John Payne (actor)

John Howard Payne[1] (May 23, 1912 – December 6, 1989)[2][3] was an American film actor who is mainly remembered from film noir crime stories and 20th Century Fox musical films, and for his leading roles in Miracle on 34th Street and the NBC Western television series The Restless Gun.

John Payne
Payne in 1949
John Howard Payne

(1912-05-23)May 23, 1912
DiedDecember 6, 1989(1989-12-06) (aged 77)
OccupationActor, singer
Years active1934–1975
Anne Shirley
(m. 1937; div. 1943)

Gloria DeHaven
(m. 1944; div. 1950)

Alexandra Crowell Curtis
(m. 1953)
Children3, including Julie Payne


Early life

Payne was born in Roanoke, Virginia. His mother, Ida Hope (née Schaeffer), a singer, graduated from the Virginia Seminary in Roanoke and married George Washington Payne, a developer in Roanoke. They lived at Fort Lewis, an antebellum mansion that became a state historic property but was destroyed by fire in the late 1940s.

Payne attended prep school at Mercersburg Academy in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, and then went to Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia. He then transferred to Columbia University in New York City in the fall of 1930. He studied drama at Columbia and voice at the Juilliard School. To support himself, he took on a variety of odd jobs, including wrestling as "Alexei Petroff, the Savage of the Steppes" and boxing as "Tiger Jack Payne".[4]

He returned to his home frequently for visits. In 1942, while visiting his family in Roanoke, Virginia, he agreed to take a small role in a community theatre production of "The Man Who Came to Dinner", at the Academy of Music on Salem Avenue. His character uttered only four words of dialogue, and was greeted by a burst of applause.[5]

Stage actor

In 1934, a talent scout for the Shubert theaters spotted Payne and gave him a job as a stock player. He appeared in road company productions of Rose Marie and The Student Prince at $40 a week.[6]

Payne toured with several Shubert Brothers shows, and frequently sang on New York-based radio programs. On Broadway he appeared in the revue At Home Abroad (1935–36) alongside Eleanor Powell and Beatrice Lillie.[7] He understudied for Reginald Gardiner and took over one night. He was seen by Fred Kohlmar of Sam Goldwyn's company and was offered a movie contract.

Early Films

In 1936, he left New York for Hollywood. He tested for a role in Goldwyn's Come and Get It but lost out to Frank Shields.[6] His first role in Goldwyn's Dodsworth (1936) presented him as an affable, handsome character actor.

He had the male lead in Hats Off (1936), an independent "B" film. Goldwyn announced plans to co-star him with Miriam Hopkins in The Woman's Touch,[8] but the film appears to have not been made. In September 1936, it was announced Goldwyn would not sell half of Payne's contract to Columbia, and that he might be the lead in Women Can Be Wrong.[9]

Payne was third billed in Fair Warning (1937), a "B" at Fox. He was the lead in a low budget film Love on Toast (1937).

Payne was down the cast list for Paramount's College Swing (1938). He then signed a contract with Warner Bros.

Warner Bros

At Warners, he had a notable break replacing Dick Powell, who turned down the role, in Garden of the Moon (1938). Warners used Payne as a sort of "back up Dick Powell". He was in Kid Nightingale (1939) and Wings of the Navy (1939).[10] Payne supported Ann Sheridan in Indianapolis Speedway (1939) and starred in a short The Royal Rodeo (1939) and in Bs King of the Lumberjacks (1940) and Tear Gas Squad (1940).

During this time he returned to Broadway to appear in Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1938–39).[11] Payne was unhappy with his Warner Bros roles and asked for a release.

20th Century Fox

Payne went over to 20th Century Fox where he appeared in Star Dust (1940). During filming, Darryl F. Zanuck offered him a long term contract.

He supported Walter Brennan in Maryland (1940) and John Barrymore in The Great Profile (1940).

Payne was the male lead in the enormously popular Tin Pan Alley (1940) with Alice Faye and Betty Grable. He romanced Faye again in The Great American Broadcast (1940) and Week-End in Havana (1941) and Sonja Henie in Sun Valley Serenade (1941).

