Lucky Star: John Hodiak
According to John Hodiak, his film career was sheer luck. “I’ve always been a firm believer in the Fates,” he once said. But luck was not on his side when Hodiak, hailed near the start of his career as “another Gable,” went from leading man to supporting player in a matter of years and, later, was felled by a fatal heart attack at the age of 41. Despite his unfulfilled potential as an actor, Hodiak did appear in a number of well-received films, including Lifeboat (1944), A Bell for Adano (1945), and The Harvey Girls (1946). He was also featured in four films from the era of noir: Somewhere in the Night (1946), The Bribe (1949), A Lady Without Passport (1950), and The People Against O’Hara (1951).
The man who was frequently described as quiet-spoken and likeable was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on April 16, 1914, the oldest son of Ukranian immigrants. When young Hodiak was eight years old, his family moved to Hamtramck, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit with a large immigrant population. There, his father took a job at an automobile factory, and Hodiak began performing in Ukranian and Russian plays at the local parish. His father, himself an amateur actor, sometimes appeared in these productions as well.
Hodiak attended Holbrook Elementary School and Hamtramck High School, where he appeared in most of the school productions. After high school, Hodiak tried for a job at a local Detroit radio station, but was shot down by the station’s program manager who “told me to forget the whole thing – my diction was lousy,” Hodiak recalled. Instead of the desired radio gig, Hodiak found employment as a caddy at a nearby country club, but the job would be a fortuitous one. Among the golfers was a Chevrolet Motor Company executive, who offered Hodiak an office job there.
“A large part of the job consisted of reading figures aloud and, automatically, the necessity of reading those figures clearly improved my diction,” Hodiak said. “After about three years, I went back to the radio station, a humble and chastened young man, and asked if they might be able to use me. They took me on as a bit player, at no salary. But that was all right. I had a daytime job that paid off. I wasn’t in any danger of starving.”
Over time, Hodiak began getting larger parts at the radio station and in 1935, moved to Chicago, where he found work playing a variety of roles, including the original Lil’ Abner. Hodiak’s years on the radio finally paid off in 1942, when MGM talent scout Marvin Schenck heard the actor on a broadcast and arranged for Hodiak to make a screen test, along with another performer under consideration, Canada Lee.
Years later, Hodiak admitted to Ed Sullivan that he wasn’t at all daunted by the possible career-altering test.
“For the sake of the story, I’d like to tell you I was nervous,” Hodiak said, “but I wasn’t. I’ve never been nervous about anything. I’ve always sat back and waited for things to happen. I’ve always felt that if I were the guy to do something, I’d be sought out to do it. Otherwise, I’d be far happier right where I was.”
Hodiak’s performance in the test earned him a seven-year contract with MGM, but he promptly shot down the studio’s intentions to change his name, insisting that it “sounds like I look.” The actor also cited the sense of obligation he felt toward his fellow Ukranians.
“There are many reasons why I want to arrive,” he said in a 1944 interview. “I want other Ukranians to feel that they have a chance. Maybe not in this field, but in any other. I receive a lot of mail . . . from Ukranians who thank me because I haven’t changed my own name and because I don’t pretend to be either Polish or Russian.”
For the next year, however, the actor languished in a series of minor roles in such films as Swing Shift Maisie (1943), in which he was unbilled; Song of Russia (1943), where he portrayed a Russian peasant farmer; and I Dood It (1943), a popular Red Skelton vehicle. He fared better in 1944, however, playing a soldier opposite Lana Turner in Marriage Is a Private Affair, followed by his breakout role as a Nazi-hating seaman in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. True to his insistence that his career success was based on luck, Hodiak was reportedly chosen for Lifeboat after Hitchcock, looking for a black actor to play the steward in the film, viewed the screen test that featured Hodiak with Canada Lee. After tapping Lee for the role, Hitchcock gave Hodiak a second look and, ultimately, hired him as well. Although the part was Hodiak’s first starring turn, he relied on his instincts to bring the hot-tempered character to life.
“I never had a dramatic lesson,” he would tell columnist Hedda Hopper in 1947, “never formally studied diction, never had anybody to teach me timing. I just picked it all up as I went along. It’s my belief that acting’s essentially a quality within a person and not a mere bag of tricks and mannerisms to be exhibited externally.”
Also that year, Hodiak starred with 21-year-old Anne Baxter in Sunday Night for a Soldier (1944), a sweet film about a family scrimping their meager resources to invite a soldier for a chicken dinner. Hodiak and his leading lady began dating and, despite reported opposition from Baxter’s mother and the vast differences in their backgrounds (Baxter was a former socialite and the granddaughter of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright), the two married on July 7, 1946. Nearly five years later to the day, on July 9, 1951, their only child, Katrina, would be born and, for a while at least, they appeared to be one of Hollywood’s happiest and most successful couples.
Meanwhile, in Hodiak’s sole film of 1945, the actor portrayed his favorite role, Major Joppolo in A Bell for Adano (1945), a touching World War II story about an American soldier determined to restore a church bell in a small Italian town. (In real life, incidentally, the actor was unable to serve in the war due to hypertension.) Hodiak’s performance earned nearly universal accolades, including praise from New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, who wrote that the actor was “excellent as Joppollo, firm and unquestionably sincere with just the right shades of emotion in his response to human problems.”
