LOS ANGELES (February 9, 2018) — SAG-AFTRA mourns the passing of John Gavin, who served as president of Screen Actors Guild from 1971–73. He was 86.
Gavin’s best-remembered screen appearances were in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic shocker Psycho and the musical comedy Thoroughly Modern Millie, but he was also a naval officer, businessman and served as the U.S. ambassador to Mexico under President Ronald Reagan. “John Gavin’s successful career in Hollywood was only one piece of a remarkable life. He was a rare individual who devoted equal amounts of time and energy to economic development and public service. His time as president of Screen Actors Guild reflected his dedication to his fellow performers, and the whole of his life reflected his passion for building bridges between the United States and Latin America,” said SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris.
Gavin, known as Jack to friends and colleagues, was born John Anthony Golenor on April 8, 1931, in Los Angeles to — as he described it in 1966 — “a Mexican mother and an Irish Hoosier father.” His father, H. Ray Golenor, was vice president of the Story Building and Los Angeles Stock Exchange Building Corporation in downtown Los Angeles, and his mother was the former Delia “Dee” Pablos. On Oct. 7, 1946, when he was just 15 years old, Gavin joined Screen Actors Guild as “Jack Golenor” to take an uncredited role in the 1947 feature New Orleans, but would not return to films for nearly a decade. He was schooled at St. John’s Military Academy, Beverly Hills High School (where he was a member of the Los Quijotes Spanish Club and the SPQR Latin Club) and Villanova Preparatory School in Ojai, California. He graduated from Stanford University in 1952. Gavin won a Naval ROTC scholarship and later became a Naval Intelligence officer on the carrier USS Princeton. He saw naval service in Korea, Japan and Hong Kong, before being named Pan-American affairs aid to the commandant, 15th Naval District, in Panama. In July 1955, he received an honorable discharge from the U.S. Navy.
Gavin described the start of his post-Navy movie career in 1966: “I suggested to [producer-director] Bryan Foy, who’s a family friend, that he hire me as a technical advisor on this movie he was shooting on the carrier Princeton — and I had made two tours on the carrier Princeton to Korea. His reply was unprintable, but he set me up with an interview-test at Universal.”
Universal (then known as Universal-International) signed him to a contract and he began acting training with the studio’s talent workshop teacher Jess Kimmel, who had previously instructed future stars like Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis.
The studio also gave him a new name — John Gilmore — before settling on “Gavin.”
Gavin’s first credited film was Behind the Wall (1956). His classic good looks soon led to roles opposite the most glamorous leading ladies of the day, including Sophia Loren, Doris Day and Lana Turner, in films such as A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958) and Imitation of Life (1959). Legendary director Alfred Hitchcock selected Gavin to play Janet Leigh’s lover in 1960’s Psycho, the film for which is he most remembered. The same year saw Gavin working for Kirk Douglas in Spartacus, playing the role of Julius Caesar. Of these two immortal films, Gavin once said, “I didn’t have an inkling they would be classics. Had I realized that, perhaps I would have paid more attention.”
July 1961 gave a hint of Gavin’s future ambitions, when he was appointed special advisor to Secretary-General Jose Mora of the Organization of American States, a coalition of North and South American countries created to promote democracy, economic development and security.
Gavin was elected to the Screen Actors Guild Board of Directors in 1965, when Charlton Heston became Guild president. In September of 1966, the board of directors commended Gavin for fulfilling the request of César Chávez, who had asked for a Guild representative to address members of the United Farm Workers at a rally in Delano, California. Gavin flew his own plane to the event and spoke to the workers in both English and Spanish. The following month, Gavin departed for a USO tour of Vietnam via the Hollywood Overseas Committee, and was elected to a three-year term on the Guild’s board of directors soon after.
He became 3rd vice president in 1968, followed by one-year terms as 1st vice president in 1969 and 1970. While on the board, he volunteered for numerous committees, including executive, financial, negotiations, award and membership relations. After Heston declined to run again for Guild president in 1971, Gavin was elected to his first of two one-year terms as president. In 1973, Gavin’s third run for president resulted in defeat by independent challenger Dennis Weaver, then the star of the hit TV series McCloud. This was the first time in the union’s history that an incumbent president was defeated by a challenger. Although Gavin was appearing on Broadway in Seesaw at the time of his defeat, he flew out to Los Angeles to attend the 1973 Screen Actors Guild Annual Meeting to pass the gavel, shake his victorious opponent’s hand and pose for photos with him. Weaver praised this as an “act of unity,” and a testimonial to Gavin’s character as someone who put the Guild first. Remarkably, the actor that Gavin had replaced in Seesaw was future Screen Actors Guild and SAG-AFTRA President Ken Howard.
Gavin’s tenure as Guild president provided him with plenty of political experience. He testified before the Federal Trade Commission on phony talent rackets, met with President Richard Nixon regarding the problem of excessive television reruns; presented petitions to the federal government on issues of primetime access rules, runaway production and films produced by the government using nonprofessional actors.
Following his time at Guild, Gavin was an active businessman in Mexico and Latin America. He continued acting on stage and screen throughout the 1970s, but in 1981, another Screen Actors Guild president whose career had veered into politics — Ronald Reagan — appointed Gavin the U.S. ambassador to Mexico. After serving as ambassador, Gavin continued as a successful businessman and civic leader in both the United States and Latin America. He held prominent positions in numerous international corporations and nonprofits. His acting career was merely one element of a life that included business, public service, philanthropy and international relations.
Gavin was married twice, to Cicely Evans and actor Constance Towers.