Only a handful of American actors can lay claim to A-list popularity on the big and small screen in multiple decades, and even fewer have matched the good-natured, easygoing charm of John Forsythe. In lead or supporting roles, playing his standard everyman protagonist, or occasionally cutting against type to portray nasty villains, Forsythe is one to whom generations of viewers have naturally gravitated, like a reliable old friend.
The oldest son of a factory worker, John Lincoln Freund was born into inauspicious circumstances, in the middle-class community of Penns Grove, NJ, on January 29, 1918. Raised in Brooklyn, NY, while his father did business on Wall Street during the Great Depression, John graduated from high school two years earlier than most, at age 16, and attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, graduating two years later. A longtime worshiper of baseball, he almost immediately landed a highly coveted job as the Dodgers announcer at Ebbets Field after leaving UNC, but his father noticed his eldest’s dramatic abilities and encouraged the boy to branch out into acting. Freund followed suit, making his Broadway bow in 1942 and latching on to a hit when cast in Moss Hart’s 1943 production Winged Victory. He later moved to sunny Southern California, where he took the stage name John Forsythe, became a bit player for Warners, and landed supporting roles in several movies, including the heavily lauded WWII vehicle Destination Tokyo (1943) and the same year’s Northern Pursuit. Meanwhile, he met and married actress Parker McCormick, by whom he had a son, Dall. Their troubled union lasted only a year.
Around the time of the divorce, Forsythe put his career on the shelf and headed off to military service in Europe, where he worked as a speech pathologist in a hospital, helping to recuperate wounded soldiers who were having difficulty with articulation. Before the end of 1943, Forsythe’s enlistment wrapped. That same year, Forsythe met stage actress Julie Warren, who became his second wife; the couple raised two daughters. He helped found The Actors Studio in the early ’50s, at the time a hotbed of exciting young screen talent that included Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Richard Egan, and a 14-year-old prodigy from Great Britain named Joan Collins, with whom Forsythe would team up years later on Dynasty. Meanwhile, he appeared in two high-profile Broadway productions, Teahouse of the August Moon and Mister Roberts, both well on their way to becoming A-budget Hollywood films.
The late ’50s were an exciting period for Forsythe; he landed one of his most prominent big-screen spots — as artist Sam Marlowe in Alfred Hitchcock’s eccentric cult comedy The Trouble with Harry (1955) — and, two years later, reeled in one of the most enduring small-screen roles of his career, as the titular uncle Bentley Gregg on the CBS/NBC/ABC series Bachelor Father. The cast included Noreen Corcoran, Sammee Tong, and Bernadette Withers; the ratings shot up and gave the series a five-year run. Scattered movie roles followed throughout the ’60s, including Kitten with a Whip (1964) and In Cold Blood (1967), as well as the television series The John Forsythe Show (1965-1966) and To Rome with Love (1969-1971), but it would be another decade or so before Forsythe fully re-entered the public eye.
In the early ’70s, Forsythe began a periodic association with TV mogul Aaron Spelling, which yielded multiple telemovies (Cry Panic , Cruise into Terror ), and the two series for which the actor is best known. For the first, Spelling cast Forsythe in a prominent voice-only role — that of Charlie Townsend, the reclusive head of a female detective agency, in Charlie’s Angels (1976-1981). With sex symbols Jaclyn Smith, Kate Jackson, and especially Farrah Fawcett-Majors as the leads, the program invented “jiggle TV” and became a ratings smash. Spelling didn’t forget the favor that Forsythe had done for him; seven months before Angels ended, he spun around and made the actor one of the three stars (alongside Joan Collins and Linda Evans) of Dynasty, a prime-time ABC soaper about oil zillionaire Blake Carrington (Forsythe), his ennui-ridden current wife, Krystle (Evans), and his shameless, ever-scheming ex-wife, Alexis (Joan Collins). Ratings shot through the roof and turned Dynasty into a Wednesday-night American institution.
Meanwhile, Forsythe continued intermittent film appearances. He shocked just about everybody with his blackly comic portrayal of a judge with the morals of an alley cat in Norman Jewison’s blithe satire …And Justice for All, and contributed a memorably disgusting cameo to Richard Donner’s overbaked Scrooged (1988). In the early 2000s, director McG brought him back for the two big-screen versions of Charlie’s Angels, for which he reportedly received five million dollars.
Hollywood insiders regard Forsythe himself as one of Hollywood’s few genuine “nice guys.” A dedicated worker who respects his craft, he has always refused to take himself too seriously, issuing such self-deprecating statements as “Being a 64-year-old sex symbol is a hell of a weight to carry.” Forsythe has been in semi-retirement since the death of his second wife, Julie, in 1994. He married for the third time, to Nicole Carter, in 2002.