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John Smith, a popular actor in the 1950s who...

February 06, 1995|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Smith, a popular actor in the 1950s who humorously adapted the common name as his stage name, has died. He was 63.

Smith died Jan. 25 in his Los Angeles home, said Richard Lamparski, a Hollywood historian who had profiled Smith in one of his volumes titled "Whatever Became of . . . ?"

The cause of death may have been a combination of cirrhosis and heart problems, said Smith's former wife, actress Luana Patten Smith.

Smith shared top billing with Robert Fuller on the television series "Laramie", which ran from 1959 to 1963. The two men played ranch partners Slim Sherman and Jess Harper respectively on the hourlong show set in Laramie, Wyo.

Smith's second series, another western, was "Cimarron City" starring George Montgomery, which ran from 1958 to 1959. Smith played blacksmith and Deputy Sheriff Lane Temple. He met Ms. Patten when she guest-starred on the series and the two were tied on a log back to back.

The blue-eyed, blond actor also had a running part on another 1950s series, "That's My Boy," which was on the air from 1954 to 1959.

His films included "The High and the Mighty" in 1954, after which its star, John Wayne, put Smith under personal contract. Smith also appeared in "We're No Angels" in 1955, "Friendly Persuasion" in 1956, "The Kettles on Old MacDonald's Farm" in 1957, "The Crooked Circle" in 1958 and "Island of Lost Women" in 1959.

He also did some stage work, including "The World of Suzie Wong" in 1964.

Smith was born Robert Van Orden in Los Angeles on March 6, 1931. His first entertainment ventures were with the Bob Mitchell Boys' Choir in the Bing Crosby films "Going My Way" in 1944 and "The Bells of St. Mary's" in 1946.

But Smith's first real job was as a messenger at MGM. Although he was cast as James Stewart's younger brother in "Carbine Williams" in 1952, he figured that outing was a fluke and went on to sell silverware and china.

When he dropped by MGM to visit friends, however, he met Henry Willson, an agent with a well-documented track record of finding--and naming--new talent, including Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter and Lana Turner.

It was Willson who suggested the simple name "John Smith" for the actor. Willson even went along when the young man went to court to adopt the name officially.

"You mean you've got a good name like Robert Earl Van Orden, and you want to take a common name like John Smith?" the astounded judge asked.

"Yes, just plain John Smith," the actor assured him. "I'm the only one in the business. I think it's a wonderful idea."

Hollywood already had plenty of "Vans," he added, citing Van Johnson, Van Heflin, Mamie Van Doren and Bobbie Van.

Smith's final feature film was "Waco" in 1966 with Jane Russell and Howard Keel. Smith's career pretty much died out after that, although he occasionally found work doing voice-overs.

"If in my day actors had the agreements regarding reruns that they have today," Lamparski quoted him in the 1980s, "I'd be calling myself 'retired' instead of merely 'out of work.' "

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