Moving Van: A Hail to Heflin

Van Heflin: Character actor: Van Heflin movie career is examined Surfing for an old movie I have never seen the other night, I came across something called: Kid Glove Killer. “What the *#@!,” I thought. What a weird title.

In the film, a big city medical examiner/criminologist  tries to figure out—with help of his pretty trusted female assistant—who killed the city’s reform mayor.  Lots of red herrings are thrown into the stew, as undetected corruption among city officials is eventually revealed.

Playing the criminologist was a young actor who…it appeared to be…yes!….Van Heflin!

He was young and slim and had strikingly handsome good looks.

Could this really be the same performer who starred in the top-notch film noir Act of Violence, playing a WWII veteran terrorized by an unstable Army pal? Or the cop so smitten with a married woman he poses as The Prowler to hook up with her? How about the Marine leader reacting to a difficult combat situation in Battle Cry? Or his unforgettable turns as a decent fellow under extreme duress in two classic westerns: Shane, in which he’s a homesteader who hires gunslinger Alan Ladd to help him as he battles a land baron; and 3:10 to Yuma, playing the impoverished rancher who takes a pay day by escorting wily black hat Glenn Ford to a train stop where he will be picked up by the authorities. And let’s not forget Heflin as the twitchy passenger in the all-star smash Airport.

If anything, Heflin was solid and never flashy, whether as a leading actor, which is where his career appeared to be heading early on, or as the go-to character guy, which is how most recall his credits today.

Born in Oklahoma in 1910, Heflin made his way to Broadway after graduating from the University of Oklahoma. Following roles in such plays as Casey Jones and The Philadelphia Story (playing the James Stewart part opposite Katharine Hepburn), Heflin got a contract at RKO, where he was featured–with Hepburn again– in 1936’s A Woman Rebels, as wells as The Outcasts of Poker Flats and other films.

Then, after appearing in Warner’s Santa Fe Trail with Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan for director Michael Curtiz, the actor was contracted by MGM, which cast him as a publisher in The Feminine Touch (1941) with Rosalind Russell and Don Ameche, and with Hedy Lamarr and Robert Young in H.M. Pullham, Esq (1941).

That same year, Heflin took a key supporting role as a boozy attorney in Mervyn LeRoy’s crime saga Johnny Eager, with Robert Taylor as an ex-con running an underground gambling operation and 21-year-old Lana Turner as the scorching society gal with the hots for him.  Heflin’s effort as the sloshed shyster brought him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

The trophy catapulted Heflin into leading parts for MGM, including Kid Glove Killer, Grand Central Murder, Tennessee Johnson (where he played future US President Andrew Johnson) and Presenting Lily Mars, in which he played a theatrical producer to Judy Garland’s overly ambitious Broadway aspirant.

During World War II, Heflin served with the Air Force as a cameraman. His return to Hollywood was marked by the crackerjack noir The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1945), playing a former flame of wealthy Barbara Stanwyck, now married to alcoholic district attorney Kirk Douglas. Heflin scored memorably here, sharing the screen with a star (Stanwyck), a star-in-the-making (Douglas), and soon-to-be noir staple (Lizabeth Scott) in a thriller rife with surprises and revelations of skeletons in the characters’ closets.

Heflin’s steady work led to him being paired with some of Hollywood’s top actresses. The actor got booked for Possessed (1947), in which he played an architect who sends emotionally unstable Los Angeles nurse-turned-debutante Joan Crawford off the deep end. In B.F’s Daughter, a toned-down version of a controversial novel,    Heflin played a progressive college professor who marries an industrialist’s daughter (Stanwyck, again) much to her father’s dismay. Additionally, Heflin shared the screen with Lana Turner (Green Dolphin Street), Susan Hayward (Tap Roots), Jennifer Jones (Madame Bovary), and Stanwyck once more in East Side, West Side. For the all-star 1948 version of The Three Musketeers, Heflin donned sword and floppy plumed hat to play Athos to Gig Young’s Porthos, Richard Coote’s Aramis and Gene Kelly’s D’Artaganan in the colorful MGM adaptation of the Alexander Dumas tale.

