John Payne’s interesting life would have made a great movie. He was an extremely versatile and talented star, one of the few actors who smoothly and believably made the transition from pretty boy musical sensation to rough and weathered crime lead.
He was a man of seemingly insatiable interests, athleticism, dramatic talent, as well as being shy and humble, with a highly impressive work ethic. Payne was born in 1912, to a wealthy Virginia family; dad George was in real estate and construction, and mom Ida was a former opera singer. They had 3 boys: George (who went by the name “Billy”), the oldest who had a troubled life, our subject John Howard, named after his great uncle, who wrote the song “Home Sweet Home”, and the youngest, Ralph, who became a minister. In October 1929, when John was 17, the family lost everything in the stock market crash, and father George Payne died of a stroke three months later. Nearly every item of value in the mansion was sold or taken away to pay off debts, but Ida Payne made the best of it by renting out the vast rooms for parties, banquets and weddings. Although there was enough money left to pay the boys’ tuition, John not only pitched in, but was amazingly resourceful, working constantly at a wide variety of jobs to help out at home and also support himself while studying at Columbia and Julliard. At Christmastime John sold wreaths he made out of greenery that grew on the property, and during the year sold fresh eggs and veggies (they kept the chickens). He worked as a nanny for the neighbor children, as a switchboard operator, he boxed and wrestled for $25 a night and delivered newspapers. He caddied at the golf club where the family had once been members, and for two summers he worked on cruise ships, which gave him the opportunity to see Europe, the Caribbean and South America. He was into athletics at every level of school, whether it was wrestling, football, track, shooting, horse riding or other pursuits. He was well read and loved to write, and in fact writing was his primary career goal—he sold pulp stories, and when he became as actor he co-wrote some of his own films and suggested good stories to the studio heads for possible adaptation (Sentimental Journey was just one of those). For all that, movie fans know him through his performing talents, and the road to actor was just as circuitous for Payne.
While still a student, he sang in a burlesque show, was discovered in a school play, became a stock player for Schubert shows, and sang on the radio in his very own 15 minute regular program. It was as understudy, stepping into a role vacated by Hollywood-bound Reginald Gardiner, that Payne got his break and was cast in a small role in the film Dodsworth. Over the next few years he worked at many different studios– Goldwyn, Grand National, Warner’s and Paramount– before settling in at 20th Century Fox, where he was in 14 movies from 1940 to 1947. Here his combination of strapping brawn and romantic charm, and his talent for singing and dancing was put to repeated use in a long string of lighthearted, warm, and extremely well-remembered musical/comedy/romance movies. He appeared with, and made a great match for superstars like Alice Faye, Betty Grable, Linda Darnell, and Maureen O’ Hara.
From 1938 to 1943 Payne was married to actress Anne Shirley, with whom he had a daughter, Julie Anne. From 1942-1944 he was in the Air Corps as a flight instructor and, not surprisingly, added flying to his long list of passions and skills (he would have attended aeronautical school but his poor math scores disqualified him). After returning from the service he married Gloria DeHaven; they had a son and a daughter, but divorced in 1950. He continued at Fox making musicals, dramatic and sentimental classics like theRazor’s Edge and Miracle on 34th Street, probably his best known movie, and one which Payne convinced Fox to make. But he was feeling increasingly limited by his roles and as his Fox contract ended, Payne got a change he had longed for, namely, appearing in more westerns, action-adventure and hardboiled crime movies.
His venture into the noir genre started in 1948 with Larceny. In the following year’s The Crooked Way, he played a war vet with a head injury and amnesia. All he has is paperwork showing that he enlisted in L.A., and once there he’s welcomed by the police, and discovers he is an ex-con who ratted out his old partner Sonny Tufts, now hooked up with Payne’s ex-wife Ellen Drew. Here Payne was good as a blank slate who seems disgusted with the knowledge of his past and tries to rebuild his life on the right side of the law.
