Maureen O'Hara said, "He came into my dressing room one day and sobbed like I've never heard a man sob. Without any knowledge that anything was wrong, he woke up to find that Anne had left and was getting a divorce. He was totally heartbroken. He kept saying, 'Why didn't she ever tell me she was unhappy?'"

Career-wise, a big chance came when Payne was signed with Warner Bros., where he replaced Dick Powell in Busby Berkeley's Garden of the Moon (1938). In this snappy musical, he played a struggling bandleader, and Margaret Lindsay played his love interest.

After another four pictures Payne again moved on, this time signing with 20th Century-Fox which turned out to be the big breakthrough of his career. At Fox people began to really notice him, thanks to substantial roles in classic films like Tin Pan Alley (1940) opposite the studio's beloved star Alice Faye. He was wooing Faye again in the studio's big Technicolor musical Weekend in Havana (1941), and that same year he played the romantic lead in the classic Glenn Miller musical romp Sun Valley Serenade (1941) attracting the attentions of both Lynn Bari and Sonja Henie.

That same year, he starred in one of his best films, the beautiful Remember the Day (1941), directed by Henry King and starring Claudette Colbert. King remarked many years later of Colbert's influence on the cast members. "She got child actor Douglas Croft to glow with confidence and poise, and I saw her do the same thing with her romantic lead, John Payne, who was then a Fox stock player more noted for his good looks than for his acting skills. Payne gave one of his best performances in that picture." Until Miracle on 34th Street came around, Remember the Day was Payne's favorite. "When Claudette Colbert agreed to have me as her leading man in Remember the Day, it was a great boost to my career," Payne noted. This film has become one of those sleeper classics that seem to grow in stature as the years go by.

In the next year he was the romantic lead opposite Fox's big star Betty Grable in Springtime in the Rockies (1942). An expensive Technicolor production, this film would practically define the glossy Fox musical of the 1940s loaded with talent—Harry James and His Band, Carmen Miranda and Helen Forrest—and great songs—"I Had the Craziest Dream"—all topped off by Betty looking beautiful, especially to millions of GIs at home and abroad. With the world at war, people just wanted to feel good, and in that respect there was nothing that could top a film like Springtime in the Rockies.

The war, however, would put a dent in Payne's career. On October 13, 1942, he entered into military service as a Student Aviator, serving in the 11th Corps Training unit of the Ferry Command. He enlisted for Army Pilot training in Phoenix, Arizona. He reported to Camp Williams, Arizona, on January 11, 1943, and after completing his training, in June, 1944, he was assigned to the Ferry Command at Long Beach, California. Basically a non-combat group, Ferry Command was assigned the job of flying planes to where ever they were needed. He received his honorable discharge on September 1, 1944, when this group was no longer a unit of the Army Air Forces.

After his discharge, Payne returned to Fox and was cast in The Dolly Sisters, with Betty Grable and the new Fox beauty June Haver. He played Betty Grable's love interest in this delightful musical also featuring S. Z. Sakall, Reginald Gardiner and Frank Latimore. John and Betty previously co-starred in three movies before he joined the military and it was obvious the two were still an appealing and popular screen team.

During the making of The Dolly Sisters, he met Gloria DeHaven, an actress under contract to MGM, and they married a couple of months later. Their daughter, Kathleen Hope (Clancy), was born to them on January 1, 1946. A son, Thomas, was born on February 25, 1948. Problems arose immediately in the marriage. Unlike John, Gloria was born into a show business family. Her father, Carter DeHaven, and her mother, Flora Parker, were in the theatrical world for years. "My mother was a big star," she told a writer for Modern Screen magazine. "She could have gone lots farther on the stage but she quit to have children. She was left behind with her babies while my father went on to hear the applause and listen to the flattery of the world. It turned his head and our family was broken up. Mother had to struggle along to get food and clothing for us. This wouldn't have happened to her if she had stuck to her own career."

Gloria obviously saw that this might happen in her own marriage, and she wanted to resume her career after her children were born. John felt that picture work was very hard, and married couples see very little of each other when they are both working. "I told John I had show business in my blood," Gloria exclaimed. "He said that was just silly, that there wasn't any such thing. He thinks that all this talk about the background and tradition of the theater is just so much conversation." Gloria was eighteen years old when they married.

