Lon McCallister: Boy-Next-Door troubled gay relationship with William Eythe
If remembered at all, Lon McCallister is associated with Boy-Next-Door roles in several 20th Century Fox “family” movies of the mid- and late 1940s.
Lon McCallister movies
McCallister began his film career in the mid-1930s, featured either as an extra or a bit player, often at MGM, in movies such as Romeo and Juliet (1936), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938), and Babes in Arms (1939).
After years of negligible roles, things finally began picking up for McCallister when he was cast as one of the young leads in Sol Lesser Productions’ United Artists-distributed Stage Door Canteen (1943), a pro-war-effort, all-star extravaganza directed by Oscar winner Frank Borzage and written by future director Delmer Daves. The film consists of a series of revue acts connected by a thin storyline about young soldiers (one of them played by McCallister) and waitresses at the Broadway-star-populated (Katharine Hepburn, Lynn Fontanne, Alfred Lunt, Tallulah Bankhead, Martha Scott, Gypsy Rose Lee, etc.) canteen of the title. But flimsy plot or no, Stage Door Canteen was a major box office hit.
The following year, Private Lon McCallister was one of the All-American Boys eager to Serve Their Country in what’s probably George Cukor’s very worst movie, the Fox release Winged Victory. (McCallister and Cukor, who had also directed Romeo and Juliet, would remain friends for decades.)
Much more entertaining was Fox’s idealized, Technicolored slice of Middle-American life, Home in Indiana (1944), in which McCallister had two pert and pretty leading ladies, Jeanne Crain and June Haver.
At that point, however, military service abruptly halted McCallister’s movie career. Upon his return to the big screen three years later, he would be unable to recover his professional momentum.
Lon McCallister: Post World War II movie career
In 1947, Lon McCallister had a major role in another Sol Lesser Productions feature released via United Artists, the Delmer Daves-directed The Red House, starring Edward G. Robinson. But if that was a relatively prestigious, if now largely forgotten, thriller, McCallister’s Fox movies during that time were all minor fare.
An announcement that McCallister would play a “baby-faced killer” in Robert Siodmak’s classy crime drama Cry of the City went nowhere; instead, the nice boy from back Home in Indiana was cast in Thunder in the Valley (1947) and The Big Cat (1949), paired with the talented, but fast-fading former child actress Peggy Ann Garner, while the highly fictionalized The Story of Seabiscuit (1949) had him featured opposite another fast-fading former child star, Shirley Temple, in one of her last movies. (As Seabiscuit, the racing-horse story was “rebooted” more than half a century later by future The Hunger Games director Gary Ross, with Spider-Man‘s Tobey Maguire in a role – somewhat – akin to McCallister’s in the 1949 movie.)
And finally, Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! had McCallister romancing June Haver, whose stardom never reached the heights of fellow Fox blonde Betty Grable, and dealing with her younger sister Natalie Wood. (Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay!‘s chief claim to fame is the presence of Marilyn Monroe in a bit role.) By 1950, McCallister was no longer associated with Fox.
After four other minor movies, the last of which was the Korean War drama Combat Squad (1953), and a handful of television appearances, McCallister, 30 years old, retired from films. He then spent several years in England and elsewhere in Europe, and traveled for months in South America – apparently accompanied by fellow former Fox actor William Eythe (more details about the McCallister-Eythe relationship in the follow-up piece).
Later on, McCallister began investing in California real estate, focusing on that endeavor in the ensuing decades.
Lon McCallister height & sexual orientation issues
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 1930s and 1940s.
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 & William Eythe: Forbidden gay romance?
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 1950s, 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.