Vintage Hunk: John Derek

By: Mike McCrann

"Live fast, die young and have a good looking corpse!"
John Derek - Knock on Any Door

The late John Derek was one of the most beautiful men to ever become a movie star. Derek is probably remembered mostly for the four famous women he married. His first wife and mother of his two children was a grandniece of Leo Tolstoy; wife #2 was Ursula Andress (Dr. No - the first of the Sean Connery James Bond films); wife #3 was Linda Evans (The Big Valley and Dynasty); and wife #4 was Bo Derek (star of 10). What most people forget is that Derek himself burst onto movie screens in one of the greatest star-making roles in Hollywood history - Knock on Any Door in 1949.

M42218 A lot of film critics cite The Black Board Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause, both released in 1955, as the first mainstream American movies to deal with juvenile delinquency. They have forgotten that the pioneer film on the subject, Knock on Any Door, was released 6 years earlier than these two seminal 50's classics. The movie starred Humphrey Bogart, who had purchased the rights to the book and set up his own production company. He gave Derek his first starring role as Nick Romano, a young on trial for the brutal murder of a cop. Bogart plays the defense lawyer and Nick's story is told in flashbacks during the trial. Bogart argues that slums breed criminals and uses this tactic to try and sway the jury.

Derek is so gorgeous as the pretty boy killer that one almost forgets how good he is in this part. The film was directed by Nicolas Ray, who later directed Rebel Without a Cause, and is much tougher than the famous 1955 James Dean film. Dean was mostly misunderstood in Rebel and the multi-racial cast of Black Board Jungle just needed love and understanding. In Knock on Any Door, Derek is a cold-blooded killer who gets by with his angelic looks, and the movie's ending plays out in a very interesting manner.

John Derek1 The point is that Derek was stunning in his starring debut and great things were predicted for him. Unfortunately, he was under contract to Columbia Pictures and head honcho Harry Cohn (known as White Fang in the movie industry) did not have many male movie stars. Rita Hayworth and soon Judy Holliday and Kim Novak were the Columbia gems. The only men to really become stars at Columbia were William Holden and Glenn Ford, and Holden only became one when he went to Paramount with famed director Billy Wilder as his mentor.

Derek's first post-hoodlum role was a small part in the great Oscar-winning classic All the King's Men. This wonderful study of a corrupt Southern governor (based on Huey Long of Louisiana) won Oscars for Broderick Crawford and also Best Picture. Derek was cast as the spoiled, handsome football stud son of the governor whose drinking causes him to wreck his car, killing his female companion and become crippled for life. In a film full of great performances, Derek more than held his own. And, of course, he was gorgeous.

John Derek5 Sadly, the next decade would be full of lousy B movies for Derek. The only two exceptions were Cecil B. Demille's 1956 blockbuster The Ten Commandments playing Joshua, and Otto Preminger's 1960 hit Exodus. Derek was cast as an Arab who was friendly to the Jews and the founding of Israel. His death scene was a stunner as he is found hanging with a Star of David carved on his bare chest.

Derek was probably too beautiful (we keep coming back to that word) to be taken seriously by the critics and he came along when the studio system was pretty much in collapse. While his cinematic life may have had its disappointments his personal life was scorching. By all accounts, Derek was a charmer and something of a Svengali, and the fact that he remained friends with all his ex-wives is a testament to the charm he possessed.

Derek died in 1998 at the age of 71 from heart disease. He was still happily married to his 4th and last wife, Bo Derek.

If you want to see John Derek at his most gorgeous, rent or buy Knock on Any Door. He is mesmerizing and it is almost impossible to believe that a great career did not await this 23-year-old charmer.