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John Dall (May 26, 1920 – January 15, 1971)[Note 1] was an American actor.
Primarily a stage actor, he is best remembered today for two film roles: the cool-minded intellectual killer in Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948), and the trigger-happy lead in the 1950 film noir Gun Crazy. He also had a substantial role in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960). He first came to fame as the young prodigy who comes alive under the tutelage of Bette Davis in The Corn Is Green (1945), for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
John Dall Thompson (he used his middle name for his acting career) was born in New York City on 26 May 1920, the younger son of Charles Jenner Thompson (1873–1929) and his wife Henry (née Worthington). His father was a civil engineer. His elder brother, Worthington Thompson, was later a decorated lieutenant in the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team.
In the 1920s the Thompsons moved to Panama, where Charles worked on the construction of the airport there. While in Panama, Dall was in a theatre when a cast member fell ill and Dall stepped in; this caused him to get the desire to act. His father committed suicide in 1929, and his widow returned to New York City with John the following year.[Note 2]
John attended Horace Mann School and briefly enrolled at Columbia University, where he intended to follow in his father's footsteps by studying engineering. Deciding that acting was his true vocation, he left Columbia and studied at the Theodora Irvine School of Theater and the Pasadena Playhouse. He also studied at the Petit Theatre in New Orleans.
Dall spent six years acting in various stock companies, notably Clare Tree Major's Children's Theatre. He also worked in companies headed by Aline MacMahon, Arthur Byron, Ruth Weston and Edith Atwater.
Dall had small roles on Broadway during the 1941-42 season in R.U.R. and Janie. In 1942-43 he played the lead of Quizz Martin in the touring company The Eve of St Mark. He was well received and replaced William Prince on Broadway so Prince could take a vacation. His performance was spotted by Jack Warner's wife and resulted in a Warners screen test for Dall. Warner Bros. offered him a contract but he would only take it if he could have time off to do a play. (Warners also signed Prince.)
Dall made his film debut in The Corn Is Green (1945), under the direction of Irving Rapper. Richard Waring had been meant to play the part but had been called into the army. The film was shot in the middle of 1944. Warners were impressed with the rushes and signed Dall to a new contract. "Rapper was bitter, an old loudmouth," remembered another friend. "He used to tell some nasty untruths about John Dall. He'd go on about Dall being involved in all sorts of affairs, fooling around with boys on the set. These things weren't true. I think he was just envious. It was quite sad."
Dall returned to the stage to play the lead in Norman Krasna's Dear Ruth (1944), under the direction of Moss Hart. It was a huge success. The New York Times said Dall gives "a graceful and easy performance". Even before The Corn Is Green was released Warners announced Dall was one of six contractees they intended to build into a star (the others were Lauren Bacall, Dane Clark, Faye Emerson, Robert Hutton and Prince.)
After The Corn Is Green was released, Dall received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He was called one of the "hottest finds" in Hollywood, and Warners tried to find a film for him and co-star Joan Lorring.
The film rights to Dear Ruth were sold to Paramount who cast William Holden in the part originated by Dall. Warners brought the screen rights to John Patrick's play The Hasty Heart and announced Dall would play the role originated by Richard Basehart. Warners gave Dall three months leave to perform The Hasty Heart (1945) on stage on the road. However the film was not made for several more years by which time Richard Todd had been cast in the role.
In May 1946, Warners released Dall from his contract. He only made one film for the studio.
Paramount announced they were interested in signing Dall and Edward G. Robinson for a role in an adaptation of The Wayfarers. In May 1946 he signed a seven-year deal with David O. Selznick's Vanguard Films. Dall performed Hasty Heart in summer stock.
Dall wound up making no films for Selznick. Instead he went over to Universal, where he signed a contract. He played Deanna Durbin's love interest in Something in the Wind (1947); the Los Angeles Times described him as "ill at ease". He was in Another Part of the Forest (1948), based on the play by Lillian Hellman.
Alfred Hitchcock cast Dall in Rope (1948) as one of two killers (the other played by Farley Granger) who match wits with James Stewart. The film was not a big hit on release but its reputation has since grown.
After Rope it was reported he would make Shadow of Fear for Michael Curtiz but this did not materialize.
Dall did "The Wind and the Rain" for Theatre Guild on the Air then returned to Broadway to appear in Daniel Taradash's adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre's Red Gloves with Charles Boyer, directed by Jed Harris. It was a minor hit. Brooks Atkinson said Boyer and Dall's acting were the best thing about the production.
Dall made his TV debut in "Miracle in the Rain" for The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre in 1949. He appeared as one of the leads in Gun Crazy (1949), the other lead actor was Peggy Cummins.
Dall had a supporting role in The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950). He was in the short-run revival of The Heiress (1950) on Broadway with Basil Rathbone.
In October 1950 Dall said that TV acting was better done by movie actors, who understood technique, than stage actors, who needed audience response.
In late 1950, he appeared in The Man by Mel Dinelli on stage in Los Angeles with Gladys George. The Los Angeles Times said he played his role with "tremendous assurance".
In stock he appeared in The Hasty Heart (1952), Gramercy Ghost (1952), The Moon is Blue (1953), The Man Who Came to Dinner, and Born Yesterday (1953).
Dall did much work in television, appearing in guest roles on such shows as Lights Out ("Pit of the Dead"), The Clock ("A Right Smart Trick"), Studio One in Hollywood ("The Doctor's Wife"), Broadway Television Theatre ("Outward Bound", "The Hasty Heart"), Suspense ("The Invisible Killer", "The Tenth Reunion"), General Electric Theatre ("The Coward of Fort Bennett") and Schlitz Playhouse ("And Practically Strangers"). Other theatre performances in stock included The Male Animal (1954).
Dall returned to Broadway for Leslie Stevens' Champagne Complex, which had a short run in 1955.
Dall's first film in eight years was Spartacus (1960), where he played a Roman soldier. He was the villain in MGM's Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961), his final theatrical feature.
Dall guest starred in a number of episodes of TV's Perry Mason, playing different characters.
Film historians William J. Mann and Karen Burroughs Hannsberry have remarked that Dall was gay but claimed in media interviews to have had a brief marriage in the early 1940s. No marriage certificate has come to light, and his death certificate records him as "never married". Hedda Hopper once linked his name with Jane Withers romantically. Hollywood pimp Scotty Bowers has claimed that Dall was one of his most unusual clients, and liked to be tied upside down to trees in Laurel Canyon in the middle of the night. "He liked to hang upside down naked until morning. Once a week he wanted this." According to music journalist Phil Milstein, at the time of his death Dall had lapsed into alcoholism and was living with his partner, actor Clement Brace (died 1996).
Dall sustained a serious fall while visiting London in October 1970, and died of cardiac arrest, a complication of myocarditis, at his home in Beverly Hills, California on January 15, 1971, aged 50. His body was donated to medical science.[Note 3]
Dall's papers are held at the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills, California.
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