Lon McCallister: Height, gay sexual orientation issues
[See previous post: "Lon McCallister Bio."] Some have blamed Lon McCallister’s slight frame for his inability to switch from juvenile to leading-man roles, but that’s absurd. Had that been so, Alan Ladd and Charles Boyer, among others, would never have become top stars in the ’30s and ’40s.
Others have blamed his professional downfall on the fact that Lon McCallister was gay. Though certainly a possibility (see below), barring the publication of unquestionable proof or strong circumstantial evidence — I’m unaware of the existence of any such evidence — that would be also open to debate. After all, Montgomery Clift, for one, became a top star right at the time McCallister’s Hollywood career was coming to a close, while Van Johnson would remain an important leading man at MGM and elsewhere for another decade.
Lon McCallister and William Eythe: Forbidden gay romance in the late ’40s?
Lon McCallister had a longtime relationship with fellow Fox contract player William Eythe, probably best remembered for playing Jennifer Jones’ (sort-of) love interest in The Song of Bernadette, Linda Darnell’s suitor in Otto Preminger’s blockbuster Centennial Summer, and the good-looking lieutenant sandwiched between Anne Baxter and Tallulah Bankhead in Preminger’s A Royal Scandal.
Eythe, who had a reputation for being "difficult," had a troubled professional relationship with Fox honcho Darryl F. Zanuck. In 1947, with Tyrone Power, Victor Mature, and others returning from service, plus Gregory Peck and Dana Andrews on the studio payroll, Fox severed ties with their recalcitrant actor.
That same year, Eythe married minor Fox contract player and humorist Irvin S. Cobb’s granddaughter Buff Cobb. The couple were divorced in early 1949, after Cobb, shortly to become the wife of television personality Mike Wallace, accused Eythe of hitting her.
His movie career over in the early ’50s, Eythe went briefly on stage. But by then an already serious alcohol problem became uncontrollable; Eythe was to die of acute hepatitis at age 38 in 1957. The Associated Press’ obit read: "With him when he died was his close friend, former actor Lon McCallister, with whom he had been producing travel films."
So, of course, depending on when their relationship began, it’s certainly possible that McCallister was a victim of the animosity between Eythe and Zanuck. But if so, why was Eythe let go in 1947, while McCallister was to remain at the studio another three years? (Motion Picture, 1947: "If you yearn silently for Lon McCallister, then here’s your chance, girls. Seems Lon’s looking for a lassie to call his own. ’But there’s a catch to it,’ he tells us. ’She must be willing to stay home every night — except Saturday. I work all week and that’s the only night I can make whoopee.’")
Now, although a Darryl Zanuck-engendered anti-gay backlash is a possible explanation for the demise of Lon McCallister’s once-promising Hollywood career, it’s worth bearing in mind that an actor, especially one with a fast-receding hairline, can’t go on playing juveniles forever. McCallister’s persona — much like that of Mickey Rooney (and, say, Johnny Downs and Jackie Cooper before them) — failed to mature along with his looks; that, quite possibly more than anything else, was what ultimately killed his chances of real film stardom.
I should add that according to a couple of McCallister’s friends I met while working on the Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise, the Home in Indiana star had always been quite circumspect about his sexual orientation outside his circle of close friends.
Lon McCallister obit: William Eythe omitted
At the age of 82 and after being in poor health for some time, Lon McCallister died of heart failure in the Lake Tahoe area, Calif., on June 11, 2005. Curiously, though not surprisingly, the Los Angeles Times’ Lon McCallister obit left unmentioned both William Eythe and the fact that McCallister was gay.
While working on my Novarro book, I tried contacting McCallister. Unfortunately, he never responded. His friends did get in touch with him on my behalf, but McCallister claimed he knew nothing that could have helped my project. We were never to connect directly.
Note: This two-part Lon McCallister article is an expanded version of a brief obit posted in June 2005.