Fox gave him the chance to do drama in Remember the Day (1941), romancing Claudette Colbert. He was meant to be in Song of the Islands with Grable but when George Raft couldn't get released from Warners Bros to play a marine in the hugely popular To the Shores of Tripoli (1942), Payne stepped in. The film, co starring Maureen O'Hara and Randolph Scott, was hugely popular.

So too was Footlight Serenade (1942) with Grable and Victor Mature, Springtime in the Rockies (1942) with Grable, Iceland (1943) with Henie and especially Hello, Frisco, Hello (1943) with Faye.

During World War II Payne served as a flight instructor in the United States Army Air Corps. He got his Honorable discharge in September 1944.[12]

He returned to work at Fox, who put him in The Dolly Sisters (1945) with Grable and June Haver, playing Harry Fox. It was one of Payne's most successful films. Less popular was Wake Up and Dream (1946) with Haver.

Payne was teamed with Maureen O'Hara in Sentimental Journey (1946), a big hit. He was third billed in The Razor's Edge (1946) underneath Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney, Fox's most prestigious film of 1946.

Payne's most familiar role may be his final film for Fox, that of attorney Fred Gailey in the classic holiday favorite Miracle on 34th Street (1947) with Natalie Wood, Maureen O'Hara and Edmund Gwenn. It was another box office success. He was meant to make another with O'Hara, Sitting Pretty (1948) .[13] However, in October 1947 he got his release from the studio, despite the contract having another four years to run, which would have brought him $670,000. Payne claimed he was dissatisfied with the roles being offered him.[14]

Payne later said he had asked for his release every week for eight months before he got it.[6] Film historian Jeanine Basinger later wrote that "Fox thought of him [Payne] as a secondary Tyrone Power. They didn't know how to use him."[15]

Freelance actor

After leaving Fox, Payne attempted to change his image and began playing tough-guy roles in Hollywood films noirs.

He did two noirs at Universal, Larceny (1948), where he played the lead role, and The Saxon Charm (1948) with Robert Montgomery and Susan Hayward. He had the lead in The Crooked Way (1949) for United Artists.

Pine-Thomas Productions

Payne received an offer to star in a Western for Pine-Thomas Productions, a unit that operated out of Paramount Studios. El Paso (1949) was a box office success and Payne went on to make other films for the company including Captain China (1950), an adventure film; Tripoli (1950) set during the Barbary War; and The Eagle and the Hawk (1950), a Western.

He signed a contract to make three more films for Pine Thomas[16] He did Passage West (1951), another Western; and Crosswinds (1951), an adventure film; Caribbean Gold (1952), a pirate film; The Blazing Forest (1952), an adventure story; The Vanquished (1952), a Western.

Payne 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.[17]

In 1952 he said he got four times the fan mail he did at Fox. "I make fewer pictures now but I make the kind I want to make."[6]

Other independent producers

For Edward Small, he starred in Kansas City Confidential (1952), a noir; Payne owned 25% of the film.[18] He later worked with Small on Raiders of the Seven Seas (1953), a pirate movie; and 99 River Street (1953), a noir.

Payne did a series of Westerns: Silver Lode (1954), for Benedict Bogeaus; Rails Into Laramie (1955), for Universal; Santa Fe Passage (1955) and The Road to Denver (1955) at Republic, and Tennessee's Partner (1955) for Bogeaus.

In 1955, he 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).

He returned to Pine Thomas for a noir, Hell's Island (1956), then did Slightly Scarlet (1956) for Bogeaus. He made Hold Back the Night (1956) for Allied Artists and The Boss (1956) for United Artists, co-producing the latter.[19]

He did Rebel in Town (1956) and Hidden Fear (1957) for United Artists. He made one more Pine Thomas, Bailout at 43,000 (1957). In 1957 he optioned the rights for For the Life of Me, the memoir of a newspaper editor,[20] but it was not made.


Payne also starred as Vint Bonner, an educated, commonsense gunfighter, in The Restless Gun which aired on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC television network), 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.[21] 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 (Columbia Broadcasting System) Sunday night game show What's My Line? In the December 3, 1961 episode, regular panelist Dorothy Kilgallen introduced Payne by saying, "He's been in the hospital after a very bad accident. So it's good to see him fit as a fiddle and all in one piece." Regular panelist Bennett Cerf remarked, "Good to see you here, John. Glad to see you beat that car on Madison Avenue that bumped into you."[22]

Later career

Payne directed one of his last films, They Ran for Their Lives (1968), and again teamed up with Alice Faye in a 1974 revival of the musical Good News. He also starred in the Gunsmoke episode of "Gentry's Law" in 1970.