Payne resumed his career with a vengeance at Fox after his return from service, doing fewer musicals and more variety. After The Dolly Sisters, he co-starred with Maureen O'Hara in Sentimental Journey, a tearjerker about a dying actress who adopts a little girl to give her husband (Payne) a companion when she is gone. The story was a pet project of Payne's. He had bought the property for himself from a magazine and sold it to his studio, only to discover they were going to cast Cary Grant in the lead. John wanted the role and was determined to convince studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck that he, not Grant, was the actor for the part. "I really had to do some acting that day," he recalled. When he cornered his boss in the men's room, Zanuck threw up his hands, "OK, OK, John, you got the part. Now let me finish what I came in here for."

Next was The Razor's Edge (1946), an important project at the studio. This gigantic film drama cost four million dollars to produce, and took more than three months to shoot. Movieland praised "Somerset Maugham's brilliant gift of language and his insight into human types have not been lost in the screen's version of his classic novel. Apart from the diamond studded cast: Tyrone Power, Gene Tierney, John Payne, Anne Baxter, Clifton Webb, Herbert Marshall and a host of other big names, the Maugham characters leap to life as the author, played by Herbert Marshall, tells the story. The portrait isn't always pleasant, but excellent story, perfect casting and fine directing make this film a classic example of a good movie." Payne's was a supporting part, but a good one, allowing him to stretch himself as an actor.

He and Gloria DeHaven separated in December 1946 for the first time. John had made three pictures in a row and was working on Larceny (1948) for Universal-International when they separated for the second time. When he finished the picture, he went east to play in The Voice of the Turtle in Princeton, New Jersey with Joan Caulfield, his leading lady in Larceny. Gloria joined him in New York. And after six weeks of separation, they were back together again. There was gossip that his co-star Joan Caulfield had something to do with their separation, but Gloria said, "This definitely was not true." Shortly after this came the final separation and divorce in 1950.

Payne was a loving father and said he wouldn't be without his children, not even for two weeks if he could help it, and loved to take them on location with him. About his two small daughters he said, "They're Daddy's girls, come right to the old man when they want something. And the boy? I don't know what I'm going to do about him," he laughed. "Here he is over a year old and he hasn't contributed a cent to the family income." Payne, by the way, was successful in business and had a real estate company in Hollywood.

In 1949 Payne signed a contract to co-star in El Paso, for producers William Pine and William Thomas. After that he starred in six pictures for the action producers and in 1950 signed to star in six more films for Pine & Thomas, then known as the "Dollar Bills" due to their cost-conscious ways. Until he joined the Pine-Thomas family, he had been basically known for starring with Betty Grable, Alice Faye, June Haver and other screen beauties, mostly in musicals, which took advantage of his handsome looks and his singing voice. With his shift to action pictures, John Payne toughened up his screen image and successfully lengthened his career. Typecasting in musicals could have meant that his career would die with the waning of that genre in the '50s. By broadening his range, Payne stayed on top of the new trends and established himself in more genres, especially crime films and westerns. This enhanced his reputation and made him known to a new generation as he amassed 80 screen credits. During the '50s he made such films as Tripoli, Passage West, 99 River Street, Silver Lode, Slightly Scarlet and Kansas City Confidential. With Pine-Thomas Productions he shrewdly insisted that the films he appeared in be made in color and that the rights to the films revert to him after a few years. This helped make him wealthy when he rented the films to television.

He also starred in his own primetime NBC-TV series, The Restless Gun (1957-1959). Although he was not generally thought of as a cowboy, he was very convincing as loner Vint Bonner, a reluctant gunfighter roaming the west in the days after the Civil War. Investing a bit of his own personality into the role, his character was described as "a quiet, idealistic individual who preferred not to fight if there was an acceptable alternative. Unfortunately, there often was no alternative." The series became a successful adult western, and the former musical star proved not only to be a believable western actor, but also a competent horseman.

On September 27, 1953, Payne married Mrs. Alexandra Crowell Curtis at the bride's home in Bel-Air. Dr. Frank Dyer, Santa Monica Congregational minister, officiated. Matron of honor was the bride's aunt, Mrs. Donald Roarty, and the best man was Charles Spangler, a friend of Payne. The new Mrs. Payne was formerly married to actor Alan Curtis.

