John Forsythe

John Forsythe Headshot

Actor • Producer • Philanthropist • Educator

Birth Date: January 29, 1918

Death Date: April 1, 2010

Birth Place: Penns Grove, New Jersey

Nearly as recognizable for his elegant, deliberative baritone voice as his silver-mane and WASPy visage, John Forsythe built a career as an unassuming TV everydad and a reliable and, by his own reckoning, "workmanlike" actor, before becoming one of biggest names in show business in the 1980s. Forsythe imprinted his star in the pop culture firmament in ratings-topping 1970s and 1980s "campy" television institutions "Charlie's Angels" (ABC, 1976-1981) and "Dynasty" (ABC, 1981-89), but he arrived there with a long background on New York stages, including the distinction of being an original member of New York's now-renowned Actor's Studio, and prolific work at the dawn of the TV age. At the height of the success of "Dynasty," he came to be the medium's face of the opulence and excesses of go-go 1980s America, even as he long remained humble to a fault as to his own mark on his trade.

He was born John Lincoln Freund in Penns Grove, NJ, on Jan. 29, 1918, the first of three children of Blanche and Jeremiah Freund who would spend their early years as a family in the Garden State. His father, a "straight-laced, stiff [and] autocratic" man, Forsythe later said, worked for the chemical giant DuPont, but eventually netted a job as a Wall Street broker and moved the family to Brooklyn, NY. When the market crashed in 1929, however, times got much tougher, and Forsythe later recalled his white-collar father winding up "digging ditches" to help make ends meet. Growing up, John developed an affinity for Buck Jones cowboy movies, but never imagined a life in show business. Attending Brooklyn's Abraham Lincoln High School, he came of age, like countless Brooklyn youngsters, a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers and devoted his extracurricular activities to sports. When he graduated at just 16 years old, he earned a partial scholarship to the University of North Carolina to play baseball.

At UNC, he majored in English literature, and when he returned to New York after school, at just 18, his distinctive voice earned him a foot in the door of the career he did foresee for himself - a job as an announcer for the Dodgers at Ebbets Field. He effectively apprenticed under Red Barber, the seminal sportscaster who called radio play-by-play for Dodgers games, and would spell Barber for short stretches during games. In fact, when Barber refused, Forsythe wound up calling the infamous gimmick event at Ebbets that pitted Olympic gold-medalist Jesse Owens against a thoroughbred horse in a race around the infield. But the baseball season lasted only half a year and as Forsythe later recalled, "I like to eat in the wintertime," so by happenstance he began picking up other radio work, including on-air plays and soap operas. His clean-cut, square-jawed good looks also helped him pay the rent with modeling work, including a stint for the Sears catalog. After only two and a half years at Ebbets, he quit to make a go of his accidental acting career, changing his name to the more marquee-friendly John Forsythe. Though his effervescent mother supported her son enthusiastically, the tack did not sit well with his conservative father, who had envisioned a more respectable career for his son.

After a few years of minor projects typical for a young actor (and a brief early marriage), Forsythe scored his first Broadway job in 1942 - a supporting role to Jose Ferrer in the play "Vickie," which earned him initial attention from Hollywood. Warner Bros. made him a contract player at about $100 week, which snared him a couple of bit roles in the next year's productions of "Northern Pursuit" (1943) and "Destination Tokyo" (1944). He also met his future wife, actress Julie Warren, who soon made her own Broadway debut in a production of "Around the World in 80 Days." World War II intervened in his career, but only briefly, as the U.S. Army Air Corps deemed Forsythe's vision subpar for flying planes, as he had hoped to do. Instead, his thespian background forwarded him into a major propaganda project. The corps produced renowned playwright Moss Hart's "Winged Victory," an ensemble tale of American soldiers and their wartime sacrifices, and Forsythe found himself cast with fellow luminaries-in-uniform Red Buttons, Mario Lanza, Gary Merrill and Karl Malden. Opening in Boston, MA, in the fall of 1943, the play moved on to New York for a 226-performance run at the 44th Street Theatre, before hitting the road for another 445 performances across the country through the end of the war. Before mustering out, Forsythe also lent his lingual skills to rehabilitative speech therapy programs for shell-shocked pilots.