Next in 1952 came director Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential, based on a real crime, with a really impressive and memorable gang of thugs Neville Brand, Lee Van Cleef and Jack Elam. The plot starts out with Payne a parolee wrongly suspected as the culprit in an armored car heist. Brutally roughed up while in custody, Payne sees both the law and the crooks as responsible for his ordeal. He sets out to clear his name, and not only tracks down the gang, but worms his way right into it by posing as Elam, who has been gunned down. You see, the heist was done by hoodlums with masks on, all unknown to each other, so all Payne needs for I.D. is a part of a torn card. Once he gets in, Payne falls in love with Coleen Gray, daughter of the head honcho Preston Foster, an ex-police captain who hatched the scheme to supplement his pension. (Payne and Gray dated in real life too).
1953 brought another Karlson-Payne team-up, 99 River Street, in which Payne plays a former boxer with an eye injury who now drives a cab, much to the chagrin of his materialistic wife Peggie Castle, who wants the good life he can’t afford to give her. He goes from being victim of a nag to being victim of a frame-up, and becomes the prime suspect when Castle is murdered and the body is found in his cab. As he tries to clear himself, Payne meets wannabe actress Evelyn Keyes and figures out the role of Brad Dexter in the mess. In all three of these noirs Payne is good, and like Robert Taylor and Dick Powell, he successfully made the transition from dreamy pretty boy to weathered and sometimes emotionally battered man. He had the gravity to believably play a wronged character determined to get what he wanted, with a wounded and sympathetic underlying sadness, a confusion at the situation fate has dealt him. At this time, in 1953 Payne married Alexandra “Sandy” Curtis, artist and ex of actor Alan Curtis (from the great noir Phantom Lady). Through the mid to late 50’s Payne added to his credits the superior political story The Boss, which he also co-wrote and co-produced, and was also in the noirs Hell’s Island (also directed by Phil Karlson) and Slightly Scarlet, which was based on a James M. Cain story.
Around this time Payne was reading Ian Fleming’s new James Bond novels. He immediately saw their potential as blockbuster action movies, and bought the film rights to Moonraker, paying $1000 a month for nine months, but as he shopped the project around, studios told him the story was much too violent and sexy and would be impossible to adapt. Payne gave up when he was unable to buy the rights to the whole series of novels. Imagine how he must have felt when in 1962 Dr. No was released with Sean Connery and the Bond franchise turned out to be a huge smash and for him a missed opportunity.
From 1957-59 Payne played civil war vet turned lone travelling gunman in the TV series Restless Gun; the show was a hit, and as executive producer and star he asked for a larger share of the profit but was rewarded with cancellation instead. In 1961 came a life altering event. Payne was hit by a car while crossing the street in New York city; his head went through the windshield and he required several surgeries to repair the numerous fractures and extensive damage to his face. After the little-seen They Ran for Their Lives (1968), which he also directed, Payne did not appear in films, but was seen sporadically on stage. He was convinced by old friend and co-star Alice Faye to tour the country in a revival of Good News, but was replaced by Gene Nelson by the time the play got to Broadway. From a boyhood marked by having, then losing lots of money, Payne ended up quite well off due to good real estate investments in California and Montana, as well as a smart deal that eventually reverted to him the rights and profits of his 1950s Pine-Thomas films. He died at age 77 in 1989.
Payne has a neat family tree with branches reaching into neo-noir: his daughter with Anne Shirley, the aforementioned Julie Anne, acted through the 60’s on TV and film. In 1977 she married director Robert Towne, director of Bonnie & Clyde, Chinatown (and so many other great movies), and they have a daughter, Katharine Towne. Katharine, now 32, appeared in Mulholland Drive, and was briefly married to the actor Charlie Hunnam who was in Cold Mountain, and can currently be seen as Jax on the gritty TV series Sons of Anarchy. (2014 edit: just watched him in Pacific Rim)
*this is a version of my article originally published in Dark Pages sep/oct 2010 issue