John Agar, the popular leading man of post-World War 2 Hollywood Westerns and eventual 1950’s B-movie icon, had never intended to be an actor, let alone of eventually becoming the sci-fi legend for which he will always be fondly remembered as. It all began one evening in 1943 as John was wrapping up his Army enlistment. It was pure serendipity that he was introduced to child-star Shirley Temple and well, as they say, the rest is history.
Mr. Agar was born into a wealthy Chicago meat packing family as the oldest of 4 children on Jan 31, 1921. After coming of age, his father, John Agar Sr., enrolled him in the auspicious Harvard School for Boys. After completing his studies in Chicago, John packed up and continued his education at New York’s prestigious Trinity-Pawling prep school. Unfortunately for John, the United States was plunged into World War Two in 1941. Due to the crisis at hand, 20-year old John left his studies and enlisted in the Army Air Force. Thanks to his solid physique and strong constitution, Agar was assigned to March Field Army Post in Riverside, California, where he served as a physical fitness instructor for the duration of his enlistment.
In 1945, after over 3 years in the service, John had risen to the rank of Sergeant at the age of 24. As luck would have it, John’s sister was a schoolmate with none other than child-star Shirley Temple: a stroke of luck that would change his life for ever. One evening John was asked to escort Shirley to a swank Brentwood party being held by her boss, movie mogul and producer David O. Selznick. (Selznick produced Gone With The Wind, among a slew of other hit films.) Selznick was impressed by Agar’s rugged good looks and stalwart appearance, and not long after the party Selznick offered the young serviceman a 6 year movie contract. (Ironically, the contract also included acting lessons.)
John’s date, 16-year old Shirley Temple, was also impressed, and the young couple fell in love. Not long after their meeting, despite Shirley’s mother’s misgivings, John and Shirley were quickly engaged to be married. The media went absolutely berserk and Agar was thrust into the unforgiving media spotlight for the first time. Every detail of his previously ‘normal’ life was now under constant scrutiny due to his relationship with Shirley. Even if Shirley was just visiting him at his Army post, she was always accompanied by crowds of reporters and photographers to capture the "event". The unrelenting news hounds even wrote articles in the local papers regarding John’s KP duties!
John and Shirley, he 24 years old and she only 17, tied the knot in 1945 at the Wilshire Methodist Church. In addition to Hollywood heavyweights David Selznick and Darryl Zanuck, the wedding service was attended by literally thousands of fans, family, friends, and of course, media. The crowds waiting impatiently for hours outside the church until the newlyweds finally strolled through the church doors under a chorus of cheers and well wishes.
Needless to say, Agar’s marriage to Shirley propelled his movie career directly into the big league films. The year 1948 was also a special year for John and Shirley. On January 30, 1948, Shirley gave birth to their first (and only) child, Linda. (It’s said that Selznick tried to sign the child into a movie contract before she was even born; Temple refused.) In addition to fathering his baby daughter, John also appeared in his first film along with both his wife Shirley and the legendary John Wayne. The film was none other than director John Ford’s classic 1948 Western Fort Apache. The very next year, 1949, saw John and Shirley appearing together for the second (and last) time in a feeble comedy entitle Adventure in Baltimore. That same year John appeared again with his friend John Wayne in the classic World War 2 film, Sands of Iwo Jima.
Although John and Shirley’s marriage appeared picture perfect on the outside, the relationship was being consumed by turmoil from within. The constant media attention brought unexpected and unwanted pressure upon John (he especially hated being constantly referred to as "Mr. Shirley Temple" in the papers). Agar turned to alcohol to help cope with the strain, and eventually his marriage fell apart. After 4 years of marriage, the then 21-year old Shirley sued for divorce in 1949, citing "mental cruelty". John agreed to the divorce and relinquished custody of his daughter to Shirley.
After splitting with Temple, the fickle news media turned against their hitherto favorite Hollywood star. Despite Agar’s previous status as one of Hollywood’s most popular leading men, the constant negative press along with several drunk driving arrests brought John’s career as an A-movie star to a screeching halt, and cast him into the ranks of the B-movies for the rest of his career.
The 1950’s saw the advent of a new type of film genre: science fiction. The makers of these popular movies were impressed with John’s previous work, and since Agar was now available for work for B-movies (whether he liked it or not), John began to appear in low-budget sci-fi and monster films for the first time. In 1955 Agar appeared in Revenge of the Creature (the sequel to "Creature from the Black Lagoon"), and the giant-spider film Tarantula. In the following years John also appeared in the 1956 snoozer The Mole People, Burt I. Gordon’s Attack of the Puppet People (1958), Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957), and Destination Space and Invisible Invaders, both 1959. Arguably one of John’s most memorable roles in the 1950’s was his portrayal of Steve March, possessed by the giant extraterrestrial brain, Gor, in The Brain from Planet Arous (1957). In addition to science fiction, John also appeared in several low-budget Westerns; a genre he was certainly more comfortable with.
In addition to a resurrected career in the B-movies, John married model Lorette Combs in 1951. Although their marriage got off to a rough start (the Las Vegas county clerk sent John home to sober up before issuing their marriage license), John and Lorrette’s marriage lasted nearly 50 years, until her death in 2000.
As science fiction films began to decline in popularity in the 1960’s, John Agar appeared almost exclusively in Westerns. He did however pop up in a handful of science fiction movies including The Hand of Death (1962), Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962), along with a couple of goofy 1966 films Women of the Prehistoric Planet and schlock-meister Larry Buchanan’s awful Zontar the Thing from Venus, a remake of the superior 1956 Roger Corman classic "It Conquered the World".
Alas, the 1960’s came to an end, and an aging John Agar found movie roles in the 1970’s becoming more and more scarce. Fortunately for Agar, his steadfast friend of over 20 years, John Wayne, gave Agar supporting roles in 3 popular Westerns, The Undefeated (1969), Chisum (1970), and Big Jake (1971). As a salute to John’s contributions to science fiction, director John Guillermin also gave Agar a cameo role in the 1976 remake of the 1933 classic, King Kong. In addition to this handful of movie roles, John had several guest appearances on popular T.V. programs during the 1970’s and 1980’s, namely Charlie’s Angels, Police Story, and even an episode of The Twilight Zone. Furthermore, John found himself in great demand at sci-fi conventions, and was always happy to give out autographs to eager fans. In an humorous blunder, on the cover of a 1972 issue of "Famous Monsters of Filmland" John Agar was reported as being dead! Needless to say, it gave Agar great joy to autograph these copies at the conventions he attended.
As John grew older, he continued to show up in small movie roles throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s. Certainly a high point for Mr. Agar was being awarded the "Lifetime Career Award" by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films in 1981. I think John best summed up his career in an 1986 interview when he said:
"I don’t resent being identified with B science fiction movies at all -why should I? 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."
John Agar died of emphysema related complications on April 7, 2002 at the age of 81. And yes, John, your movies are fun, and we thank you for that.