Off screen, the family-minded Hodiak purchased a six-room house in late 1945 and moved his entire family there – including his parents, three siblings, and their families. In addition to spending his salary on his loved ones, Hodiak quietly contributed to a number of causes, including the creation of “kid’s club centers” in his hometown of Hamtramck.
“A lot of people claim to have discovered me, and a lot of people have helped me,” he said. “Frankly every one of them is right, and I’m one actor who is plenty grateful.”
Hodiak followed his triumphant appearance in Adano with a starring role opposite Lucille Ball in Two Smart People (1946), followed by The Harvey Girls, a popular musical co-starring Judy Garland, and Somewhere in the Night (1946), his initial foray into the realm of film noir. As this feature opens, Hodiak’s character awakens in a military hospital to discover that he does not know who he is. He is called “George Taylor” by hospital personnel, however, and finds a disturbing note in his wallet: “These are my last words to you . . . I despise you now, and the memory of you. I’m ashamed for having loved you. And I shall pray as long as I live for someone or something to hurt and destroy you. Make you want to die, as you have me.” Traveling to Los Angeles, Taylor learns that he has been left $5,000 – and a gun – by a man named Larry Cravat, and he determines to find him, certain that he holds the key to Taylor’s past. Instead, Taylor meets a series of individuals, each of whom have some connection to Cravat, including Christy Smith (Nancy Guild), a nightclub singer whose best friend was jilted by Cravat; Christy’s boss, Mel Phillips (Richard Conte), who offers to help Taylor find the missing man; and Lt. Donald Kendall (Lloyd Nolan), a crafty detective who reveals that Cravat disappeared with $2 million several years before.
Despite a complicated and often confusing plot, Somewhere in the Night earned good reviews upon its release and Hodiak was praised for his performance as well; the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther said that he “plays the blanked-out veteran darkly and desperately,” and in the Los Angeles Examiner, James O’Farrell wrote: “Hodiak probably has here his best opportunity to date to act. His role is difficult, because it calls for the interpretation of a dogged personality who wants to find where he came from and who he was – with few clues and little promise of his ability to cope with the destructive forces quite evidently lined up against him.”
Unfortunately, with the return from World War II of such matinee stars as Clark Gable and Robert Taylor, Hodiak’s promising career began a gradual downward spiral around this time, in terms of both the quality of his films and the size of his roles. During the next two years, he was seen in such vehicles as Desert Fury (1947), which was panned in the New York Times as a “beaut of a Technicolor mistake from beginning to end”; Love from a Stranger (1947), a tiresome drama with Sylvia Sidney; and Homecoming (1948), notable primarily for its teaming of Clark Gable and Lana Turner, and Hodiak’s supporting role opposite his real-life wife, Anne Baxter. His best films during this period were Ambush (1949), a fast-moving western starring Robert Taylor, and Command Decision (1948), a wartime feature with Clark Gable, Walter Pidgeon, and Van Johnson. But Hodiak was becoming increasingly frustrated with the direction in which his career was headed, and openly discussed his concerns in the press.
“So far as the actor is concerned, the attitude of producers seems to be this: ‘You’re getting parts and you’re getting paid, so what are you beefing about?’” Hodiak said. “But there are such things as honesty and integrity to be preserved. If you keep betraying these qualities, you’ll eventually lose them. This I do not want.”
Shortly after this interview, Hodiak returned to the dark world of film noir, appearing in three features in as many years: The Bribe (1949), A Lady Without Passport (1950), and The People Against O’Hara (1951). In the first, set in an island off the coast of Central America, Hodiak played the supporting role of Tugwell Hintten, a former U.S. Air Force pilot who is part of an illegal war surplus racket. Next, in A Lady Without Passport, Hodiak returned to leading man status, starring as special agent Pete Karczag, who poses as a Hungarian immigrant in an effort to break up an illegal alien smuggling ring in Cuba. Hodiak’s fourth and final noir, The People Against O’Hara, starred Spencer Tracy as a former criminal attorney, James Curtayne, whose battle with alcoholism forced him to abandon his career. When Johnny O’Hara (James Arness), the son of a family friend, is accused of murder, Curtayne reluctantly takes the case, going up against the politically ambitious, cold-as-ice assistant district attorney, Louis Barra (Hodiak).
Of Hodiak’s three back-to-back noirs, the actor earned his best notices for his role in The People Against O’Hara, with W.E. Oliver of the Los Angeles Evening Herald-Express praising his “clean, clipped” performance, and Margaret Harford writing in the Hollywood Citizen-News that the actor “handles himself well as the ambitious prosecutor.” The following year, he was again cast as an attorney, this time in The Sellout (1952), the last film under his MGM contract. After this feature, Hodiak turned his sights eastward, making his Broadway debut in The Chase, which was directed and produced by actor Jose Ferrer.