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-Davy Crockett series star Fess Parker, became wealthy through real estate investments in southern California.

Personal life

Payne was married to actress Anne Shirley from 1937 to 1942;[23] they had a daughter, Julie Anne Payne. After their divorce, Payne then married actress Gloria DeHaven in 1944;[24][25] the union produced two children, Kathleen Hope Payne (b. 1945) and Thomas John Payne,[26] before ending in a divorce in 1950.[27]

During the filming of Kansas City Confidential(1952) he had a romance with recently divorced and beautiful co-star Coleen Gray that continued well past filming.

Payne then married Alexandra Beryl "Sandy" Crowell Curtis in 1953,[28] and remained with her until his death.

He was the father-in-law of writer-director Robert Towne, who was married to his oldest daughter Julie until their divorce in 1982.

His name was romantically linked to Eleanor Powell in 1936.[29]

Payne was a Republican and in October 1960 he was one of many conservative notables who drove in the Nixon-Lodge Bumper Sticker Motorcade in Los Angeles.[30]


Payne died in Malibu, California, of congestive heart failure on December 6, 1989, aged 77.[2] His ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean.

He has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, in motion pictures and television.

Complete filmography

1936DodsworthHarry McKee
1937Hats OffJimmy Maxwell
1937Fair WarningJim Preston
1937Love on ToastBill Adams
1938College SwingMartin Bates
1938Garden of the MoonDon Vincente
1939Wings of the NavyJerry Harrington
1939Indianapolis SpeedwayEddie Greer
1939Kid NightingaleSteve Nelson, a.k.a. Kid Nightingale
1939The Royal Rodeo Bill StevensShort
1940Star DustAmbrose Fillmore, a.k.a. Bud Borden
1940King of the LumberjacksJames "Jim" / "Slim" Abbott
1940Tear Gas SquadSergeant Bill Morrissey
1940MarylandLee Danfield
1940The Great ProfileRichard Lansing
1940Tin Pan AlleyFrancis Aloysius "Skeets" Harrigan
1941The Great American BroadcastRix Martin
1941Sun Valley SerenadeTed Scott
1941Week-End in HavanaJay Williams
1941Remember the DayDan Hopkins
1942To the Shores of TripoliChris Winters
1942Footlight SerenadeWilliam J. "Bill" Smith
1942IcelandCapt. James Murfin
1942Springtime in the RockiesDan Christy
1943Hello, Frisco, HelloJohnny Cornell
1945The Dolly SistersHarry Fox
1946Sentimental JourneyWilliam O. Weatherly
1946The Razor's EdgeGray Maturin
1946Wake Up and DreamJeff Cairn
1947Miracle on 34th StreetFred Gailey
1948LarcenyRick Mason
1948The Saxon CharmEric Busch
1949El PasoClay Fletcher
1949The Crooked WayEddie Rice, a.k.a. Eddie Riccardi
1949Captain ChinaCharles S. Chinnough / Capt. China
1950The Eagle and the HawkCapt. Todd Croyden
1950TripoliLt. Presley O'Bannon
1951Passage WestPete Black
1951CrosswindsSteve Singleton
1952CaribbeanDick Lindsay / Robert MacAllister
1952Kansas City ConfidentialJoe Rolfe / Peter Harris
1952The Blazing ForestKelly Hansen
1953Raiders of the Seven SeasBarbarossa
1953The VanquishedRockwell (Rock) Grayson
195399 River StreetErnie Driscoll
1954Rails Into LaramieJefferson Harder
1954Silver LodeDan Ballard
1955Hell's IslandMike Cormack
1955Santa Fe PassageKirby Randolph
1955The Road to DenverBill Mayhew
1955Tennessee's PartnerTennessee
1956Slightly ScarletBen Grace
1956Hold Back the NightCapt. Sam McKenzie
1956Rebel in TownJohn Willoughby
1956The BossMatt Brady
1957Bailout at 43,000Maj. Paul Peterson
1957Hidden FearMike Brent
1960O'Conner's OceanTom O'ConnerTV movie
1968They Ran for Their LivesBob Martin

