Van Heflin, "the actor's actor", always played the strong, silent type on film, taking on lead and supporting roles with an equal amount of charisma and seriousness. His numerous characters on screen are indelibly human, etched with the pathos of existence, and tinted with the colors of a man who had seen and done many things. Heflin certainly fit that bill.
Emmett Evan Heflin, Jr was born December 18, 1908 in Walters, Oklahoma. His father, a dentist, moved the family around frequently, which gave young Van many experiences in his youth: at 15, he attended Long Beach Polytechnic High School for a year, and at 19, he was cast in a Broadway play, "Mrs. Moneypenny", during an extended vacation to New York City. In the meantime, Van grew to love the sea, and spent his summers traveling to such faraway places as Hawaii, England, and Colombia. By the time he graduated the University of Oklahoma in 1932, Van had been fully struck with the acting bug.
Moving back to New York, Van got bit parts on radio shows and some stock theater. Meanwhile, he began earning another degree, this time from Yale's drama school. In 1936, he met the rising star Katharine Hepburn, who took to the determined Midwestern lad and got him a supporting role in her film A Woman Rebels. This was followed by a long-running stint opposite Hepburn in the stage version of The Philadelphia Story - it ran for nearly 3 years, until it was finally interrupted by the start of World War II. Heflin enlisted in the army, and spent four years on active duty, though he never saw any real combat. However, shortly before he left, he starred in an MGM courtroom drama Johnny Eager. He left for service, and was absent when he was awarded an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. He wasn't absent, however, for his wedding that year to Frances Neal. Together they had three children.
Returning from duty, the talented actor was given numerous lead roles with some of the biggest actresses and directors of his day: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers with Barbara Stanwyck; Possessed with Joan Crawford; Green Dolphin Street with Lana Turner; and numerous others. In 1947, he was given the title role in the radio mystery series "The Adventures of Philip Marlowe." In 1948, he portrayed Athos in the costume epic The Three Musketeers, and the following year he starred in a screen adaptation of Madame Bovary, directed by the eminent Vincent Minnelli and starring the lovely Jennifer Jones.
Throughout the 1950s, Heflin eased into a supporting role in Hollywood, beginning to take on lesser characters like the accompanying newspapermen in the African thriller South of Algiers and the strong-willed father in the classic Western Shane. He also made a considerable number of bombs in this time, tarnishing his image, including the dreadful Wings of the Hawk, a period piece set in the Mexican Revolution, and a patriotic film My Son John which denounced Communism at the height of the Red Scare. He began appearing on television as it rose in popularity, and in between such middling fare as the corporate melodrama Woman's World and the Confederate caper The Raid, he made several appearances on the wildly popular teledrama series "Playhouse 90." In perhaps his finest role, Oscar notwithstanding, Van played small rancher Dan Evans in the Elmore Leonard-penned Western drama 3:10 To Yuma. Set to guard a hardened criminal until his train to justice arrives, Van must square off against his gang in a tough battle of bullets and wills. Van is the James Arness James Arness wished he was.
By the early 1960s, Van's limelight had decreased considerably, and he took on more television roles. He still managed a few movies - most notably in the George Stevens mega-epic The Greatest Story Ever Told - and earned an Emmy nomination for another courtroom drama, "A Case of Libel", in 1968. His last movie appearance was in another highly dramatic epic, the 1970 disaster smash Airport, playing the suicide bomber at the heart of the movie's conflict. On July 19, 1971, while swimming in his bachelor pad (he divorced his wife of 25 years because of emotional insecurity), Van suffered a heart attack. He managed to make it to the ladder and held on for nearly 24 hours until paramedics were called to the scene. Three days later, he passed away of a heart attack at the age of 62.
For an interesting read on the rise and fall of Van Heflin in Hollywood, see http://www.classicimages.com/1996/april/vanheflin.shtm.