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Entertainment Weekly

Movies

Psycho, Imitation of Life actor John Gavin dies at 86

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John Gavin, the actor best known for his work in films including Imitation of Life and Psycho, has died. He was 86.

Gavin died Friday morning in Beverly Hills, Calif., EW has confirmed. Though Gavin was best known for his career as a mid-century heartthrob, in later years, he also served as the president of the Screen Actors Guild and acted as Ronald Reagan’s U.S. ambassador to Mexico.

At the peak of his career in the late 1950s, Gavin often drew comparisons to fellow Hollywood star Rock Hudson and even worked with one of Hudson’s most frequent collaborators, director Douglas Sirk, on 1959’s Imitation of Life. He starred as Lana Turner’s love interest Steve Archer in the remake of the 1934 film, who also must deal with a misdirected schoolgirl crush from Sandra Dee as Turner’s character’s daughter.

Gavin is perhaps best remembered for his role as Janet Leigh’s boyfriend Sam Loomis in the opening scene of Psychoappearing in a shirtless love scene that shocked audiences when the film was first released in 1960. Other memorable roles include a turn as Julius Caesar in the Kirk Douglas epic Spartacus, as well as the boss/crush of Julie Andrews’ title character in Thoroughly Modern Millie.

He served as the president of SAG from 1971-73 and as the ambassador to Mexico under President Ronald Reagan from 1981-86. Gavin also came close to being the only American actor to portray British secret agent James Bond in 1971’s Diamonds are Forever; he had signed on to the movie, but when original Bond Sean Connery decided to return to the role after George Lazenby’s one and only movie, Gavin was superseded in the part.

John Gavin was born Juan Vincent Apablasa on April 8, 1931 in Los Angeles, the child of a fourth-generation Angeleno descended from Spanish landowners and a Mexican-born aristocrat. While still a toddler, his mother divorced and remarried Herald Ray Golenor, who adopted and re-named him John Anthony Golenor. Gavin was raised bilingual.

Gavin attended Stanford University, receiving his bachelors degree in economics and Latin American affairs, before serving in the Navy during the Korean War. His military service led to his acting career when a family friend set out to make a movie about Gavin’s aircraft carrier and ended up arranging for Gavin to make a screen test.

He made his debut in the 1956 Western Raw Edge as John Gilmore, then appeared in crime drama Behind the High Wall as John Golenor, and finally settled on John Gavin in his third film Four Girls in Town. Gavin rose to prominence in Hollywood in 1958 on his first film with director Douglas Sirk, A Time to Love and a Time to Die. Alongside his other memorable films of the ’50s and ’60s, he also appeared opposite Doris Day in Midnight Lace, with Susan Hayward in Back Street, and costarred with Sandra Dee for a second time (this time actually romancing her) in Tammy Tell Me True. 

Gavin also tried his hand at television, starring in two short-lived television series in 1964 and ’65, an ABC Western called Destry and the NBC shipboard drama Convoy. He maintained his professional relationship with Alfred Hitchcock, starring in a few episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1963 and ’65. 

Near the end of his acting career, he played a heart surgeon in the 1979 ABC miniseries Doctors’ Private Lives, as well as portraying Cary Grant in a 1980 film about Sophia Loren in which Loren played herself. Other TV credits include The Doris Day Show, The Virginian, Mannix, Hart to Hart, and Fantasy Island.

He was also no stranger to Broadway, appearing in the 1973 romantic comedy Seesaw and bowing out of revival of Can-Can to accept President Reagan’s invitation to serve as Ambassador to Mexico. According to a 1983 People article, Gavin oversaw a 1,181-member embassy and put his fluency in Spanish and degree in Latin American politics to good use. He resigned in 1986.

Like Reagan before him, Gavin also served as president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1971-73, having previously served on the board in 1965 and several terms as vice president.

In later years, he also acted as president of  Univisa Satellite Communications, the then-owner of Spanish-language TV programmer Univision, a post he first filled in 1987.

Gavin was married twice, first to Cicely Evans from 1957-65, and then to soap opera actress Constance Towers until the time of his death.

He is survived by Towers, as well as two children and two step-children.

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