About his tenure at the fabled studio, Heflin remarked: “Louis B. Mayer once looked at me and said, ‘You will never get the girl at the end’. So I worked on my acting.”

Heflin, who was married to actress Frances E. Neal and whose three daughters also performed, was offered the part of Lt. Keefer, the cynical novelist, in the 1954 screen version of Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny. But the actor turned it down.

“I loved the role in the book,” said Heflin. “Keefer was the fellow making all the cracks about the Navy. But when the Navy censors went through the film script and took away all the humor, the role was nothing.

“I learned a long time ago that an actor is judged by his material–not by his performance.”

The role went instead to Fred MacMurray.

Van Heflin movie career is examined But in the mid-1950s, Heflin scored the lead role in the big-screen adaptation of Rod Serling’s “Kraft Theatre” TV production Patterns. Taking over the role inhabited for broadcast by Richard Kiley, Heflin plays Fred Staples, a big company’s “new guy,” the industrial engineer positioned to replace old guard William Briggs (Ed Begley) in a high level management position by his ruthless boss (Everett Sloane). Staples begins to feel guilty about the appointment, but will he decline the chance to head up the corporate ladder?

The original live TV airing caused such a stir, another live airing was done a few weeks later.  Within months, the film was in production with essentially the same cast, some location shots and Heflin taking the lead. When the film opened it received fine reviews. “Van Heflin’s delineation of Fred Staples is one replete with shadings,” wrote the New York Times. “He is not seduced by prospects of power but he emerges as one who will try to use it with compassion.”

Another part pitched to Heflin, who had played Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe on radio, was the leading character of G-man Elliott Ness in the Desilu-produced TV series The Untouchables. Of the part—which eventually went to Robert Stack—Heflin said, “I turned it down … because I just didn’t like it. Naturally, I had no idea of the success it was going to be. I’d have been independently wealthy for the rest of my life.”

As Heflin entered his forties, his career shifted to more character-oriented parts. And while he would occasionally get a key role in a studio picture –MGM’s Woman’s World, playing a Texan trying to get a job at a New York auto company, as a lawman in an all-star remake of Stagecoach, or as a tough guy out to lasso Pancho Villa with Gary Cooper and Rita Hayworth in They Came to Cordura—Heflin often took TV work and remained a force as the star of several solid “B” pictures.

Additionally, Heflin worked in Europe, starring in the Cossack adventure Tempest; The Wastrel, a drama helmed by Greece’s Michael Cacoyannis (Zorba the Greek); and the well-regarded spaghetti western The Ruthless Four.

In the 1960s, Heflin did more theater and TV assignments as well, and was Emmy-nominated for his part in 1968’s A Case of Libel, a filmed version of his triumphant Broadway performance as an attorney involved in a legal showdown between an ultraconservative columnist and a liberal journalist. Wrote The New York Times’ Walter Kerr, “Mr. Heflin does not win by a show of power, he wins by fiddling…he was splendid.”

Van Heflin: Character actor, Academy Award winner for Johnny Eager (1942)Along with other television assignments, Heflin popped up in an occasional movie as he approached the age of 60. Perhaps his most recognizable role, however, was his last one: playing D.O. Guererro, a fidgety failed contractor carrying a bomb onto a plane in the 1970 all-star smash Airport.

Even amidst the likes of Dean Martin, Burt Lancaster, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean Seberg, George Kennedy, and theater legend Helen Hayes, Heflin excelled. But some say not in the way you expect.

According to the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert, “Heflin sweats, shakes, peers around nervously, clutches his briefcase to his chest, refuses to talk to anybody, and swallows a lot. The customs officer sees him going on the plane and notices ‘something in his eyes.’ Also in his ears, nose, and throat. What Heflin does is undermine the structure of the whole movie with a sort of subversive overacting. Once the bomber becomes ridiculous, the movie does, too. That’s good, because it never had a chance at being anything else.”

It’s not every day that the villain comes to the rescue.