He was the genial bachelor father, the unseen boss of Charlie's Angels, the put-upon plutocrat of Dynasty. John Forsythe's gift as an actor was that he never made it seem like acting just like being the good-looking, confident, reassuring exemplar of something like American royalty. Just like being John Forsythe.
The TV and movie star, who survived quadruple bypass surgery in 1979 and colorectal cancer in 2006, finally died Thursday, in Santa Ynez, Calif., of pneumonia. He was 92.
It's said that a movie actor should have the musk of danger, and a TV actor the scent of security. The first is a hot date, the second the ideal dinner guest. That makes Forsythe the template of TV stardom. Unthreateningly handsome, never breaking a sweat, or causing one, he was rarely the most noticeable person in a movie or TV series. The young Ann-Margret vamped and held him hostage in the 1964 Kitten With a Whip oh, if the movie were only as tawdry as its title but his character survived, decorum intact. Lawyer Al Pacino spumed and ranted in the 1979 film ...And Justice for All and Forsythe, as a judge, manfully gaveled him down. When Bill Murray, as the rapacious network executive in the 1989 Scrooged, needed a talking to, Forsythe, even in corpse makeup, had the authority to do it. You might say he was upstaged by Joan Collins' brunette treachery in Dynasty, and by Farrah Fawcett's blond mop in Charlie's Angels. But Forsythe was like an easy chair one takes for granted until it's put in the attic. In three words, he wore well.
Born in 1918 in Penns Grove, N.J., as John Lincoln Freund, the son of a Wall Street stockbroker, Forsythe married and divorced early, joined the Army and, as a soldier, appeared in the Broadway play Winged Victory and the war movie Destination Tokyo, both in 1943. (On Broadway he met his second wife, actress Julie Warren; they were married for 51 years, until her death in 1994.) Forsythe returned to Hollywood after the war and, except for a starring role in the 1953 Broadway hit The Teahouse of the August Moon, remained out West.
Something in Forsythe's uncomplicated manliness appealed to Alfred Hitchcock; maybe Hitch saw him as a domesticated Cary Grant, or Jimmy Stewart with better posture. He cast the young man as the lead in the grindingly whimsical 1955 comedy The Trouble With Harry. Playing a bohemian painter, when that occupation could seem a gentleman's calling, Forsythe is surrounded by a trio of Vermont eccentrics, all of whom believe they may have killed Harry. Forsythe, naturally, is the cave of common sense they retreat to for sage advice ("You're not supposed to bury bodies whenever you find them it makes people suspicious") and comfort (he woos and wins the young Shirley MacLaine, in her film debut). Hitchcock called on Forsythe twice in the '60s, as a man accused of murder in the 1962 TV drama I Saw the Whole Thing, and seven years later, as a government agent in Topaz. Except for an interlude of rapturous Cuban deceit between a Castro type and a femme fatale, this is one of Hitchcock's few perfunctory botches, never escaping the inertia of its putative star, that cardboard continental Frederick Stafford. Forsythe suffered no collateral damage here; even as a spy, he does not skulk, he glides.
But the small screen was home for Forsythe. He began his series work with Bachelor Father, which ran from 1957 to 1962 on CBS, then NBC and finally ABC. This was one of the few American TV sitcoms of the period not set in the middle-class. Forsythe played Bentley Gregg, a rich attorney who lived in a Beverly Hills penthouse with his teenage niece Kelly (Noreen Corcoran) and a Chinese manservant (Sammee Tong). As unflusterable as Robert Young's Jim Anderson on Father Knows Best, Bentley wore suits that were tailored, not elbow-patched, and treated Kelly's adolescent anxieties with the same dextrous paternalism that made him so convincing in the courtroom. (Somehow the girl had more romantic entanglements than her suave guardian.) Nothing special, yet archetypal, the series wafted into homes on a cloud of geniality; its run ended as discreetly as it had begun.
Over the next three decades, the actor anchored three other sitcoms: in 1965 The John Forsythe Show (an Air Force major inherits a San Francisco girls' school), in 1969 To Rome With Love (a widower moves his three daughters from Iowa to the Eternal City for a teaching position) and, as he was nearing 75, The Powers That Be, about an inept U.S. Senator whose wife (Holland Taylor) runs the show. Imagine the James Gregory-Angela Lansbury couple from The Manchurian Candidate, remove the sedition, add broad laughs, and you have this short-lived 1992 farrago, dreamed up by Marta Kaufman and David Crane just before they created Friends.
