It's amazing how boyishness clings stubbornly to Van Johnson. Mostly it's his attitude, but a lot of it is his Eveready wit, which is still charging away to beat 60 (or, more accurately, 74).
This is his year to be the Golden Boy: His first film came out 50 years ago this fall - "Too Many Girls," which George Abbott transferred from Broadway with most of the cast intact.Johnson was just a freckle-faced kid in the chorus then, but the star of the movie, Lucille Ball, pulled strings and got him a 20-year term in The Dream Factory, MGM.
He brought his autograph book and pestered his peers for their signatures till Spencer Tracy made him put it away. "Spencer was my best pal at MGM for those 20 years," Johnson says. "I worshiped this man. When I had days off, I'd go to the set and watch him from the back - never let him know I was there."
But he rarely got to flex his own dramatic muscles. As box-office prince of the lot (Gable, you'll recall, was The King), Johnson was kept on a lightweight-entertainment diet that won him a fan for every freckle - but no award.
Correcting this slighting, Northwood Institute and the Institute for Advanced Studies in Theater Arts will give him their Achievement in the Arts Award Monday at The Players Club - "I think they wanted Don Johnson," he kids - and a couple of his co-stars ("Pal Joey" pal June Havoc and "Scene of the Crime" leading lady Arlene Dahl) will glitter up the event.
His second award in this life follows a dozen days later on the other coast: The Thalians, Debbie Reynolds' charity group, will honor him and Ann Miller with a gala at Hollywood's Century Plaza.
This fall's harvest of awards follows a hyperactive summer: First, he met Marge Champion and Carol Lawrence in St. Louis for "No No, Nanette" ("I was not Nanette"), then he jetted out to Universal City for a "Murder, She Wrote" with Angela Lansbury, Audrey Totter, Bradford Dillman and Cynthia Harris (he's the murder victim in "Hannigan's Wake," but it is the title role).
"Angela has been so faithful about giving jobs to all of her old friends at MGM," he says of the lady who once fired him (in `State of the Union'). "She's only going to do four more installments, so I'm glad she remembered me.
"It's nice to get back occasionally and be greeted like a long-lost friend. You always feel at home in Hollywood - if you know your lines."
Knowing your lines was a big chunk of Louis B. Mayer's star-training program. "Other people criticized Mr. Mayer, but I loved him. He was always looking for a son, and I think he found that in me."
When his MGM heyday ended, pal Lucy pitched him another life preserver - the lead in Desilu's "The Untouchables" - but he passed.
"I went on to London to do `The Music Man' for two years, and that was the most exciting time of my life. I have no regrets." He said as much to "Untouchables" star Robert Stack when they later co-starred in a "Name of the Game" episode. "He said, `Do you know you blew $3.5 million?' I said, `Yes, but can you sing `76 Trombones?' "
Stack couldn't, of course. Nor could he cut "La Cage aux Folles," which Johnson could - and did for a year on Broadway. "I'm a morning baby, not a night person. After 130 movies, I wake at 5 in the morning. To get it up for that 8 o'clock curtain - to drive the car to the Palace when everybody is walking toward you with their briefcases, going home - I never got used to it."
Divorced since 1968, Johnson has a daughter (Schuyler, who works for Disney) and is a born-again East Side New Yorker, living blocks from buddy Katharine Hepburn.
"Kate's everybody's mother - like Marlene - always there for you. Once, when I was at Sloan-Kettering with you-know-what, she sent a secretary to help me write thank-yous for my flowers. Leave it to Kate to think of practical New England help."
As for Dietrich, she's a Paris recluse who's out to everyone - including Johnson - but they converse by phone: "She called Sunday and said, `How is Wex Weed? Have you seen Wex Weed? He hasn't sent me woses."'
Much of his leisure time is spent painting - a habit from his Hollywood days. "I painted with Claudette and Coop and Dinah Shore and Hank Fonda. Red Skelton painted, too, but he wasn't in our group." A one-man exhibit of Van Johnson the Sunday painter occurred a couple of years ago in Dallas, sponsored by the Northwood Institute, the same group now honoring his screen work.