Returning to New York a private citizen, Forsythe in 1947 became one of the original members at the Actor's Studio, the cauldron of method acting founded by Elia Kazan and others who vaulted him into their upper echelon class with such talents as Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and Patricia Neal. He stood out as the more straight-laced member of the arty cohort such that some of his friends would dub him the "Brook Brothers Bohemian." Those early associations would inform a manifest humility about his own talents that Forsythe would articulate for years after, but he steadily built his own bona fides on the stage and in the new medium of television, just beginning to fill out its content with one-off teleplay productions. That same year, he earned a major role in Arthur Miller's first Broadway play, "All My Sons," directed by Kazan, and in 1950 he was chosen to replace Henry Fonda in the title role of "Mr. Roberts." Meanwhile, Forsythe became a revolving player in the raft of network TV anthology series then being produced in New York, such as "Kraft Television Theatre" (NBC, 1947-1958), "Ford Theatre" (CBS, 1948-1951), "Robert Montgomery Presents" (NBC, 1950-57), The Philco Television Playhouse" (NBC, 1948-1955) "Suspense" (CBS, 1949-1954) and "Schlitz Playhouse of Stars" (CBS, 1951-59).

His work regained Hollywood's attention, and in 1953 Universal gave him his first feature lead role in the light comedy "It Happens Every Thursday" (1953), followed by a role opposite Edward G. Robinson in the "The Glass Web" (1953), a curious early venture into 3D. Neither set the box-office on fire, but back in New York, he got in on the ground level of a major hit, originating the role of Captain Frisby in the Broadway production of "Teahouse of the August Moon," which went on to run for over a thousand performances. That same year, he was nominated for his first Emmy for his anthology work. In 1955, Forsythe netted the attention of another prestigious denizen of the cinema, Alfred Hitchcock. In "The Trouble with Harry" (1955), Hitchcock cast him as Sam Marlowe, the quirky, sarcastic Bohemian artist in a quaint New England town, whose oddball ensemble of citizens (including Shirley MacLaine in her first film role) find themselves baffled at a dead body (Harry) found lying at its outskirts. Film buffs would later deem the offbeat black comedy a noble experiment far ahead of its time, but at the time it confounded movieg rs expecting Hitchcockian murder and suspense and proved the director's first major flop.

Despite this, Forsythe forged ahead with his TV playhouse work and established his star status enough for CBS to make him the central figure in an upcoming situation comedy, "Bachelor Father" (CBS/NBC/ABC, 1957-1962). While generally blending in with the myriad, mild-mannered family comedies of the period, the premise differed in that Forsythe's character, wealthy Beverly Hills lawyer Bentley Gregg, assumed guardianship of his niece Kelly (Noreen Corcoran) after the death of her parents, making his cosmopolitan man-about-town more "hip" and empathetic to her teenage foibles than typical suburban TV dads. He later said that many of his fan letters came from teenage girls praising his fathering skills and asking his advice. Curiously, in one episode, his later "Dynasty" co-star, a young Linda Evans, played one of Kelly's teenage friends with the hots for Bentley.

Forsythe spent much of the rest of the 1960s in the familiar territory of anthology series, peppered with occasional feature and made-for-TV movie roles and a couple more shots at series TV. In 1962, he reprised his "Teahouse of the August Moon" role in a broadcast of "The Hallmark Hall of Fame" (CBS, 1951- ). In 1964, he starred opposite Ann-Margaret in "Kitten With a Whip" as a square suburban politician playing a cat-and-mouse game with a gang of oddly preppy beatnik sociopaths - a film so cheesy and dated that years later it was featured on Comedy Central's bad-movie-eviscerating cult series, "Mystery Science Theater 3000" (1989-1996). His next series, "The John Forsythe Show" (NBC, 1965-1966), set him as a former Air Force officer running an all-girls school, at least for the first half of its lone season, after which his character is reactivated into government service as a globetrotting secret agent. In 1967, he got third billing in Richard Brooks' moody adaptation of Truman Capote's new journalism masterpiece In Cold Blood, playing the pivotal role of the intrepid investigator Alvin Dewey. He reunited with Hitchcock on the Cold War thriller "Topaz" in 1969, and that same year, took another shot at sitcom work in "To Rome with Love" (CBS, 1969-71), another fluffy family show about an Iowa widower who seeks to make a fresh start with his daughters in Rome.

