Actor John Gavin, who starred in Psycho, Spartacus and Imitation of Life and later served as President Reagan’s U.S. Ambassador to Mexico in the 1980s, died Friday. He was 86.
Gavin’s longtime friend William Friedkin confirmed Gavin’s passing in a tweet.
SAG issued a statement later on Friday about Gavin’s passing.
“John Gavin’s successful career in Hollywood was only one piece of a remarkable life. He was a rare individual who devoted equal amounts of time and energy to economic development and public service. His time as president of Screen Actors Guild reflected his dedication to his fellow performers, and the whole of his life reflected his passion for building bridges between the United States and Latin America,” said SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris.
Gavin, who also served as President of the Screen Actors Guild in the early 1970s — a decade after Reagan last held the post — began his decades-long career on contract at Universal Pictures, where he first appeared in films Behind the High Wall, Four Girls in Town and Quantez.
His big break came with a lead role in Universal’s 1958 film A Time to Love and a Time to Die, based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque. The role earned him a Golden Globe for Most Promising Male Newcomer. He was next cast in another important role, supporting Lana Turner in 1959’s Imitation of Life.
From there he went on to memorable performances in Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 epic Spartacus, in a key supporting role as Julius Caesar, and Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Psycho that same year. He was later quoted as saying he was “terribly disturbed” by the sex and violence in Psycho and said, “I think Hitch really got frosted with me.”
Gavin left Universal for a time to freelance, then returned to the studio in 1964, appearing in a Mexican film Pedro Páramo, based on a famous novel.
While filming in Mexico, Gavin heard Universal was making Thoroughly Modern Millie, an expensive 1920s-era Julie Andrews musical directed by George Roy Hill, again for producer Ross Hunter. He lobbied for the role of Mary Tyler Moore’s stuffy boyfriend to Hunter and Universal production head Ed Muhl. Gavin read for Hill and was cast.
Gavin nearly got to play James Bond. He had signed for the role of Bond in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever after George Lazenby exited the role. But United Artists head David Picker wanted the box-office insurance of Sean Connery instead. Gavin also was slated to play Bond in 1973’s Live and Let Die, but Harry Saltzman insisted on a British actor for the role, and Roger Moore got the gig.
Gavin focused on television and his growing business interests in the late 1970s. One of his more memorable performances was playing Cary Grant in the 1980 TV movie Sophia Loren: Her Own Story.
Gavin, known as Jack to friends and colleagues, was born John Anthony Golenor on April 8, 1931, in Los Angeles to — as he described it in 1966 — “a Mexican mother and an Irish Hoosier father.” His father, H. Ray Golenor, was vice president of the Story Building and Los Angeles Stock Exchange Building Corporation in downtown Los Angeles, and his mother was the former Delia “Dee” Pablos.
On Oct. 7, 1946, when he was just 15 years old, Gavin joined Screen Actors Guild as “Jack Golenor” to take an uncredited role in the 1947 feature New Orleans, but would not return to films for nearly a decade. He was schooled at St. John’s Military Academy, Beverly Hills High School (where he was a member of the Los Quijotes Spanish Club and the SPQR Latin Club) and Villanova Preparatory School in Ojai, California.
He graduated from Stanford University in 1952. Gavin won a Naval ROTC scholarship and later became a Naval Intelligence officer on the carrier USS Princeton. He saw naval service in Korea, Japan and Hong Kong, before being named Pan-American affairs aid to the commandant, 15th Naval District, in Panama. In July 1955, he received an honorable discharge from the U.S. Navy.
Gavin described the start of his post-Navy movie career in 1966: “I suggested to [producer-director] Bryan Foy, who’s a family friend, that he hire me as a technical advisor on this movie he was shooting on the carrier Princeton — and I had made two tours on the carrier Princeton to Korea. His reply was unprintable, but he set me up with an interview-test at Universal.”
July 1961 gave a hint of Gavin’s future ambitions, when he was appointed special advisor to Secretary-General Jose Mora of the Organization of American States, a coalition of North and South American countries created to promote democracy, economic development and security.
Gavin was elected to the Screen Actors Guild Board of Directors in 1965, when Charlton Heston became Guild president. In September of 1966, the board of directors commended Gavin for fulfilling the request of César Chávez, who had asked for a Guild representative to address members of the United Farm Workers at a rally in Delano, California. Gavin flew his own plane to the event and spoke to the workers in both English and Spanish. The following month, Gavin departed for a USO tour of Vietnam via the Hollywood Overseas Committee, and was elected to a three-year term on the Guild’s board of directors soon after.
He became 3rd vice president in 1968, followed by one-year terms as 1st vice president in 1969 and 1970. While on the board, he volunteered for numerous committees, including executive, financial, negotiations, award and membership relations. After Heston declined to run again for Guild president in 1971, Gavin was elected to his first of two one-year terms as president.
In 1973, Gavin’s third run for president resulted in defeat by independent challenger Dennis Weaver, then the star of the hit TV series McCloud. This was the first time in the union’s history that an incumbent president was defeated by a challenger. Although Gavin was appearing on Broadway in Seesaw at the time of his defeat, he flew out to Los Angeles to attend the 1973 Screen Actors Guild Annual Meeting to pass the gavel, shake his victorious opponent’s hand and pose for photos with him. Weaver praised this as an “act of unity,” and a testimonial to Gavin’s character as someone who put the Guild first. Remarkably, the actor that Gavin had replaced in Seesaw was future Screen Actors Guild and SAG-AFTRA President Ken Howard.
Gavin’s tenure as Guild president provided him with plenty of political experience. He testified before the Federal Trade Commission on phony talent rackets, met with President Richard Nixon regarding the problem of excessive television reruns; presented petitions to the federal government on issues of primetime access rules, runaway production and films produced by the government using nonprofessional actors.
Following his time at Guild, Gavin was an active businessman in Mexico and Latin America. He continued acting on stage and screen throughout the 1970s, but in 1981, another Screen Actors Guild president whose career had veered into politics — Ronald Reagan — appointed Gavin the U.S. ambassador to Mexico. After serving as ambassador, Gavin continued as a successful businessman and civic leader in both the United States and Latin America. He held prominent positions in numerous international corporations and nonprofits. His acting career was merely one element of a life that included business, public service, philanthropy and international relations.