Unlike most classic Hollywood stars, he looked “recognizably American.” He often portrayed the principled father-husband, but could turn it on convincingly when a movie called for a measure of nastiness.
In his private life, he was a largely sedate presence in a second marriage (to the vivacious social whirlwind Frances Neal from 1962 to 1967) that, among other things, introduced Ava Gardner to her second husband, bandleader Artie Shaw. (Neal, a friend of the young actress, attended the bride at the mid-October, 1945 wedding.)
But make no mistake. Despite that aw-shucks facade of the former Emmett Evan Heflin Jr. (born in Oklahoma in 1910), Van Heflin was an accomplished craftsman who worked hard on each of the some 66 movie and tv roles he assumed before his death of a heart attack in 1971, at the age of 60.
Heflin, who spent most of the Forties at MGM, was fond of recalling that studio boss Louis B. Mayer once told him that with his looks, “you will never get the girl at the end.” So, he figured, he’d better work hard on his acting skills.
He had them in abundance. Heflin is today perhaps most remembered for a pair of classic westerns. He was superb in George Stevens’ Shane (1953) portraying the struggling homesteader, faithful husband to Jean Arthur and loving and protective father to Brandon DeWilde.
Heflin’s emotionally charged but highly restrained performance is eclipsed by the gun-play between Alan Ladd in the title role and Jack Palance as one of the meanest hit-man roles that Hollywood ever generated. (Palance’s performance got him an Oscar nomination in the supporting actor category but Heflin’s sticks in the memory longer, in our opinion.)
In Delmer Daves‘ 3:10 to Yuma, Heflin is once again a good man placed in a dreadful circumstance, taking his life in his hands by escorting a hardened and unnervingly relaxed criminal (Glenn Ford) to a prison in another part of the state. (The movie was badly remade in 2007 with Russell Crowe in the Ford part, Christian Bale in Heflin’s.)
One of our favorite Heflin roles is that of the respectable ex-military man (happily married to Janet Leigh) who turns desperado (and who two-times with an aging Mary Astor) when he learns Robert Ryan is in town harboring an unpleasant secret. The movie is Fred Zinnemann’s 1948 thriller, Act of Violence. Heflin is the essence of mounting desperation in this part in one of our favorite film noirs. Seek this one out.
Another western to check out is Phil Karlson’s Gunman’s Walk (1958) in which Heflin plays a hard-nosed, wealthy rancher who brusquely manhandles his two sons (Tab Hunter and James Darren). In Hunter’s superbly written 2005 autobiography (coauthored by Eddie Muller) Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star, the actor wrote:
The intense one-on-one scenes with Van Heflin were my biggest thrill making ‘Gunman’s walk.’ To me, Van was the ultimate actor.
He completely disappeared into character , and everything he did was totally believable. Heflin confided to Hunter that his theatrical training was in the Delsarte system, a virtually forgotten discipline of gestures and movements created by the Parisian acting and singing teacher Francois Delsarte in the mid-nineteeth century.
It involved a whole set of rules coordinating the voice with the body, very rigid and stylized, and it seemed miles away from the easy naturalism that was Heflin’s stock and trade.
Hunter, never secure about his acting abilities, would ask Heflin to spend with him extra rehearsal time. He was so committed to the play, to everyone being good, he’d have taken as long as I wanted to get it right.
Believe me, not all actors are like that.