Van Heflin: A tribute

(Image: Doctor Macro)

(Image: Doctor Macro)

Say the name “Van Heflin” today and chances are, your conversation partner (unless they are a fellow old Hollywood “expert”) will have no clue who your talking about, which is the unfortunate reality when it comes to many classic stars.

But in the 1940s, Van Heflin was an actor on a roll, starring in both leading roles and important character parts, even taking home an Academy Award (for 1942’s Johnny Eager, Best Supporting Actor).

The son of an Oklahoma dentist, Heflin was born Emmett Evan Heflin, Jr. on this day (December 13) in 1910.

The acting bug bit him just before he turned 20, and like many actors he got his start on the stage. Soon he was signed to a contract with RKO and began appearing in films such as the historical drama A Woman Rebels (1936), which also starred Katharine Hepburn.

He went on to star alongside greats such as Judy Garland and Barbara Stanwyck, also eventually working in television and radio.

First film of his that I saw:
3:10 to Yuma (1957) was my first exposure to Heflin’s talent. He stars alongside Glenn Ford and portrays the character of Dan Evans, a rancher who plans to “help” Ford’s runaway outlaw character get out of town, actually planning to send him straight to the prison by train. If Dan does the job, he’ll get $200, which he plans to put toward saving his struggling family and ranch.

(Image: Doctor Macro)

Heflin embraces Judy Garland in Presenting Lily Mars (Image: Doctor Macro)

I’m not usually a huge fan of westerns and I’ll admit I haven’t re-watched this one since my initial discovery of it, but I was impressed by the performances of both Ford and Heflin. They play well off of each other and Heflin is easily buyable as an average rancher who gets himself entangled in a risky situation with hopes that it will benefit his family.

Favorite performances:
Johnny Eager (1941): Stars alongside Robert Taylor and Lana Turner as Jeff Hartnett, the right hand man and “one friend” of the title character

Grand Central Murder (1942): Stars as witty private eye “Rocky” Custer who helps solve the case of an actress murdered on a train

Presenting Lily Mars (1943): Stars in a lead role alongside Judy Garland as the producer who is constantly hounded by Lily Mars until he will agree to put her in one of his plays

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946): Stars alongside Barbara Stanwyck, Lizabeth Scott and Kirk Douglas as Sam Masterson, who returns to Iverstown and sends Martha Ivers into a frenzy because he is one of the only people who knows the truth about her violent past

8 thoughts on “Van Heflin: A tribute

    • You’re very welcome! Grand Central Murder is a solid mystery-comedy. It’s very obvious watching the film that it was made on a lower-end budget and that they were trying to replicate the success of The Thin Man series, but it’s a good watch and Van’s performance is great. And it’s been released on DVD by the Warner Archive, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding a way to watch it! :)

    • I’d have to agree with that — I haven’t seen his entire filmography yet, but in what I have seen there hasn’t been a single bad performance! The more I see of his work, the more of a fan I become.

  1. Lindsey, I’ve been a Van Heflin fan since I saw his riveting performance in ACT OF VIOLENCE, and and his Oscar-winning role in JOHNNY EAGER. Since then, I’ve always been impressed at his range. Thanks for putting him in your spotlight, and have a great holiday season!

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