Having had many occasions to mention Van Heflin (Emmett Evan Heflin Jr, (1908-1971) on this blog, we shine a lantern upon him on this his natal day.
My first Heflin film was George Stevens’ Shane (1953), my dad’s favorite movie, and it established my impression of him, which remains essentially unaltered after seeing numerous other performances of his over the decades. Heflin generally had the thankless role of being an Everyman, a sad sack stand-in for the audience, a Fifth-Wheel, Three’s-a-Crowd kind of guy. This is why, despite having starred in many famous movies, he’s rarely (perhaps never) thought of as a “movie star”. You don’t go “Cary Grant, Clark Gable…Van Heflin”. He seems a supporting player, or a character actor, even in films where he gets top billing, or is the co-star. In this he reminds me of the slightly later Arthur Kennedy. The people around him outshine him in glamor, and he…labors. He’s the drone. Shane is a good example: Alan Ladd–dashing hero; Jack Palance–nasty villain; Jean Arthur— yearning lonelyheart. And Van Heflin? A stiff necked farmer who just wants to be left alone to clear stumps and push his plow. His niche was to be UNglamorous in Hollywood movies, which is often necessary in stories but is also like being a fish in the desert: far from home and very likely there just to be someone’s dinner. But, significantly, he also manages not to be anonymous. He’s not forgettable. Those huge eyes and that humungous forehead, always scowling, fretting, fussing, leave an impression.
The son of an Oklahoma dentist, Heflin got a Master’s in theatre from Yale. He started out as a Broadway stage actor in Channing Pollock’s Mr, Moneypenny (1928) with Hale Hamilton, Donald Meek, and Margaret Wycherly. This was the first of a dozen Broadway turns that included the Group Theatre’s production of Casey Jones (1938) directed by Elia Kazan, the original production of Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story (1939, in the role Jimmy Stewart played in the movie), and the original production of Arthur Miller’s double bill of A View from the Bridge and A Memory of Two Mondays (1955). His younger sister Frances Heflin was also a stage actor; she was in the original productions of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), I Remember Mama (1944) and the American premiere of Brecht’s Galileo (1947).
I am accustomed to thinking of Heflin as a star of the 1950s, so it is eye-opening to realize that he began his screen career two decades earlier, in RKO’s A Woman Rebels (1936) with Katharine Hepburn. He often wore a little mustache in the early years, and was a bit less distinctive. Santa Fe Trail (1940) with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland is his earliest well remembered film, and he received the Best Supporting Oscar in 1941 for his performance in the noir thriller Johnny Eager. Subsequent stuff included the title role in Tennessee Johnson (1942, as the impeached President), Presenting Lily Mars (1943, with Judy Garland in her first grown-up role), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946, with Barbara Stanwyck, and young Kirk Douglas in his first film role), the preposterous Jerome Kern bio-pic Til the Clouds Roll By (1946), the Spellbound rip-off Possessed (1947, with Joan Crawford), the New Zealand epic Green Dolphin Street (1947), the MGM version of The Three Musketeers (1948), Madame Bovary (1949) with Jennifer Jones, the melodrama East Side West Side (1950), Nunnally Johnson’s Hitchcockesque Black Widow (1954), the unforgettable western 3:10 to Yuma (1957 with Glenn Ford), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), the 1966 remake of Stagecoach, and the disaster movie classic Airport (1970), a fitting swan song for the perpetually sweating, white-knuckled actor.
In 1971, Heflin died of a heart attack following a vigorous pool swim. He was 62.