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JOHN ALVIN

John Alvin is an actor. When I first met him, I recognized him immediately but had that unsettling feeling of familiarity without a place to connect to. In his eighties now, living with his wife June in Thousand Oaks, he is still a vibrant, handsome man with gray sweptback hair and a bushy mustache. As he told me his life’s story, my clearer images of him onscreen were pleasantly renewed.

Born in Chicago, his father was a surgeon, his mother an opera singer. A high school drama teacher encouraged his flare for acting and in 1939 he came to California to study at the Pasadena Playhouse. At that time the Playhouse was also a renowned school of theatre. With a war on, his German sounding name wasn’t an asset, so he dropped his last name, Hoffstadt, and became the actor, John Alvin.

In 1942, while performing in Lerner and Lowe’s first musical “Life of the Party,” a Warner Brothers’ talent scout saw him and signed him to a contract.

The Forties were the golden years in Hollywood. Each studio lauded itself by advertising the actors they had under contract. Warner’s listed among its stars Bogart, Cagney, and Errol Flynn. And among its list of “featured players” they listed Peter Lorre, Raymond Massey, Claude Rains, and, of course, John Alvin.

Listening to John Alvin is trek through a history of Hollywood. The studios in the forties educated their actors. Alvin was schooled in all the arts - dancing, singing, fencing, boxing. For westerns, he learned to ride horses. For gangster and war movies, he learned dialects.

When he first signed with Warner Brothers, Jack Warner, its founder, met with him. “John,” he told Alvin, “as long as you realize this a business, you’re gonna be all right. But if you expect art, forget it.” And so his great life adventure and career began.

John Alvin was featured in nearly thirty films during his contract years at Warners. He was in his twenties then. They were heady years. He remembers well all the bathing beauties meandering around the studio lot after performing in one of Busby Berkeley’s extravagant musicals. He starred in the “Fighting Sullivans” with Ward Bond. He was on the submarine in “Destination Tokyo” with Cary Grant. He was in “April in Paris” with Ray Bolger and Doris Day. He performed with Errol Flynn, Cagney, John Garfield, and Bogart.

As an actor, he charmingly provides the accents for his stories. He worked with Michael Curtiz who was 1943’s best director for “Casablanca.” Alvin recalls Curtiz once sent a prop man for a certain prop and when the man returned with the wrong one, Curtiz ranted in his accented English. “Goddamit, this is not what I wanted. Next time I send some dumb sonnovabitch on an errand, I go myself.”

In 1948, he was in a play directed by Charley Chaplin. Chaplin, he says, directed by acting out every part. “Forget Stanislavski,” Chaplin said. “Get the physical accoutrements,” Chaplin taught. “The gestures, the walk. Work from the outside in, not from the inside out.”

Alvin also worked with Billy Wilder on “Irma La Douce,” with Hitchcock on “Marnie, ” and William Wyler on “Sister Carrie.”

With the advent of television, he continued to work with legends. “Ethel Barrymore was very charming and had that very husky, deep voice. Sounded a little like John. She would talk about nothing but the Brooklyn Dodgers.”

He worked with Robert Young on “Father Knows Best,” with Fred McMurray in “My Three Sons,” with Lucille Ball, and Jack Benny.

John Alvin continues to act and finds himself at times working now with the children and grandchildren of the stars he performed with in his early years. In 1994 he worked on the film “Milk Money” with Melanie Griffith and reminisced. He had worked with her mother, Tippi Hedren, twice.

John Alvin is a part of film history. On the big screen and the little one, he has stood beside the giants. And he still acts. Today you might see him on a freeway billboard portraying a kindly grandfather advertising some HMO, or in a magazine ad, a video rental, or watching late night reruns of classic movies. And when he’s not “working” at performing, he’s still performing. He reads to the children at Manzanita Elementary School. And in his stories, if you listen well, you’ll scent the whiff of a gangster, a cowboy, or a war hero. He’s played them all.