John Payne's career went through so many phases that even longtime moviegoers could be forgiven for losing track of his successes -- one round of pictures tended to eclipse an earlier round, mostly because his work was so different in each of them. He was born John Howard Payne in Roanoke, VA, in 1912, to a wealthy family whose ancestors included the composer -- also named John Howard Payne -- of the song "Home Sweet Home." The family still had a strong focus on music in his time, his mother having been a successful opera singer at the turn of the century. Payne studied music from an early age and proved a natural singer.
The family was left impoverished by the 1929 stock market crash, and his father passed away just a few months later, but that didn't stop the 18-year-old Payne from attending Columbia University in New York, as well as studying voice at the Juilliard School. He supported himself doing odd performing jobs, including singing on the vaudeville stage and wrestling professionally. In 1934, he was seen by a talent scout for the Schubert theatrical organization and put into their touring productions, and advanced from vaudeville to singing on the radio. He went out to Hollywood in 1935 under contract to Samuel Goldwyn and played supporting roles in a pair of the latter's films, most notably in William Wyler's Dodsworth (1936), as the title character's son-in-law. He was released from his Goldwyn contract soon after and appeared in a series of low-budget films that were good enough to get him a contract at 20th Century Fox.
It was there that Payne became a star in musicals such as Springtime in the Rockies (1942). During this period -- what one might call his male ingenue phase -- Payne was the quintessential young clean-cut hero and very popular with female filmgoers. To cultivate that audience, the studio often had him working in roles that required him to be bare-chested -- indeed, among young female fans he was one of the most popular male pinups of the 1940s. He served in the U.S. Army Air Force during the Second World War, but on his return to civilian life he was still playing brash, youthful roles, if not in musicals. One of his very last before the end of his Fox contract was Fred Gailey, the idealistic young attorney who defends a man claiming to be Santa Claus in the fantasy-romance Miracle on 34th Street (1947). That movie, among the most popular Christmas films ever released, has become perhaps Payne's most well-known film over the ensuing decades.
Payne's acting ability had advanced considerably as he grew older, and by the beginning of the 1950s he was able to switch gears gracefully into more serious and demanding parts. It was during this decade that he played some of his best roles, in some of the most interesting (and enduring) films of his entire career. These included the Western Silver Lode (1954), a thinly veiled allegory about McCarthyism, done up as a Western, and the crime films Kansas City Confidential (1952), 99 River Street (1953), and -- best of all -- Slightly Scarlet (1956). In a sense, he remade his image and career along the same lines that Dick Powell had chosen a decade earlier, going from light musical leading man and "pretty boy" to an expertise in gritty, physically demanding roles in film noir and genre movies -- and he was just as successful as Powell. In fact, watching some of those movies, such as the gritty crime thriller 99 River Street, he is every bit as convincing playing an angry ex-boxer as he was in all of those musicals of the early '40s -- so convincing, that he makes one forget about the musicals. Allan Dwan's Slightly Scarlet might be the magnum opus of this end of his career, giving Payne a blazing Technicolor canvas on which to work his acting muscles hard, in seemingly improbable directions as an underworld figure with an unexpectedly complex agenda.
Payne also became active as a producer during the mid-'50s, and at one point he owned the film option on the second James Bond novel by Ian Fleming, Moonraker. Payne started his own production company in the second half of the 1950s and made a successful transition to television, starring in (and producing) the series The Restless Gun. That program ran for two seasons, from 1957 to 1959. During the early '60s, however, soon after its cancellation, Payne was seriously injured when he was struck by a car on a New York City street, and his recovery kept him out of work for most of the middle of the decade. He returned to work by way of the thriller They Ran for Their Lives (1968), which he also co-directed, and appeared in episodes of the series The Name of the Game and Columbo.
Luckily, Payne had invested wisely in real estate, and didn't need to work any harder than he wanted to. But work obviously suited him, along with new challenges in old venues, and in 1973, he returned to the theatrical stage in the Broadway revival of the DeSylva-Brown-Henderson musical Good News, working opposite his long-ago Fox co-star Alice Faye. He passed away in 1989 at age 77, from heart failure. His daughter from his first marriage, to actress Anne Shirley, is the actress Julie Payne. He was also married for a time to the actress Gloria de Haven, and their granddaughter is the actress Katharine Towne. His last marriage, from 1953 to the end of his life, was to the socialite Alexandra Crowell. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi