John Derek (born Derek Delevan Harris; August 12, 1926 – May 22, 1998) was an American actor, director, screenwriter, producer and photographer. He appeared in such films as Knock on Any Door, All the King’s Men (both 1949), and Rogues of Sherwood Forest (1950). He was also known for launching the career of his fourth wife, Bo Derek.
Derek Delevan Harris was born in Hollywood, California, on August 12, 1926, the son of actor/director Lawson Harris and actress Dolores Johnson.
His good looks were soon noticed, and he was being groomed for a movie career by both his agent Henry Willson (who gave him the temporary stage name of Dare Harris) and David O. Selznick with small roles in the Selznick pictures Since You Went Away (1944) and I’ll Be Seeing You (1944).
He was drafted in 1944 into the United States Army, and saw service in the Philippines during the last days of World War II.
After the war, Derek had a small role in A Double Life (1947) when he was approached by Humphrey Bogart, who renamed him John Derek and cast him as Nick (Pretty Boy) Romano, an unrepentant killer, in Knock on Any Door (1949), a socially conscious melodrama directed by Nicholas Ray. Derek was recognized as a talented newcomer, “plainly an idol for the girls”, as Bosley Crowther expressed it in a review for The New York Times. The Los Angeles Times called him “a handsome hot-eyed newcomer who makes the case for this product of the city’s slums — ‘live fast, die young and have a good looking corpse’ — all too fascinating for everybody’s comfort.”
The film was made for Bogart’s Santana company and released through Columbia Pictures, who signed Derek to a seven-year contract in April 1948.
Derek followed that picture with a supporting role as the son of Broderick Crawford in All the King’s Men (1949), the Best Picture Oscar winner for its year. In September 1950, the actor had his name formally changed to John Derek.
Columbia promoted him to lead roles, as Robin Hood in Rogues of Sherwood Forest (1950) with Alan Hale; the Los Angeles Times called him a “slim and beautiful youth”. He was meant to follow it with The Gainesville Circus, but the film was never made.
Instead, Columbia put him in another swashbuckler, Mask of the Avenger (1951), then they gave him a good dramatic role in a prestige film, Saturday’s Hero (1951), as a college football player. The novel had been bought specifically as a vehicle for Derek. He was in a crime noir, The Family Secret (1951), then reunited with Crawford in Scandal Sheet (1952).
Derek was borrowed by Republic Pictures for a war film, Thunderbirds (1952). He went back to Columbia for Prince of Pirates (1953), a swashbuckler for Sam Katzman; two Westerns, Ambush at Tomahawk Gap (1953), with John Hodiak and The Last Posse (1953) with Crawford. He was back with Hodiak for Mission Over Korea (1953), a Korean War film, then was again borrowed by Republic for Sea of Lost Ships (1953). In July 1953, Derek left Columbia.
Derek made another film for Republic, The Outcast (1954), a Western. Walter Wanger used him for The Adventures of Hajji Baba (1954) released by 20th Century Fox, a surprise hit.
He had a showy role as John Wilkes Booth in Prince of Players (1955) at Fox, then was in a drama An Annapolis Story (1955) at Allied Artists.
In March 1954, Derek signed a long-term contract with Paramount. His first films for the studio were Run for Cover (1955), a Western with James Cagney and Nicholas Ray and The Leather Saint (1956), a boxing film. He also appeared as Joshua in The Ten Commandments (1956). He wanted to make a film about Joaquin Murrieta but it was never made.
Derek travelled to Italy to appear in Pirate of the Half Moon (1957). He made a Western Fury at Showdown (1957) and a movie in Britain The Flesh Is Weak (1957). He supported Cornel Wilde in Omar Khayyam (1957), and starred in High Hell (1958). In Europe he was in Prisoner of the Volga (1959) and he played an Arab in Exodus (1960). He was in a TV series Frontier Circus.
Derek disliked acting. He later said he “was never into it. If they’d given me the greatest role in the world it wouldn’t have helped. I used to go to the directors of my films and say: ‘I’m not an actor but I’ll turn up on time and know my words.’ In the 13 films I made I only ever did one take per scene. Directors never went for a second because they knew it’d be no different from the first. I never liked acting. Or my films. Maybe one, a cheap little Western called The Outcast. I liked that because I love horses. One of the troubles was I had a monotone voice which went even flatter when I tried to act. When I saw my first film Knock On Any Door in Italy I only liked it because my voice was dubbed by an Italian actor who had a lot of fire in his voice.”