When Clancy Payne was four, her father won custody of her and brother Tom from their mother, Gloria DeHaven. Payne built a house for his family in a canyon in Santa Monica, California. Clancy once recalled how he kept his kids laughing by breaking into ballet steps just walking across the floor. Once when he made spaghetti, they threw meatballs at each other and left the kitchen red with sauce. Clancy remembers that when she was sick, he brought her books, tomato soup, and Oreo cookies. He loved the works of Christian author C. S. Lewis and read the Narnia series to her years before they became popular. His hands were so big and strong he could lift her above his head in the palm of one hand and "fly" her to bed. Presently living in Roanoke, Virginia, Clancy says she fell in love with the Roanoke Valley and moved there around 1990. She is still close to her stepmother, Alexandra, today.

In I954 John returned to singing when he accepted an offer to appear for two weeks at the famous Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. He continued to branch out, and in 1955 he paid a $1,000-a-month option for nine months on the Ian Fleming James Bond novel "Moonraker." He eventually gave up the option when he learned he could not retain the rights for the entire Bond series.

His ever-evolving business ventures were considerably slowed down on March 1, 1961, when Payne was hit by a car as he was crossing Madison Avenue, a block from the hotel where he was staying. He was hurled onto the hood, his head smashing the windshield and his body denting the hood. He was taken to Roosevelt Hospital, where he was on the operating table for hours as surgeons set fractures in his left leg and carefully sewed up numerous scalp and face wounds so as not to mar his handsome appearance. He begged doctors not to tell his wife, who was at their home in Santa Monica, but the hospital informed her and she got on a plane to come to him.

In 1964, Sheilah Graham reported in the Hollywood Citizen News: "He never thought it could happen. That he would be all in one piece. And able to act again." He told her, "For two and a half years I was full of nuts and bolts. I have been full of hardware since I collided with that car in New York City. Everything had to be pinned together. The doctor has taken out all the nuts and bolts and pins and I'm not clanking anymore. If you only knew how good it felt."

He bravely pushed ahead, despite the pain. On July 2, 1964, he returned to Broadway when he assumed the co-starring role of the ex-marine opposite Lisa Kirk and Laurence Naismith in Meredith Willson's musical Here's Love. Payne took over from Richard Kiley, who filled in as guest-star after Craig Stevens left the cast for a TV series. He had difficulties during the out-of-town production and withdrew, and was replaced by Gene Nelson. He did play the lead in this production on the West Coast.

His injuries also affected his reunion with old Fox cohort Alice Faye in 1973. "A Fabulous Pair, Faye and Payne, Sing Again" was the heading of an article about their teaming, after 30 years, in the Broadway musical revival of Good News. Alice Faye played an astronomy professor and Payne was a football coach. They harmonize on such songs as "Just Imagine," "The Best Things in Life Are Free" and "Varsity Drag," before he had to be replaced because of problems with his leg. "That wasn't as much fun," Alice Faye said in the 1980s, "especially for John who sometime before had been badly injured when hit by a car in New York. His leg hurt a great deal, making it very difficult for him to sing and dance and just move around onstage. John was a very well-read person and a fine businessman, the least actorish of all the men I worked with."

His final screen role came in 1975 when he co-starred with Peter Falk and Janet Leigh on TV's Columbo. He has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

John Payne's real passions were poetry, fiction, Greek philosophy, and Jungian psychology. He was, indeed, well read and wrote a number of short stories which were published in magazines. He particularly liked reading biographies. He also enjoyed skin diving, flying, horseback riding, playing the guitar and cooking exotic foods. His daughter said he had a genius-level I.Q. He had one of the best physiques in Hollywood and worked out daily. Always a health fiend, he concentrated on physical culture. He ate four meals a day and each was measured beforehand for total calorie and vitamin content. He lived at the beach and often went swimming, summer and winter.

John Payne died on December 6, 1989, at his home in Malibu, of heart failure. With him when he died were his wife, Sandy, and his three children. Payne, who once described his acting career as "living out a kid's dream," wherein he played a series of singers, cowboys and even pirates, had the good sense to become an astute businessman with real estate in Malibu and such television properties as The Restless Gun.

Miracle on 34th Street was playing on television in the Payne home as he lay dying. Watching the film today, his daughter, Clancy, sees the father she knew as a little girl. For her, his whole demeanor—the gentle movements, the calm, kind voice, and his funny double take with his left eyebrow raised—brings back a flood of childhood memories. The film has become as special to her as it was to him. She loves to watch him in this, especially because she knows he really cared about it. Any time she feels she needs him, she simply watches Miracle on 34th Street, especially at Christmas.