Troy Donahue

Active - 1957 - 1998  |   Born - Jan 27, 1936 in New York City, New York, United States  |   Died - Sep 2, 2001   |   Genres - Drama, Action, Comedy, Crime, Mystery

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Biography by Bruce Eder

Troy Donahue was, in name and screen image, an emblem of the late-'50s teen male movie heartthrob, cinematic cousin to the "teen idol" recording star. Born Merle Johnson Jr. in New York City, he was the son of a General Motors executive. While attending Columbia University in the mid-'50s, he happened to play some roles in summer stock when he was spotted by a talent agent. This was just at a time when performers such as James Dean, Tab Hunter, and Robert Wagner had established an audience -- mostly among adolescent and post-adolescent girls -- for young male teen (and post-teenage) romantic leads, and he was brought out to Hollywood. Merle Johnson Jr. was renamed Troy Donahue by Harry Wilson, the same studio executive who had suggested that a certain Roy Fitzgerald adopt the name Rock Hudson, and he was initially signed to Universal Studios. Donahue appeared in small, uncredited roles in such pictures as Man Afraid, Man of a Thousand Faces, and The Monolith Monsters before getting his first major role in Douglas Sirk's The Tarnished Angels, and he also worked on such television shows as Tales of Wells Fargo and Wagon Train. By 1959, Donahue -- then 23 years old but still looking barely out of his teens --was appearing in major productions consistently, most notably Sirk's glossy, big-budget remake of Imitation of Life, and while he was getting good parts and scenes, he wasn't getting leading roles. His big break came when he was signed to Warner Bros. that same year. The studio immediately paired Donahue opposite its major female ingénue star, Sandra Dee in Delmer Daves' A Summer Place. This seemingly trashy soap opera of a movie, based on Sloan Wilson's bestselling novel about love and infidelity among the wealthy on a resort island off the coast of New England, proved to be a monster hit, the two young stars pulling teenagers in by the hundreds of thousands, even as their parents came to see the parallel romance in the film between Richard Egan and Dorothy McGuire -- even the score by Max Steiner yielded a huge hit single in the form of "Theme From a Summer Place," which was actually a cue called "Young Love" and associated with Donahue's and Dee's characters. Donahue later admitted in an interview done for a television biographical portrait of Sandra Dee that A Summer Place also made him sort of notorious. "I had impregnated Gidget," he recalled in the 1990s of his role in the film, referring to Dee's most familiar screen role, as the virginally innocent, free-spirited surf enthusiast; he added that in an era in which the public often tied actors and actresses closely to their screen roles, it took a little while for that murmur of pop culture disapproval to die down. Warner Bros. kept him busy in good dramatic roles in cast-heavy movies such as The Crowded Sky; both the studio and director/producer Daves were sufficiently impressed with his work to cast Donahue in a series of lead parts in major films, including the title role of the drama Parrish (1961) and in Rome Adventure the following year, in which Donahue worked opposite Suzanne Pleshette, to whom he was married for a time. Amid these film roles, Donahue also co-starred in the Warner Bros.-produced detective series Surfside Six and Hawaiian Eye. He moved into more challenging period roles in 1964 when the studio cast him as the hero of A Distant Trumpet, a tale of the conflicts between the United States cavalry and Native Americans, directed by Raoul Walsh. By that time, however, the teenagers who had comprised most of Donahue's original core fandom were of college age or older, getting married and starting families of their own, and no longer attended movies the same way that they once had. Additionally, his name and image seemed passé to the generation coming up behind them, who were busy discovering pop culture icons along the lines of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and others. He increasingly found himself playing the lead in poorer films, or portraying smaller roles in big films, and by the late '60s, Donahue was working in lower-budgeted, mostly made-for-television movies. He did get a role (as a character named Merle Johnson) in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather Part II in 1974, but an increasing dependence on alcohol and drugs came close to destroying his life, leaving him homeless on the streets of New York City at one point in the late '70s. He'd made a comeback, mostly working in exploitation movies such as Assault of the Party Nerds and occasional campy appearances in movies like Grandview USA (1984) and Cry-Baby (1990). He also achieved a kind of pop culture immortality starting in the 1990s by way of The Simpsons, whose cast of regular characters includes Troy McClure (a combination of Donahue's name with that of fellow young action star Doug McClure), a former movie star who is constantly hawking merchandise on infomercials and in advertisements in the cartoon series' town of Springfield. Donahue died of a heart attack in the late summer of 2001.

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