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Obituaries

John Derek; Actor Turned Director Was Wed to Bo Derek

May 23, 1998|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Derek, actor turned producer, director and cinematographer who was known for marrying beautiful actresses and was often accused of exploiting them in his largely unsuccessful films, died Friday. He was 71.

Derek, considered the Svengali behind his last wife, Bo Derek, died after emergency heart surgery at Marian Medical Center in Santa Maria, Calif. He had been rushed there Wednesday afternoon after he was found unconscious in his Santa Ynez Valley home.

The ruggedly handsome actor, deemed Hollywood's "find" of 1949, successively married French film starlet Pati Behrs, Ursula Andress, Linda Evans and the then-teenage Mary Cathleen Collins, better known as Bo Derek.

John Derek was credited for masterminding wife Bo's stunning, corn-rowed blond persona in Blake Edwards' 1979 film "10." The film made Bo Derek an instant sex symbol and put "she's a 10" into the modern American vernacular. The actress, whose meteoric career flamed and fizzled with that one hit movie, repeatedly denied her husband had shaped her or her work.

John Derek directed her in a number of films, including "Tarzan, the Ape Man" in 1981, "Bolero" in 1984 and "Ghosts Can't Do It" in 1990. The films featured many scenes of Bo in the buff, sparked heated debates with courts and rating boards, and were all labeled "bombs" by film expert Leonard Maltin in his annual movie and video guide.

The Tarzan film prompted a federal judge to excise some nude scenes to honor the licensing agreement with heirs of Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs. It also prompted Maltin to note that the film "nearly forced editors of this book to devise a rating lower than 'bomb,' " adding: "If you really want to see [Bo] Derek unclothed, buy a pinup calendar."

John Derek had no qualms about exposing his wife to the multitudes, commenting in a Times interview after "Bolero": "Look, God assembled her brilliantly, and audiences want to see her nude. They'll tell us when they don't, when they're bored."

As for the film itself, featuring Bo Derek as a girl losing her virginity to a bullfighter only to have him gored and rendered impotent, John Derek told The Times: "It's so innocent. If Hugh Hefner went to see it, he'd be bored to tears."

Known in his acting days as a Greek God sort, Derek always put a premium on appearance, telling The Times in 1967: "Your looks influence your life, man or woman, more than any other thing on Earth. If Ursula hadn't looked the way she did--and I the way I did--we would never have been interested in each other."

Born Derek Harris in Hollywood on Aug. 12, 1926, he was the son of actress Dolores Johnson and writer-director Lawson Harris. He gravitated naturally into the family business, making his acting debut in the 1945 motion picture "I'll Be Seeing You."

Derek hit his stride in 1949 as the brooding Nick Romano with Humphrey Bogart in "Knock on Any Door," and in a key role with Broderick Crawford in "All the King's Men."

Derek also had important roles in the much-lauded films "The Ten Commandments" in 1956 and "Exodus" in 1960.

He appeared in roughly 30 films over two decades, ranging from war pictures and westerns to adventure and fantasy such as "The Adventures of Hajji Baba." He also starred in the CBS western television series "Frontier Circus" in 1961-62.

Gradually, Derek moved behind the camera, making his producing debut with the 1963 "Nightmare in the Sun," in which he starred with Andress. Three years later, he made his directing debut in "Once Before I Die," in which he again acted opposite Andress.

An accomplished still photographer, Derek also began doing his own cinematography, particularly in his years with Bo Derek. The couple married in 1974, when she turned 18.

In addition to Bo Derek, survivors include two children, Russell and Sean, from his first marriage.

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