Born John Forkum — November 23, 1915, in Staten Island, NY. He was the son of an artist and was educated in Slemdal, Norway and Lycee Carnot in Paris, France. He also attended high school at Hastings-on-Hudson, NY and the University of California.
John was a consummate actor whose career spanned from the early 40s through 1988. Some of his finest work was playing supporting roles on all the old 50s and 60s Westerns.
He could speak four languages and during World War II, he was a radio news editor and received the Peabody Award for his coverage of the first United Nations Conference in San Francisco, CA. Before WWII, he performed dozens of roles on radio due to his wonderful, rich baritone voice.
Unlike many actors, he did not start his career as an actor but as an animation artist for Disney Animation Studios. As an animation assistant he worked on Bambi, Fantasia and various Mickey Mouse cartoons. Afterwards, he moved to radio and was an excellent piano player to boot! His movie debut was in 1944 “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo“.
Due to his extensive talent, he was capable of wearing many different hats from despicable villains to down-trodden victims. Appearing 12 times on Gunsmoke from 1955 to 1968, he showcased his talent in many ways.
My Personal Favorites from Gunsmoke:
Crack-Up: September 14, 1957: Season 3 — Episode 1
John portrayed villain Nate Springer. Springer, a hired gun, shows up in Dodge City leaving Matt trying to find out who he was hired to kill. He is a gunfighter who has lost his nerve yet still maintains his cruel, malicious persona. As usually happens on the Streets of Dodge – Matt kills Springer. It is only then Matt learns, no one hired him, he hired himself. He believed, by killing Dillon he would get his confidence back.
Caleb: March 4, 1964: Season 9 — Episode 26
Caleb is a poor farmer who believes he is a complete loser at anything he tries to do. He moves to Dodge in hopes of finding a meaning for his life. He befriends a saloon girl, Julie, (Dorothy Green) who he proceeds to tell how inadequate he is and wishes he could be like Matt Dillon. Meanwhile, town bully Lige (Lane Bradford) tries to get Caleb to put on a gun and fight, when this doesn’t work he belittles Caleb in front of the entire town.
With no place to go and no money, he wanders the streets . Earlier in the show, he is on his farm talking to his dog “Dog”. “Dog” shows up in Dodge and they meet on the streets in the late hours, his forever friend. Matt, who was away from Dodge, returns and meets up with Caleb. Caleb wants to have a word with Matt, privately, when Lige appears out of the darkness, ready to kill Matt.
Caleb leaps in front of Matt and takes the bullet. The old dog lies down on Caleb’s chest, his last words are “Dog…Dog..Dog”. Matt learns from Julie that Caleb wanted to tell Matt how much he wanted to be just like him. His portrayal of Caleb is plain and simple.. he’s so endearing…
If you would like to watch this wonderful episode here it is:
In my personal opinion, Caleb was Dehner’s finest performance. I cannot imagine anyone’s heart not breaking. John understood “justifying” his characters. You cannot play any role without understanding where the characters are from. John dug deep and found an answer to every single character he ever portrayed. His roles were not built around special effects, he was human, real and ever so human. John was the very best at bringing to life every character he ever breathed life into. Special effects had no place in the realism he created.
John was not only a workaholic but a perfectionist. He never showed up on a set without knowing his lines as well as everybody else’s. In 1959, he made 9 guest appearances on various television shows that all aired at the same time.
His work ethics landed him in motion pictures too lengthily to even attempt to list. From supporting and leading roles to villains and comedians, John was an extremely versatile actor.
As mentioned earlier, he covered all the major westerns on television. From Cimarron to Wagon Train, The Restless Gun, Wanted Dead or Alive, The Texan, Laramie, The Westerner, Bat Masterson, The Rifleman, Lawman, Maverick, Bronco, Bonanza, Rawhide and Branded (and of course Gunsmoke) just to name a few!
He also played Paladin in the radio version of Have Gun Will Travel, airing from 1958 to 1960. He was originally considered for the role of Paladin on the television show, but Warner Brothers would not release him from his contract with the show The Roaring 20′s.
His last performance was as Admiral Ernest J. King in the 1988 TV miniseries War and Remembrance.
He died on February 4, 1992, from emphysema and diabetes, in Santa Barbara, CA. He was 76 years old.
He was known for his subtle sense of humor and people enjoyed being around him. John Dehner is another great, great example of the many men and women who were acting in that era. Leaving a treasure trove of great works and wonderful memories.
I cannot watch John, without respecting his workmanship and dedication to his craft. He was an actor you hated one minute and loved the next minute.
John Dehner’s performances will live on for many generations.