John Forsythe

d. April 1, 2010

John Forsythe, wholesomely handsome and debonair actor who was a dependable supporting player in movies while becoming a star in four decades of television, died April 1 at his home in Santa Ynez, Calif., from pneumonia. He was 92.

He was part of the 1960s spy craze as a CIA agent in Alfred Hitchcock's "Topaz" and in his own John Forsythe Show on NBC, but is best remembered for his role as Denver oil mogul Blake Carrington in the preposterous ABC serial Dynasty, a part he played even as he continued to give voice to the never-seen employer of Charlie's Angels.

Forsythe was born in New Jersey and raised in New York, where his father was a stockbroker. He left college to become a public-address announcer for the Brooklyn Dodgers, then won radio and stage roles before Warner Bros. signed him to a contract. He landed in two 1943 war pictures, "Northern Pursuit" with Errol Flynn and "Destination Tokyo" with Cary Grant, before he enlisted in the Army Air Forces, where his first assignment was appearing on Broadway in Moss Hart's "Winged Victory," the war bond-selling show that featured dozens of servicemen entertainers in its cast.

After the war, Forsythe appeared in minor pictures and early live television programs, and was back on Broadway in 1950 when he replaced Henry Fonda in the title role of "Mister Roberts." His biggest Broadway success came with the starring role of Capt. Fisby in "The Teahouse of the August Moon," the 1953 Tony and Pulitzer winner about life in occupied Okinawa (Glenn Ford starred in the movie version but Forsythe repeated the role on TV in a 1962 Hallmark Hall of Fame production). He followed that with his first major film role in Alfred Hitchcock's 1955 black comedy, "The Trouble with Harry," co-starring with Shirley MacLaine in her movie debut.

Forsythe gained the widespread fame that only a successful TV series bestows when he starred in Bachelor Father, a mild comedy about a suave, womanizing Los Angeles attorney who raises his teenage niece with the help of a wisecracking Chinese houseboy. The Revue-produced show was seen on all three networks during its five-year run starting in 1957, and it made Forsythe wealthy since part of his pay came in the form of MCA stock (years later he claimed to have based his Dynasty character on MCA chairman Lew Wasserman).

In the 1965-66 season, he was back on the air in a similar role in The John Forsythe Show, an NBC sitcom about an Air Force major who inherits a private girls school and decides to run it with the help of his former sergeant, played by Guy Marks. Elsa Lanchester was the dotty school principal and Ann B. Davis played the energetic gym teacher. Peggy Lipton appeared as one of the older students, three years before she became part of The Mod Squad. 

The show struggled for ratings from the beginning, which led to an unusual move in mid-season: Forsythe and Marks suddenly returned to active duty in the Air Force and were sent on secret missions around the world. It was an obvious ploy at the height of the spy craze, but the change failed to goose the ratings and the show was soon canceled.

Forsythe had yet another "bachelor father" sitcom role in To Rome With Love, playing a widowed professor who moved his three daughters to Italy when he accepted a job teaching at an American school in Rome. It ran on CBS from 1969 to 1971. He was narrator of the syndicated nature series The World of Survival from 1971 to 1977, and he made a number of Michelob beer commercials in the late 1970s.

Despite his many years in TV series roles, Forsythe rarely did guest shots on other series. He appeared in just one episode each of such shows as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Zane Grey Theatre, The Dick Powell Show, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Run for Your Life and Police Story. He appeared in several made-for-TV movies, including the very first, "See How They Run," broadcast on NBC Oct. 7, 1964, with Senta Berger, Jane Wyatt and Franchot Tone also in the cast.

Forsythe continued to appear in features such as "Kitten with a Whip" (1964) with Ann-Margret and "Madame X" (1966) with Lana Turner. He had his best film role in 1967's "In Cold Blood," playing the Kansas police detective who leads the manhunt for a pair of drifters who slaughtered the members of a farm family. In 1969, he was part of the large cast of "Topaz," one of Hitchcock's less successful films (based on real events during the Cuban Missile Crisis). Forsythe played a CIA officer who works with a French agent played by Frederick Stafford to uncover the spy passing Western secrets to the Reds.

His last major film roles were the uncharacteristic part of a corrupt judge in 1979's "And Justice For All" with Al Pacino and a small part in 1988's "Scrooged" with Bill Murray.

In 1976, producer Aaron Spelling, the king of ABC's schlockiest yet most successful series of the 1970s and 80s, offered Forsythe the cushy role of Charles Townsend, owner of the private detective agency in Charlie's Angels. Charlie was seen only in a few quick shots of a double's hands or back as Forsythe's voice was heard on the telephone at the beginning of each episode, outlining a new case for his three gorgeous investigators, played initially by Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith. Once briefed, the trio jiggled off for another insipid hour of crimesolving as Charlie turned his attention back to a cold drink and a hot blonde. Despite the turnover in Angels — only Smith stayed for the full five-year run — the series was another hit for Spelling and ABC. Producer-star Drew Barrymore brought Forsythe back to provide Charlie's voice in her 2000 and 2003 movies based on the series.

While Charlie's Angels was in its last season, Spelling and ABC launched Dynasty, a Dallas knockoff that proved to be another improbable, long-running hit. The series premiered in January 1981, with Forsythe leading a large cast as the super-rich oil man whose family and business associates provided an endless source of lubricious troubles. Forsythe was bemused by the ludicrous plots ("My wife being kidnaped, then substituting another lady who looks surprisingly like my wife only I don't know it," he laughed. "It defies description."). One season ended with the infamous "Moldavian massacre" — the entire cast was gathered in a tiny European kingdom and machine-gunned by terrorists. British actress Joan Collins achieved super-stardom after 25 years in the business by playing Forsythe's evil ex-wife, Alexis.

Forsythe largely retired after Dynasty ended in 1989. He devoted his last years to horse racing and to supporting conservation and anti-smoking causes.


Forsythe with Noreen Corcoran as niece Kelly in “Bachelor Father.”

Forsythe, Ann B. Davis and Elsa Lanchester in publicity shot for “The John Forsythe Show.”

Surrounded by the women of “Dynasty”: Linda Evans, Pamela Bellwood, Heather Locklear, Pamela Sue Martin and Joan Collins.

Left, Forsythe flanked by Robert Blake and Scott Wilson as the killers of the Clutter family in “In Cold Blood.”

Forsythe and Kathleen Hughes, above, appeared with Edward G. Robinson in 1953 mystery “The Glass Web,” released in 3-D.

Below, Forsythe on stage Dec. 1, 1953, in “The Teahouse of the August Moon.”

Above, John Forsythe around the time of his third TV series, “To Rome With Love.” Left, “Topaz” stars Claude Jade, Forsythe, Frederick Stafford and Dany Robin surround director Alfred Hitchcock.