The 1970s would make Forsythe's distinguished voice recognized near universally in the realm of popular culture. While he busied himself with a heavy schedule of TV movies after "To Rome with Love" ended, he also scored a regular stint as the narrator of the syndicated nature series "The World of Survival" (1971-77). Then, in 1976, he would earn the highest profile project of his career, basically by getting out of bed in the middle of the night. Producer Aaron Spelling had been pitching ABC a show, "Charlie's Angels," about three attractive female private detectives who worked for a mysterious boss, but ABC execs had scoffed at it - one of them, later Disney chairman Michael Eisner, by one report calling it "the worst idea I've ever heard." After spending a year nuancing the concept, ABC greenlit a pilot, but the project hit another roadblock just as Spelling was readying the test episode to send to ABC headquarters in New York. As Forsythe later recounted in an oral history, Spelling called him at home at around 11:30 pm on a Friday night and quickly recounted his w : Veteran actor Gig Young had been hired to voice the role of the disembodied Charlie Townsend - who gave directions to his "Angels" via speaker phone but remained unseen even by them - but turned up drunk when they needed to put his voiceovers on tape. It was the last element to complete the pilot. Spelling asked if he could come down and read the lines. Forsythe pulled an overcoat over his pajamas, drove over to the 20th Century Fox lot and became a default Charlie. Forsythe, like his character, kept himself beyond arm's distance through the run of the popular show - and removed from the Angel squabbling that occurred behind the cameras - never even going to the set. He reportedly could tape a full season's worth of lines in one day.

By the late 1970s, Forsythe began suffering bouts of fatigue. Seeking medical help, he discovered he had a congenital heart defect. A longtime cigarette smoker, he had been having circulation problems, and with the dangerous condition diagnosed, doctors advised a drastic fix: quadruple bypass surgery. He bounced back quickly and within a few weeks was taping his breezy banter with the Angels, and taking on arguably his most memorable movie role. Forsythe was initially wary about the supporting but pivotal part of Judge Henry Fleming in director Norman Jewison's " And Justice for All" (1979), as it flew in the face of his longtime image as an amicable square, but he decided to take the gamble. The black comedy/drama about the New York justice system saw him playing a harsh law-and-order judge who hires his in-court nemesis (Al Pacino) to defend him against a violent rape charge, to which, late in the film, Forsythe's character confesses in a bone-chilling display of sociopathic, cold-blooded arrogance. The role, he said later, raised so many eyebrows that he soon after received three or four more offers to play "heavies," which he declined, considering such roles "not my milieu."

By 1981, "Charlie's Angels" lost its sparkle and much of its audience, with ABC cancelling it after the 1980-81 season. But Spelling, partnering with producer-writers Richard and Esther Shapiro, would next hatch a vehicle that would bring Charlie in front of the cameras. Ever-riding TV's shifting tides, the hitmaker behind the "Love Boat" (ABC, 1977-1987) and "Fantasy Island" (1978-1984), in 1982 brought to ABC a wholecloth construct of the Reagan era, entitled "Dynasty." The show followed the affairs and schemes of a wealthy Denver oil family, the Carringtons. ABC, seeing the project as its star-studded answer to the then-reigning nighttime soap opera, "Dallas" (CBS, 1978-1991), gave the go-ahead to what would become a moving stereotype of neo-Gilded Age of the 1980s. The producers cast George Peppard as the lordly, controlling, sometimes tenderhearted patriarch of the clan, but six days into the shooting of the pilot episode, they found him balking at flushing out the darker, more draconian side of Blake Carrington. Spelling made another eleventh-hour bailout call to Forsythe, this time to take the lead in a show. Debuting as a mid-season replacement in January 1981, "Dynasty" introduced Blake struggling to balance his corporate empire and new marriage to lovely but fish-out-of-water former secretary Krystle (Linda Evans) with the travails of rebellious daughter Fallon, openly (and, to Blake, scandalously) gay son Steven and conniving oil baron competitors. It became a moderate hit, placing No. 20 in the primetime Nielsen ratings in its first season. But the next year, Joan Collins joined the cast as Blake's sultry, villainous first wife Alexis, and with their icy on-air feud and chess game of machinations, the show vaulted to No. 5 in season two, No. 2 in the 1984-85 season and, by the end of the next season, "Dynasty" unseated "Dallas" for the No. 1 ranking in broadcast television. Forsythe gathered a passel of awards recognition and high-profile ink, winning Golden Globes for Best Actor in a Drama in 1983 and 1984 and Soap Opera Digest's similar award in 1984.