Although Hodiak was hailed for his portrayal of a small-town sheriff in the production, and received the Donaldson Award for his performance, the play closed after a short run and the actor returned to Hollywood to star in a string of fairly forgettable wartime features. He was also seen in two mediocre westerns, Conquest of Cochise (1953), in which the actor was miscast as the famed Apache chief, and Ambush at Tomahawk Gap (1953), where he was teamed with John Derek, Ray Teal, and David Brian as a group of ex-cons searching for their stolen money.
But by now, Hodiak had more serious concerns than his disappointing film career. In December 1952, Anne Baxter filed for divorce from her husband of six years, and the couple released a statement to the press that read in part: “We have tried very hard to avoid the finality of the word divorce. . . . We have no other interests and no career problems. We feel heartsick and defeated that in spite of all our hopes and efforts at understanding, basic incompatibilities have made our life together impossible.” Baxter was less tactful a month later, however. During her court testimony, she tearfully described Hodiak as rude and insulting, and claimed that she had found it difficult to work due to “such tension and strain.”
“For months we had been trying to work out our problems at mealtime after a day’s work. He would imitate me and more or less mock me, in an insulting tone,” Baxter testified. “I’d say, ‘But John, I don’t understand.’ And in a shrill, high voice, he would imitate me by repeating, ‘But John, I don’t understand.’ Finally it would get so bad that I’d have to take my plate upstairs to finish the meal in peace.” The couple’s divorce was finalized in January 1953, and Hodiak eventually moved into his parents’ house in Tarzana. Although he would later date such starlets as Janis Paige and Eva Gabor, none of the relationships lasted and a friend of Hodiak’s stated that the actor “was not interested in marrying again – he had been hurt once.”
Career-wise, Hodiak had decided to take his acting in a new direction. “The picture business was going stale for me and I was for it,” the actor said. “I just wasn’t cut out to play the star’s brother all the time. I was getting second fiddle roles. It began to be obvious to me that I wasn’t in line to become a Gary Cooper, a John Wayne, or a Bing Crosby. Oh, I had good parts. But not top star roles.”
Returning to New York, the actor took on the role of Lt. Stephen Maryk in Caine Mutiny Courtmartial, which opened on Broadway to rave reviews in January 1954. Critics were unanimous in their praise of the production, and Hodiak was singled out by several reviewers, including Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, who wrote that Hodiak’s performance “had strength, charm, candor, and the stamp of a human being. Every stroke in it is genuine and pertinent.” By now, Hodiak had also made several well-received appearances on the small screen as well, in such series as Your Show of Shows, Hollywood Playhouse, and Ford Theater.
After several months with Caine Mutiny – which the actor termed “the most wonderful experience of my life” – Hodiak went back to the big screen and his former studio for a featured role in MGM’s Trial (1955), a powerful courtroom drama starring Glenn Ford and Arthur Kennedy. Prior to the release of this film, Hodiak began work on On the Threshold of Space (1956), a drama about aviators testing supersonic aircraft. Playing an Air Force surgeon who specializes in rocket sled experiments, Hodiak was required to perform a variety of taxing maneuvers, some of them inside the jets. He completed the bulk of his role on October 18, 1955, but reportedly flubbed his lines on several occasions.
“I can’t understand why I’m forgetting them,” Hodiak was later quoted by crew members. “I’ve never done this before.”
The following day (which, ironically, marked the nationwide opening of Hodiak’s film, Trial) would be the actor’s last. In the early morning hours, he complained of gas pains to his mother and sister and, later, while shaving, he collapsed in the bathroom, dying instantly of a coronary thrombosis. He was only 41 years old.
Hodiak’s death was a shock to the Hollywood community, which had also recently suffered the untimely departures of Carmen Miranda, James Dean, Suzan Ball, and Robert Francis (who starred in The Caine Mutiny (1954), the screen version of Hodiak’s last play.) Although Hodiak had no history of heart problems, however, he had suffered for several years from hypertension, the condition that prevented his service in World War II, and a number of friends and co-workers suggested that the actor’s moodiness and sensitivity had also contributed to his sudden death.
“He was the most sensitive person,” said his ex-wife, Anne Baxter. “He was hurt inside, many times, and that probably did it.”
Actor Lloyd Nolan, who appeared with Hodiak in Somewhere in the Night and Caine Mutiny Courtmartial, offered a similar assessment.
“He had ultra-sensitiveness,” said Nolan, who was among the active pallbearers at Hodiak’s funeral service on October 22, 1955. “He was very sincere about acting, and very serious about it. He also was terribly nervous at times. Even at parties in New York, he’d get butterflies in his stomach, like a child.”
These characteristics notwithstanding, John Hodiak was far more likely to be touted as soft-spoken, well-liked, and loyal to a fault. And although he appeared to be forever striving for an undefined goal (“I keep looking for something that I’ve never found,” he once said), he offered memorable performances in a number of films and can best be remembered for his admirable rise from the caddy with “lousy diction” to one of the stars of the silver screen.
“He had been in every medium and conquered them all,” Anne Baxter said after Hodiak’s death. “He did it all himself. Nobody ever helped John.”