One hundred years of John Hodiak

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As John Hodiak began to shave early on the morning of Oct. 19, 1955, a ruggedly handsome face stared back from the mirror. It was a face distinguished by a square jaw and alert, sensitive eyes that served him well as an actor on stage and screen.

After suffering through a postwar slump, Hodiak's career seemed to be on the upswing. He was on his way to the 20th Century Fox lot to complete final work on the aviation movie "On the Threshold of Space."

He never made it. Before he finished shaving, the Pittsburgh-born performer suffered a coronary thrombosis and died instantly. He was 41.

Some might argue that Hodiak was the greatest actor that Pittsburgh has produced. He was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for the work he did in radio drama alone. He would go on to appear in 34 films including Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat," "A Bell for Adano," "Somewhere in the Night" and "Homecoming" with Clark Gable, Lana Turner and his then-wife, Anne Baxter.

And yet it seems Pittsburghers have largely forgotten John Hodiak, who would have turned 100 today.

He was born on the South Side. Hodiak's father, Walter, was Ukrainian and his mother, Anna, was Polish. When he was 8, he moved with his family to a suburb of Detroit, the city where, after high school, he tried to break into radio acting. He didn't get the job because he was told "my diction was lousy," he recalled.

At that point, Hodiak could have become a professional athlete. He was a talented baseball player, and the St. Louis Cardinals were interested in offering him a minor league contract. But he had his heart set on acting and declined the offer.

After working as a golf caddy and a stockroom clerk for Chevrolet and improving his speech, Hodiak applied to the iconic Detroit radio station WXYZ (home of the "Lone Ranger" and "Green Hornet") and worked as an unpaid bit player before moving on to Chicago. His most notable roles were as the title character in "L'il Abner," a role he originated on radio, and in the serials "Ma Perkins" and "Wings of Destiny."

While in Chicago Hodiak was discovered by a Metro Goldwyn Mayer talent agent and signed a deal that included a request from Louis B. Mayer that he change his name. Mayer felt Hodiak was not a marquee-friendly moniker.

But Hodiak was proud of his heritage and refused: "I like my name. It sounds like I look."

High blood pressure made him unfit for military duty, but it helped his acting career. The dearth of male actors during World War II made him a hot commodity in Hollywood. His dark, lean features and well-honed performing skills landed him a walk-on role in "A Stranger in Town," his first film.

But his big break came in 1944 when Hitchcock borrowed Hodiak from MGM to play John Kovac, the torpedoed ship's crew member in "Lifeboat" at 20th Century Fox.

Amid an all-star cast that included Tallulah Bankhead, William Bendix, Walter Slezak and Hume Cronyn, Hodiak gave a sharp-tongued performance as an edgy, tough guy with an altruistic side. He more than held his own in several sexually tense scenes with Bankhead, including one in which an ocean storm seemingly brings them to death's door and they collapse in an open-mouthed kiss that was unusual for its time.

When "Lifeboat" was shown in January on the Turner Classic Movies' program "The Essentials," host Robert Osborne observed that "the impact of him in this movie was not unlike Brando in 'Streetcar.' Hodiak was somebody like you'd never quite seen on screen before at that point." Co-host Drew Barrymore described Hodiak as "incredibly smoldering and commanding."

He also exhibited tremendous range. He could play a loud-mouth as well as a character that was quietly, ruggedly charming. In 1945's "A Bell for Adano," with co-star Gene Tierney, he sets the mood by working against his emotions in a Humphrey Bogart sort of way. Like Bogie, he could keep a poker face but make you feel that something extraordinary was simmering just below the surface.

The end of the war brought the return of MGM's male stars, including Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart and Van Johnson. Hodiak was relegated to lesser roles, and his MGM contract expired in 1951. He would never quite return to the star status he had achieved only a few years earlier.

However, Hodiak received excellent reviews for his 1952 Broadway debut as the sheriff in "The Chase." He returned to Broadway as Lieutenant Maryk in "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial" co-starring Henry Fonda. During the play's successful run, he was even invited to be the "Mystery Guest" on the panel game show "What's My Line?"

But now it is the memory of Hodiak that remains a mystery to some, who might recognize the name but can't quite place him.

Seventeen years ago, City Theatre held a John Hodiak Film Festival as part of the South Side Summer Street Spectacular. There are no scheduled centennial salutes here, but it seems some kind of tribute is in order. Maybe a scholarship could be created in his name. It would certainly be appropriate for a humble man from humble beginnings who scaled the heights of the acting profession.

Paul Guggenheimer is the host of "Essential Pittsburgh" on 90.5 WESA, the NPR member station in Pittsburgh.

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