Forsythe, entering his late sixties, became an unlikely sex symbol, even becoming the male face of a Carrington line of fragrances created by designer Yves St. Laurent. Still, "Dynasty" was littered with stock-in-trade camp and preposterous plotlines, highlighted by a Season five-capping wedding of Alexis's daughter to a prince of a fictional "Moldavia," which gathered most of the major characters for the regal ceremony just in time for a revolutionary uprising. Forsythe's character survived the massacre, along with a coma, amnesia, blindness, Alexis's brief takeover of his company and a run for Colorado governor, against Alexis - just a few of his handful of trials - before being shot in the final episode. The latter was meant to be a Season nine cliffhanger, but the show, as Forsythe admitted later, had grown stale. With "Dynasty" falling out of Nielsen's Top 30 in its final two seasons, ABC axed it.

Much of the "Dynasty" cast reunited in a 1991 miniseries, "Dynasty: The Reunion," which found Blake Carrington alive and healed. It was critically lambasted and frowned upon by purists who spotted an almost comic number of glaring continuity errors. Forsythe returned to series TV briefly the next year in a sitcom created by Norman Lear, "The Powers That Be" (NBC, 1992-93). He played a hapless veteran U.S. senator ill-equipped to cope with the dog-eat-dog political climate in Washington, DC, but surviving by way of the counsel of his offbeat combination of advisors and his dysfunctional family. NBC, however, buried the show in a Saturday night time-slot and it did not make a second season. After that, Forsythe effectively retired to an idyllic 30-acre ranch north of Santa Barbara, CA. On Aug. 15, 1994, his wife Julie felt fatigued in the middle of the day and went to lie down. She dozed off reading a book, and when Forsythe tried to rouse her later, he could not. Rushed to a local hospital, she lapsed into a coma and Forsythe was forced to take her off life support.

In 2000, Columbia Pictures offered Forsythe a reported $5 million to bring his voice out of retirement to reprise his role as Charlie in its two slick movie retreatments of "Charlie's Angels" - "Charlie's Angels" (2000) and "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" (2003). Forsythe remarried in 2002 to a businesswoman 20 years his junior, and in spring 2006, he briefly reunited with fellow "Dynasty" stars in a CBS retrospective, "Dynasty Reunion: Catfights & Caviar" (2006), but, at 88, he obviously had slowed with age. In October of that year, he was diagnosed with colorectal cancer and underwent successful treatment at Cedars Sinai Hospital in L.A., before being released a month later.

In 2002, TV Guide named Forsythe No. 43 in its list of the "50 Sexiest Stars of All Time." Even at the height of his fame, he had remained modest about his contribution to his craft. "I am a good journeyman actor and I always do my best," he told TV Guide, "but I'm not jealous of Henry Fonda or George C. Scott or Brando because they have 'touched by the hand of God' talent and I don't." He ech d those sentiments in his more recent oral history for the Archive of American Television. "To this day, I don't think I'm a tremendous actor," he said. "I think I'm a workmanlike actor . . . I think I've been very, very fortunate." After battling cancer for years, Forsythe finally succumbed to his disease and died of complications from pneumonia on April 1, 2010. He was 92 years old.

