John Howard Payne was born May 23, 1912 in Roanoke, Virginia.
Payne first attended Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia. He then transferred to Columbia University in New York City in the fall of 1930 to study drama.
He also studied voice at Juilliard.
To support himself, Payne took on a variety of odd jobs, including wrestling and singing in vaudeville.
In 1934, a talent scout for the Shubert theaters spotted Payne and gave him a job as a stock player.
Payne toured with several Shubert Brothers shows, and frequently sang on New York-based radio programs.
In 1936, he landed a contract at Samuel Goldwyn, and he left New York for Hollywood. He worked for various studios until 1940, when he signed with 20th Century Fox.
In the 1942 film To the Shores of Tripoli, Payne was cast as the playboy son of a United States Marine Corps World War I veteran, his character crosses his Marine Drill Sergeant Randolph Scott with a romantic interest in a Navy nurse lieutenant played by Maureen O’Hara. This movie became one of the top films of 1942.
Fox went on to turn John Payne into a movie star, with 1940s musicals like Tin Pan Alley, Sun Valley Serenade, Hello, Frisco, Hello, and The Razor’s Edge.
In many of his films, John Payne was typically cast as a supporting player in love with the likes of Sonja Henie, Betty Grable, and Alice Faye.
Miracle on 34th Street
John Payne’s most popular role was that of attorney Fred Gailey in the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street.
Although the film is set during the Christmas season, Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck insisted that it be released in May, arguing that more people went to the movies during the summer. So the studio rushed to promote it while keeping its Christmas setting a secret.
The movie posters prominently featured Maureen O’Hara and John Payne, with the Santa Claus character kept in the background. By contrast, the modern DVD packaging has Kringle in his Santa Claus costume.
The film opened in New York City at the Roxy Theatre on June 4, 1947.
It was also nominated for Best Picture, losing the Academy Award to Gentleman’s Agreement.
Later in his career, John Payne changed his image and began playing tough-guy roles in Hollywood films noir and Westerns.
Payne was a contract star with Pine-Thomas Productions where he shrewdly insisted that the films he appeared in be filmed in color and that the rights to the films revert to him after several years, making him wealthy when he rented them to television.
In 1955, Payne paid a $1,000-a-month option for nine months on the Ian Fleming James Bond novel Moonraker (he eventually gave up the option when he learned he could not retain the rights for the entire book series).
Payne also starred as Vint Bonner, an educated, commonsense gunfighter, in The Restless Gun, which aired on Monday evenings from 1957 to 1959, prior to Dale Robertson’s western series Tales of Wells Fargo. Dan Blocker, James Coburn, and Don Grady made their first substantive acting forays with Payne on The Restless Gun.
On October 31, 1957, as The Restless Gun began airing, Payne guest starred on The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford.
In March 1961, Payne suffered extensive, life-threatening injuries when struck by a car in New York City. His recovery took two years.
In his later roles, facial scars from the accident can be detected in close-ups; he chose not to have them removed.
One of Payne’s first public appearances during this period was as a guest panelist on the popular CBS game show What’s My Line?.
Payne directed one of his last films, They Ran for Their Lives in 1968.
His final role was in 1975, when he co-starred with Peter Falk and Janet Leigh in the Columbo episode “Forgotten Lady”.
Later in life, Payne, like former Daniel Boone series star Fess Parker, became wealthy through real estate investments in Southern California.
John Payne died in Malibu, California, of congestive heart failure on December 6, 1989, at the age of 77.
He has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Now WE know em