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
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
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.