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Obituaries

John Agar, 81; Starred in Westerns, Sci-Fi Movies

April 09, 2002|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Agar, whose marriage to Shirley Temple in the 1940s propelled him into an acting career that began promisingly with parts in two classic John Ford westerns but slid into a series of low-budget science fiction movies in the 1950s and '60s, has died. He was 81.

Agar died of emphysema Sunday at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank.

During the 1950s and '60s, Agar played lead roles in about two dozen science fiction movies, including "Revenge of the Creature," "Tarantula," "The Mole People" and "The Brain From Planet Arous."

"He's one of the top science fiction heroes, based on 'Revenge of the Creature' and 'Tarantula,' which were very high profile and very profitable movies," said Tom Weaver, who interviewed Agar for Fangoria and Starlog magazines.

Since the 1970s, Agar was a frequent guest at science fiction conventions and autograph shows.

But because of his early roles in Ford's "Fort Apache" and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," and his later work with John Wayne in "Chisum," "Big Jake" and "The Undefeated," Weaver said, "western fans like to lay claim to him too."

Born in Chicago in 1921, Agar was the oldest of four children of a meatpacker. His father died in 1935, and the family later moved to Los Angeles.

Agar was a 24-year-old Army Air Corps sergeant when he married the 17-year-old Temple in 1945. Agar's sister was one of Temple's classmates at the Westlake School for Girls, and Agar had met the child star at a pool party at her home in Beverly Hills.

After Agar returned to civilian life, producer David O. Selznick, who had Temple under exclusive contract, offered the handsome former GI a movie contract--at $150 a week, acting lessons included.

Agar made his film debut in 1948 as a young lieutenant in "Fort Apache," starring Wayne, Henry Fonda and Temple, who played Agar's love interest. The following year, he co-starred with Temple in "Adventure in Baltimore," a mostly forgettable comedy.

Also in 1949, Agar appeared with Wayne in two movies: "Sands of Iwo Jima" and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon."

The same year, Agar's four-year marriage to Temple, which produced a daughter, Linda Susan, ended in divorce.

"Although he got into pictures because of Shirley Temple, he became a very good professional actor, whether in big pictures or small pictures," said producer A.C. Lyles, who used Agar in many of the westerns he produced at Paramount in the 1960s and early '70s.

"He was a lovely person; everyone loved Jack," Lyles, a longtime friend, said Monday.

Agar continued his acting career after the divorce. In 1951, he appeared in "Along the Great Divide" with Kirk Douglas. The same year, he co-starred opposite Lucille Ball in "The Magic Carpet," a low-budget Arabian Nights adventure and the first of a number of minor fantasy and science fiction films he made during that period.

While under contract to Universal in the mid-'50s, Agar appeared in four films. But with the exception of a western called "Star in the Dust," they were all B science fiction films.

Fearful of losing work if he rejected roles at the studio, Agar told Weaver that "I never turned anything down."

But by 1956, after the release of "The Mole People," which is generally considered the worst of Universal's '50s science fiction output, Agar was so tired of being typecast that when the option on his contract came up for renewal, he left the studio.

The move didn't help his career.

"Once he became a freelancer, the cheapo monster movie makers came to him, so he ended up right back in the science fiction stuff again," Weaver said.

Agar later sold insurance and for many years promoted Brunswick's senior bowling program to supplement an acting income generated by small parts in film and TV.

He showed up in the 1976 remake of "King Kong," as a New York City official who supervised the blasting of Kong off the World Trade Center. And in the '80s and '90s, filmmakers who had grown up watching Agar's movies cast him in small parts in films such as "Body Bags" and, most recently, "The Vampire Hunters Club."

But having a name that was synonymous with the B science fiction movies of the '50s and '60s never bothered Agar.

"No, I don't resent being identified with them at all--why should I?" he told Weaver in 1986. "Even though they were not considered top of the line, for those people that like sci-fi, I guess they were fun. My whole feeling about working as an actor is, if I give anybody any enjoyment, I'm doing my job, and that's what counts."

Agar was scheduled to appear at a fan show next weekend.

"He loved it," said his son, Martin Agar, adding that Agar would always stay until the last person in line got an autograph.

In addition to Martin, Agar is survived by his son, John III; daughter, Linda; two brothers, Frank and James; and four grandchildren.

A private service will be held.

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