John Smith Memorial Site

John Smith

Biography

John Smith was born of mixed Dutch, German and Irish ancestry in Los Angeles on March 6th 1931 to parents Errol and Margaret Van Orden. His birth name was Robert Van Orden. He was a direct descendent of Peter Stuyvesant.  He attended public school, and graduated from Dorsey High School, then enrolled in UCLA. He sang with a dance band and was prominent in football, basketball and gymnastics during his school years.

John had an excellent voice as a youngster and made his film debut as a member of the well known Bob Mitchell Boys Choir, singing in such films as The Bells Of St Mary's in 1945 and Going My Way in 1944, both with Bing Crosby. He also appeared in the Roy Rogers film Bells of Rosarita in 1946.

He had originally decided to be an aeronautical engineer, but is quoted as saying "After one year I decided to follow my first love - acting". He worked with little theatre groups in El Paso, Houston and Galveston to gain experience.

Having made this decision he took a job at MGM as a mailboy and soon advanced to head of the mail department. It was from here in 1952 he got his first featured role in a motion picture. His job in the mail department led him to go through the casting area where he was spotted by a director who cast him in a very small role in "Carbine Williams". Following this John started taking acting lessons from the studio coach. Sadly the job did not last too long and John was forced to take a job selling used cars and deep freezers. But he did not give up.

One day John called into MGM to see the director who had cast him in "Carbine Williams" and met prominent agent Henry Willson. Willson suggested a name change and Robert Van Orden became John Smith. It is not clear whether Willson was in favour of this name - but John certainly was as despite the name being probably the most common on the planet - he was the "only" one in the acting business.

Henry Willson became John's agent and in 1954 a role for the 6ft 3in actor in the John Wayne movie "The High And The Mighty" resulted. John apparently became a favourite of John Waynes which in later life proved both fortuitous and disastrous.

Over the next 4 years between 1954 and 1958 John made a number of movies, many of them westerns.

In 1958 he tested for the role of scout in Wagon Train but the role went the the evr popular Robert Horton. However his test was so good that a little later that year when the role of Lane Temple in Cimarron City came up he was given the part. He was to have played the title role in the series Steve Canyon but he decided to go for Cimarron City instead. Clearly his star was rising. The series ran for 2 years and 26 episodes. It was on this series that John met actress Luana Patten whom he married on June 4th 1960. Both John and Luana were both boating enthusiasts and loved water sports. In fact John was an excellent deep sea diver. John was also an avid hunter. They lived in a home high in the Hollywood Hills.

In 1959 came what was probably his finest role as Slim Sherman in "Laramie", a worldwide success that ran for 4 seasons.

When Laramie ended in 1963 John Wayne asked director Henry Hathaway to cast John as Steve McCabe in the blockbuster "Circus World". This was a major step for John but in the end turned out to be very damaging to his future career and his life. It is said that Henry Hathaway disliked John, and vowed he would not work in Hollywood again. While John did manage to get a few more roles it does seem that his star faded after making "Circus World".

John appeared in many movies and in over 80 television shows

John's life ended on January 25th January 1995, a victim of heart problems and cirrhosis of the liver. He was cremated and his ashes scattered at sea.

Interesting Note

John never wore skin make up as his skin was perfect. He did sometimes wear eyebrow make up as his eyebrows were extremely fair.

John Smith as a child. This picture was taken in front of his Aunt's house. It is from Mary Brown's collection. Notice it is signed "Bobbie" from John's birth name Robert Van Orden.

Click for larger version.

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