Van Heflin (1908-1971)

Van Heflin
Van Heflin

Van Heflin was a highly skilled character actor who appeared in many successful movies during the 1940s and 1950s. He played mainly supporting roles but in the 1940s he enjoyed a string of roles as the leading man. In 1942 he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as the sensitive drinking buddy of gangster Johnny Eager in 'Johnny Eager'. He is also fondly remembered for his performances in iconic Westerns such as 'Shane' in 1953 and '3:10 to Yuma' in 1957.

Before his acting career took off, Heflin spent several years at sea, which enabled him to study life in all its variety and which certainly influenced and honed his natural acting talent.


He was born Emmet Evan Heflin,on December 13, 1908, into a middle class family in Walters, Oklahoma where his father was a dentist. He had a sister, Frances, who became a television actress and who later married composer, Sol Kaplan.

When his parents split up, Van, aged 7, went to stay with his grandmother in Long Beach, California and, living in the coastal town, he developed a lasting love for the sea. After graduating from Long Beach Polytechnic he joined the crew of a tramp steamer for a year. On his return he enrolled in Oklahoma University to study law , but after two years he decided he had had enough and went back to sea. When he returned he decided to try his hand at acting and he enrolled at the prestigious Yale School of Drama where he earned a master's degree in theater.

The Young Actor

His first professional appearance was on Broadway in the comedy 'Mr Moneypenny' in 1928. It was not well received and a discouraged Heflin returned to the seafaring life, this time for three years. When he returned to America he also returned to the stage and he appeared in two plays in 1934, 'The Bride of Torozko' and 'The Night Remembers'. Neither was successful but Heflin persisted and in 1936 he was rewarded with a good role in the S.N. Behrman comedy 'End of Summer' at the Guild Theatre.

Early Film Career with RKO

He was seen on stage by Katharine Hepburn and it was she who was instrumental in persuading the young actor to try film acting. He signed a contract with RKO and appeared with Hepburn in 'A Woman Rebels' in 1936, following it with 'The Outcasts of Poker Flat' and top billing in 'Saturday's Heroes' in 1937.

In 1939 Heflin returned to the stage to rejoin Katharine Hepburn in the hit play, "The Philadelphia Story" which ran for a year at the Shubert Theatre. It got Heflin noticed and in 1940 led to a choice role alongside Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland and Ronald Reagan in the western 'Santa Fe Trail' at Warner Brothers. The movie was a big hit and also led to a contract offer from major studio, MGM.

MGM Hollywood Actor

After several smaller roles roles in films such as 'The Feminine Touch' and 'H.M. Pulham, Esq.' in 1941, Heflin was given the substantial role of Jeff Hartnett, Robert Taylor's alcoholic best friend, in 'Johnny Eager' in 1942, which won Heflin a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and which was a big hit at the box office. He followed it in the same year with starring roles in successful 'B' movies, 'Kid Glove Killer' and 'Grand Central Murder'.

MGM began to cast him in starring roles, opposite Kathryn Grayson in 'Seven Sweethearts' and Lionel Barrymore in 'Tennessee Johnson' and finally in 1943 he co-starred with Judy Garland in 'Presenting Lily Mars'.

World War II

During World War II Heflin served in the United States Army Air Corps as a combat cameraman in the Ninth Air Force in Europe and with the First Motion Picture Unit. In 1944, he appeared in a training film, 'Land and Live in the Jungle'.

Hollywood Star

On his return from war duty, Heflin showed his acting skill and versatility in a wide variety of movies. In 1946 he appeared opposite Barbara Stanwyck and Kirk Douglas in the excellent film noir, 'The Strange Love of Martha Ivers ' and the following year he co-starred with Joan Crawford in 'Possessed'. He co-starred with Lana Turner in 'Green Dolphin Street' in 1947, which was MGM's biggest hit of the year and later in 1948 he was given the plum roe of Athos in the hugely successful 'The Three Musketeers'.

He continued to make important movies with varying degrees of success. He had top billing in 'Act of Violence' in 1949 and played a strong supporting role to Jennifer Jones in 'Madame Bovary' also in 1949. Both films were well received by the critics but both fared badly at the box office.

Later Career

Heflin left MGM in 1949 when his contract expired. He gave one of his most powerful performances in 'The Prowler' in 1951 but then during the remainder of the decade, his career path gradually changed from star leading man to character actor.

Smaller studios recognised his qualities and he was signed to short term contracts by firstly, Universal, from 1951-54, then by 20th Century Fox in 1954, Columbia from 1957-59 and Paramount from 1959-60. During this period he made two successful and influential westerns: 'Shane' in 1953 and '3:10 to Yuma' in 1957. Other films of note were 'Patterns' in 1956 and 'Gunman's Walk' in 1958.

During the 1960s Heflin continued to make movies but generally of a poorer quality and less successful than earlier in his career, such as ' The Greatest Story Ever Told' in 1965 and the disastrous 'Stagecoach' remake in 1966. His final movie appearance was as the bomber in 'Airport' in 1970.

Radio and Television

From 1947, Heflin appeared in several programmes on radio, including 'Adventures of Philip Marlowe', Lux Radio Theatre, and Cavalcade of America. He also appeared on numerous television shows, starting in 1950 with 'Robert Montgomery Presents and continuing with 'Playhouse 90' and 'The Dick Powell Theater'.


Van Heflin avoided the usual trappings of movie success. He lived a quiet life with his family and he was a popular figure in the Hollywood community.

He married twice, firstly, for just 6 months to actress Eleanor Scherr, then in 1942 to another actress, Frances Neal. The couple had three children and divorced in 1967.

Van Heflin died on July 23, 1971 in Hollywood from a heart attack. He requested that no funeral should be held and that his ashes should be scattered over the Pacific Ocean.

Van Heflin Academy Awards

One Win:
Best Supporting Actor ... Johnny Eager (1942)
No Unsuccessful Nominations:

Van Heflin Filmography

A Woman Rebels
The Outcasts of Poker Flat
Flight from Glory
Salute to Romance
Saturday's Heroes
Back Door to Heaven
Santa Fe Trail
The Feminine Touch
H.M. Pulham, Esq.
Johnny Eager
Kid Glove Killer
Grand Central Murder
Seven Sweethearts
The Man on America's Conscience
Presenting Lily Mars
Land and Live in the Jungle
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
Till the Clouds Roll By
Green Dolphin Street
Polly Fulton
Tap Roots
The Three Musketeers
Act of Violence
Madame Bovary
East Side, West Side