Radio appearances

1940Lux Radio TheatreWings of the Navy[31]
1952Family TheaterThe Promise[32]


  1. California Death Records – California Department of Health Services Office of Health Information and Research.
  2. Flint, Peter B. (December 8, 1989), "John Payne, 77, Actor, Is Dead; Lawyer in 'Miracle on 34th Street'", The New York Times
  3. NOTE: The California Death Records show his date of birth as May 28, but most published biographies show May 23, as does his obituary in The New York Times.
  4. Victoria Wilson (2015), A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940, Simon and Schuster, p. 637, ISBN 9781439194065
  5. Berrier, Ralph. 2018. "John Payne, Roanoke's Big Star."Discover: History & Heritage. February 2018. Pages 72-77.
  6. Hopper, H. (1952, Sep 14). JOHN PAYNE--the star who likes people. Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963) Retrieved from
  7. "At Home Abroad – Broadway Musical – Original | IBDB".
  8. Schallert, E. (1936, Oct 03). GEORGE RAFT CHOSEN AS STAR OF "CAVIAR FOR HIS EXCELLENCY". Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from
  9. SCREEN NEWS New York Times (1923-Current file); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]09 Sep 1936: 32.
  10. Associated Press, S. C. (1939, Jan 15). John Payne Hollywood choice to fill Dick Powell's singing roles; of Virginia ancestry, he was studying opera when movies called. The Washington Post (1923-1954) Retrieved from
  11. "Abe Lincoln in Illinois – Broadway Play – Original | IBDB".
  12. (1944, Sep 11). GEN. PATTON'S LIFE SUBJECT OF FILM. New York Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from
  13. By THOMAS F BRADY (1947, Sep 04). JOSE FERRER TO DO ROLE IN 'JOAN' FILM. New York Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from
  14. By THOMAS F BRADY (1947, Oct 04). JOHN PAYNE ENDS CONTRACT AT FOX. New York Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from
  15. Nott, R. (2007, Dec 21). THE BIG PICTURE TAKES ON FILM. The Santa Fe New Mexican Retrieved from
  16. Schallert, E. (1949, Nov 28). John payne will hit pioneer trail; helene stanley cast at metro. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from
  17. Blank, Ed (January 26, 2006), "360 Degrees of Oscar", Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Trib Total Media, Inc., archived from the original on September 23, 2007
  18. John Payne's Hopper Rating Given Boost: Actor Becomes Hollywood Goodwill Envoy After Personal Troubles Fade Ambassador Payne Hopper, Hedda. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Los Angeles, Calif. [Los Angeles, Calif]14 Sep 1952: E1.
  19. Scheuer, P. K. (1956, May 13). Payne mum on who's 'boss'. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from
  20. By THOMAS M PRYOR (1957, Jan 18). M-G-M MAKES DEAL ON STAGE COMEDY. New York Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from
  21. "John Payne Hit By Car", The New York Times, The New York Times Company, March 2, 1961
  22. "What's My Line? - Janet Leigh; John Payne [panel] (Dec 3, 1961)" via
  23. "Anne Shirley Wins Divorce", Los Angeles Times, Tribune Company, February 20, 1942
  24. "Gloria De Haven, John Payne To Wed", Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 18, 1944
  25. "John Payne Weds Gloria De Haven", Los Angeles Times, Tribune Company, December 29, 1944
  26. Flint, Peter B. (December 8, 1989). "John Payne, 77, Actor, Is Dead; Lawyer in 'Miracle on 34th Street'" via
  27. "Gloria De Haven Wins Uncontested Divorce", Los Angeles Times, Tribune Company, February 10, 1950
  28. "Actor John Payne Weds Ex-Wife of Alan Curtis". The Los Angeles Times. California, Los Angeles. 28 September 1953. p. 2. Retrieved January 8, 2018 via
  29. By the, A. P. (1936, May 31). Romance of eleanor powell and richmond actor revealed. The Washington Post (1923-1954) Retrieved from
  30. "Framework". Los Angeles Times.
  31. "Those Were the Days". Nostalgia Digest. 42 (2): 38. Spring 2016.
  32. Kirby, Walter (March 2, 1952). "Better Radio Programs for the Week". The Decatur Daily Review. p. 42. Retrieved May 28, 2015 via
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