Credits

Dynasty: The Reunion

Actor
Show
2012

Charlie's Angels: Full ThrottleStream

Actor
Charles Townsend
Movie
2003
41%

Charlie's AngelsStream

Voice
Charles Townsend
Movie
2000
68%

The Powers That BeStream

Actor
Series
1992
63%

Dynasty: The Reunion

Actor
Blake Carrington
Movie
1991

A Festival at Ford's Theatre: The Stars Salute the President

Host
Show
1990

Opposites Attract

Actor
Rex Roper
Movie
1990

ScroogedStream

Actor
Lew Hayward
Movie
1988
70%

On Fire

Actor
Joe Leary Sr.
Movie
1987

Le Feu sacré

Actor
Movie
1987

The 34th Primetime Emmy Awards

Host
Show
1982

Mysterious Two

Actor
He
Movie
1982

Follow Me If You Dare

Actor
He
Movie
1982

DynastyStream

Actor
Blake Carrington
Series
1981

Sizzle

Actor
Mike Callahan
Movie
1981

Dynasty

Actor
Blake Carrington
Movie
1980

A Time for Miracles

Actor
Postulator
Movie
1980

Disney's Wonderful World

Narrator
Show
1979

...And Justice for AllStream

Actor
Judge Henry T. Fleming
Movie
1979
82%

Crucero del Terror

Actor
Movie
1978

With This Ring

Actor
General Albert Harris
Movie
1978

The Users

Actor
Reade Jamieson
Movie
1978

Cruise Into Terror

Actor
Reverend Charles Mather
Movie
1978

Circus of the Stars

Self
Ringmaster
Show
1977

Emily, Emily

Actor
Niles Putnam
Movie
1977

Tail Gunner Joe

Actor
Paul Cunningham
Movie
1977

Never Con a Killer

Actor
E.J. Valerian
Movie
1977

Goodbye & Amen

Actor
The American Ambassador
Movie
1977

Charlie's AngelsStream

Actor
Charlie Townsend
Series
1976

Charlie's AngelsStream

Voice
Charlie Townsend
Series
1976

El Misterio de Amelia Earhart

Actor
Movie
1976

Amelia Earhart

Actor
G.P. Putnam
Movie
1976

The Deadly Tower

Actor
Lt. Elwood Forbes
Movie
1975

Terror en el Piso Cuarenta

Actor
Movie
1974

Terror on the 40th Floor

Actor
Daniel "Dan" Overland
Movie
1974

The Healers

Actor
Dr. Robert Kier
Movie
1974

Cry Panic

Actor
David Ryder
Movie
1974

Police Story

Actor
Series
1973

The Letters

Actor
Paul Anderson
Movie
1973

Lisa, Bright and Dark

Actor
William Schilling
Movie
1973

Murder Once Removed

Actor
Dr. Ron Wellesley
Movie
1971

To Rome With Love

Actor
Michael Endicott
Show
1969

TopazStream

Actor
Michael Nordstrom
Movie
1969
69%

The Happy Ending

Actor
Fred Wilson
Movie
1969

Shadow on the Land

Actor
Gen. Wendell Bruce
Movie
1968

The Light Fantastic, Or How to Tell Your Past, Present and Maybe Your Future Through Social Dancing

Self
Show
1967

A Bell for Adano

Actor
Maj. Victor Joppola
Movie
1967

In Cold BloodStream

Actor
Alvin Dewey
Movie
1967
81%

Madame X

Actor
Clayton Anderson
Movie
1966

Death Pays in Dollars

Actor
Movie
1966

Sweet Taste of Vengeance

Actor
Jerry Wilson / John Williams
Movie
1966

See How They Run

Actor
Martin Young
Movie
1965

The Miss and the Missiles

Actor
Bill Adams; Connie's boyfriend
Show
1964

Kitten With a Whip

Actor
David Stratton
Movie
1964

La Chatte au fouet

Actor
Movie
1964

Alfred Hitchcock HourStream

Actor
Series
1962

The First Hundred Years

Actor
Show
1962

Il vendicatore

Actor
Vladja Dubrowski
Movie
1959

Bachelor Father

Actor
Bentley Gregg
Series
1957

Zane Grey TheaterStream

Actor
Series
1956

The Ambassador's Daughter

Actor
Sgt. Danny Sullivan
Movie
1956

Everything but the Truth

Actor
Ernie Miller
Movie
1956

Alfred Hitchcock PresentsStream

Actor
Kim Stanger
Series
1955

The Trouble With Harry

Actor
Sam Marlowe
Movie
1955

Climax!Stream

Actor
Series
1954

The Elgin Hour

Actor
Show
1954

The United States Steel Hour

Actor
Prof. Gilbert Jardine
Show
1953

General Electric Theater

Actor
Bentley Gregg
Show
1953

El Crimen de la Semana

Actor
Movie
1953

The Glass Web

Actor
Don Newell
Movie
1953

It Happens Every Thursday

Actor
Bob MacAvoy
Movie
1953

Escape From Fort BravoStream

Actor
Capt. John Marsh
Movie
1953

Curtain Call Theater

Actor
Show
1952

The Captive City

Actor
Jim Austin
Movie
1952

Cosmopolitan Theatre

Actor
Show
1951

The Jack Benny ProgramStream

Guest
Talk
1950

What's My Line?Stream

Guest
Game Show
1950

SuspenseStream

Actor
Series
1949

Studio OneStream

Actor
Series
1948

Lights Out

Actor
Show
1946

Destination Tokyo

Actor
Sparks
Movie
1943

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