With his tall, athletic build, handsome, freckled face and sunny personality, the red-haired Johnson starred opposite Esther Williams, June Allyson, Elizabeth Taylor and others during his two decades under contract to MGM.
He proved to be a versatile actor, equally at home with comedies ("The Bride Goes Wild," "Too Young to Kiss"), war movies ("Go for Broke," "Command Decision"), musicals ("Thrill of a Romance," "Brigadoon") and dramas ("State of the Union," "Madame Curie").
During the height of his popularity, Johnson was cast most often as the all-American boy. He played a real-life flier who lost a leg in a crash after the bombing of Japan in "30 Seconds Over Tokyo." He was a writer in love with a wealthy American girl (Taylor) in "The Last Time I Saw Paris." He appeared as a post-Civil War farmer in "The Romance of Rosy Ridge."
More recently, he had a small role in 1985 as a movie actor in Woody Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo."
A heartthrob with bobbysoxers - he was called "the non-singing Sinatra" - Johnson married only once. In 1947 at the height of his career, he eloped to Juarez, Mexico, to marry Eve Wynn, who had divorced Johnson's good friend Keenan Wynn four hours before.
The marriage produced a daughter, Schuyler, and ended bitterly 13 years later. "She wiped me out in the ugliest divorce in Hollywood history," Johnson told reporters.
As a young actor, Johnson had a brief run with Warner Bros. and then got a screen test and a contract with MGM with the help of his friend Lucille Ball.
After a bit in "The War Against Mrs. Hadley," Johnson appeared with Lionel Barrymore as "Dr. Gillespie's New Assistant," as Mickey Rooney's friend in "The Human Comedy" and as a Navy pilot in "Pilot No. 5."
His big break, with Irene Dunne and Spencer Tracy in the wartime fantasy "A Guy Named Joe," was almost wiped out by tragedy.
On April 1, 1943, his DeSoto convertible was struck head-on by another car. "They tell me I was almost decapitated, but I never lost consciousness," he remembered. "I spent four months in the hospital after they sewed the top of my head back on. I still have a disc of bone in my forehead five inches long."
"A Guy Named Joe" was postponed for his recovery, and the forehead scar went unnoticed in his resulting popularity. MGM cashed in on his stardom with three or four films a year. Among them: "The White Cliffs of Dover," "Two Girls and a Sailor," "Weekend at the Waldorf." "High Barbaree," "Mother Is a Freshman," "No Leave No Love" and "Three Guys Named Mike."
Though he hadn't lost his boyish looks, Johnson's vogue faded by the mid-'50s, and the film roles became sparse, though he did have a "comeback" movie with Janet Leigh in 1963, "Wives and Lovers."
Also in the 1960s he returned to the theater, playing "Damn Yankees" in summer theaters at $7,500 a week. Then he accepted a two-year contract to star in "The Music Man" in London.
He explained why in an interview: "Because the phone didn't ring. Because the film scripts were getting crummier and crummier.
Because I sat beside my pool in Palm Springs one day and told myself: `Van, you'll be 45 this year. If you don't start doing something now, you never will."'
For three decades he was one of the busiest stars in regional and dinner theaters, traveling throughout the country from his New York base. In the 1980s, Johnson appeared on Broadway in "La Cage aux Folles," late in the run of the popular Jerry Herman msuical.
"The white-haired ladies who come to matinees are the people who put me on top," he said in a 1992 interview in Michigan, where he was appearing at a suburban Detroit theater. "I'm still grateful to them."
Television provided some gigs ("The Love Boat," "Fantasy Island" and "McMillan & Wife"), and he also became a painter, his canvases selling as high as $10,000. In a 1988 interview, he told of an important art lesson:
"I was on the Onassis yacht with Winston Churchill. He got his canvas out and so did I. He was working away, and he growled at me, `Don't just sit there and stare! Get some paint and splash it on!"'
He was born Charles Van Dell Johnson on Aug. 25, 1916, in Newport, R.I., where his father was a real estate salesman. From his earliest years he was fascinated by the touring companies that played in Newport theaters, and after high school he announced his intention to try his luck in New York. He arrived in 1934 with $5 and his belongings packed in a straw suitcase.
Johnson's tour of casting offices landed him nothing but chorus jobs. He went to Hollywood for a bit in the movie of "Too Many Girls," then was signed to a Warner Bros. contract.
"First the zenith, then the nadir," Johnson recalled. "Warner Bros. dropped me after `Murder in the Big House."'
The discouraged young actor was about to return to New York when Ball, whom he knew on "Too Many Girls," invited him to dinner at Chasen's restaurant.
"Lucille tried to cheer me up, but I just couldn't seem to laugh," he said in a 1963 interview. "Suddenly she said to me, `There's Billy Grady over there; he's MGM's casting director. I'm going to introduce you, and at least you're going to act like you're the star I think you will be."'