Forsythe had a guardian angel in the Hollywood Hills: producer Aaron Spelling, who was pretty much responsible for the second half of the actor's career by casting him in Charlie's Angels (1976-81) and Dynasty (1981-89). Forsythe's Charles Townsend, head of his own L.A. sleuthing agency, was the boss of Angels Kate Jackson, Jaclyn Smith and Farrah Fawcett (replaced in the second season by Cheryl Ladd). Heard only on speakerphone, and seen only from behind, often surrounded by doting babes, Charlie was Hugh Hefner as Philip Marlowe, and the bachelor father of his Police Academy hotties. Forsythe's function was essentially the same as the self-destructing message in Mission: Impossible to describe this week's case, then get out of the way and do it with a touch of class and a bit of the rogue. Much of his dialogue was blithely leering dialogue, but he lent it the airiness of a bon vivant's connoisseurship. A generation later he returned for the two Charlie's Angels movies, with Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu; it's said Forsythe was paid $5 million for phoning it in.
George Peppard was signed to play the superrich Blake Carrington in Spelling's Dynasty, but "creative differences" led to Forsythe's replacing him at the last minute. A nighttime soap opera about an oil family, Dynasty was indebted to the hit series Dallas, but Spelling brought his high glitz, and Forsythe his gravitas. Joan Collins played Blake's first wife Alexis and Linda Evans his second wife Krystle. The show cemented network TV's hold on serial drama, hooking millions of viewers week to week, long before HBO filched the franchise with The Sopranos.
Actually, it's a wonder that Forsythe's Blake had time to run the Denver-Carrington corporation, considering that, over the show's run, he rapes his young wife Krystle; kills his gay son's beau when he sees the two men kissing; is found guilty of murder but given a suspended sentence; gets blinded in a mob-engineered car bombing, then left unconscious after being thrown by a horse; learns that his first wife Alexis bore him a child after they divorced; divorces (and remarries) Krystle; sues for custody of his kidnapped (and returned) grandson; hears of the deaths of his daughter Fallon and his son Steven (who both survive the rumors); attends a wedding that is shot up by Moldavian rebels; loses his fortune; tries to strangle Alexis; is charged with arson when the hotel he owns burns down, then saves his son Ben from a burning oil rig; loses his memory and regains it; finds a donor for a heart transplant for his and Krystle's child Krystina, then hears that the donor's mother has kidnapped Krystina; runs for governor of Colorado, against Alexis; loses the race, and nearly loses Krystle when she suffers a brain tumor and is left in a coma; and, in the last episode, has a shoot-out with a corrupt policeman and is left in a pool of blood. In a reunion movie three years later, Blake is released from prison for the cop's murder, learns that Krystle has come out of her coma and struggles to wrest Denver-Carrington from the oily cartel that has taken it over.
As the Carrington family grew larger and crazier, as Alexis purred and Krystle pouted, as Blake surged from kidnapping to murder rap, Forsythe kept his hold on the viewers' belief and rooting interest. He knew that his job was to make the impossible sound plausible, and that not every actor has to be Brando. The craft can be sedative as well as stimulant. There's a place for the traditional performer the audience's ordinary extraordinary surrogate, the one who explains to them the awful thing that just happened.
You see him at this honorable work In Richard Brooks' 1967 movie of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. Robert Blake and Scott Wilson got the emoting headlines as the real-life Kansas killers, while Forsythe, as FBI agent Alvin Dewey, had the job of explaining their crimes to the audience. Viewers trusted him to read dialogue or, in a pinch, pronounce a sentence as he does at the end of the movie when the killers are about to be executed. "I see the hangman's ready," a reporter says. "What's his name?" And Dewey replies, "We the People." Only Forsythe could make capital punishment seem part of the Preamble to the Constitution. So forceful and unforced was his reading, he could have said, "Mott the Hoople," and audiences would still have nodded sagely.
If an actor is someone who sells the script without making it sound like a carny's come-on, then John Forsythe was John Barrymore. And he did it for 60 years.