Derek appeared alongside his second wife Ursula Andress in Nightmare in the Sun (1965), which Derek co-produced. He turned to directing with a war film, Once Before I Die (1966), also with Andress.
Derek eventually quit acting. “In this town people think you must be nuts to do something like that,” he said. “They can’t believe you just didn’t enjoy it.”
He directed A Boy… a Girl (1969) with Dean Paul Martin, and Childish Things (1969) with his third wife, Linda Evans.
In 1973 he directed Bo Derek in Fantasies, which wasn’t released until 1981. He made Love You (1979), a hardcore pornographic film which Bo produced. The film 10 (1979) made his wife Bo a star with the result that Derek was able to raise the finance for Tarzan, the Ape Man (1981), which received mostly negative reviews. In his review for the film, Roger Ebert called it “completely ridiculous,” but added that it had a “certain disarming charm.”
The couple intended to follow it with Eve and That Damned Apple but when Universal delayed financing they decided to make Bolero (1984) for Cannon, which was an unhappy experience for the Dereks. His last film as director was Ghosts Can’t Do It (1990).
An accomplished photographer, Derek photographed the last three of his four wives (at different times) for nude spreads in Playboy magazine.
Derek directed the music videos for Shania Twain’s “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?” and “Any Man of Mine”.
Derek married Turkish-born prima ballerina Pati Behrs Eristoff in 1948. They had a son, Russell Andre (1950–1999), who was paralyzed from the chest down due to a 1969 motorcycle accident, and a daughter, Sean Catherine (born 1953), who later wrote a memoir titled Cast of Characters, published in 1982, about their dysfunctional relationship. Derek walked out on his wife and family in late summer 1955 after meeting 19-year-old aspiring Swiss actress Ursula Andress, who spoke almost no English when they met. He and Behrs were divorced in 1956.
In 1957, Derek married Andress in a quickie Las Vegas ceremony. Five years later, her small role in the James Bond film Dr. No launched her career. Derek threw Andress out of his California home in 1964 over rumors that she had been seeing actor Ron Ely. Andress then went back to Europe, engaging in public affairs with co-stars John Richardson and Marcello Mastroianni before officially leaving Derek for Jean-Paul Belmondo in 1965. The pair divorced in 1966.
In September 1965, Derek became involved with American actress Linda Evans, at the time starring in television’s The Big Valley. A couple of years into their relationship, Evans reduced her appearances on the show to spend more time with him, and financed his alimony and child support payments to Behrs, as he had quit acting by then to pursue photography and directing. They eloped in Mexico in 1968, with Sean as a witness.
In 1973 Derek, Evans and 16-year-old high school dropout Mary Cathleen Collins (who would later be known as Bo Derek) traveled to the Greek island of Mykonos to make the film And Once Upon a Time (unreleased until 1981, under the title Fantasies). During filming, Derek and Collins began an affair. Evans returned to the United States and filed for divorce in 1974, but Derek and Collins stayed in Europe until she turned 18 in November of that year, in order that he would avoid statutory rape charges.
Collins became known to the public as Bo Derek following their marriage on June 10, 1976, and achieved international fame in 1979 with her role in the Blake Edwards film 10. The couple remained together until John died in 1998.
Derek suffered a heart attack in 1986, but completely recovered.
Derek had one granddaughter, Alyce Derek (born 1969) from Russell’s marriage to Lynette Berry. He became a great-grandfather in 1996.
John Derek died on May 22, 1998, from cardiovascular disease in Santa Maria, California, at the age of 71. His remains were cremated.
As director/ writer/ cinematographer
|1965||Nightmare in the Sun||Uncredited||No||No||Uncredited co-director with Marc Lawrence
|1966||Once Before I Die||Yes||No||No||Also producer|
|1969||A Boy… a Girl||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Childish Things||Yes||No||Yes||Co-directed with David Nelson and also camera operator|
|1979||Love You||Yes||No||Yes||Pornographic film;
Also uncredited camera operator
|1981||Fantasies||Yes||Yes||Yes||Shot in 1973|
|Tarzan, the Ape Man||Yes||No||Yes|
|1989||Ghosts Can’t Do It||Yes||Yes||Yes||Also editor and camera operator;
Also uncredited camera operator