John Derek was 46 years old when he fell for the charms of a 16-year-old Californian actress who would become Bo Derek. Nick Scott asks what made their fire burn until his death 25 years later…
John and Bo Derek in New York in 1981. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)

He was known as the quintessential Svengali — a word derived from George du Maurier’s 1895 novel Trilby — in which the title character, a singer, is entranced via hypnosis by the roguish antagonist, making her unable to perform without Svengali there to lead her to a state of reduced peripheral awareness. Aside from his clear-cut, leonine features and movie-star-turned-director/photographer status, what exactly was it that hypnotised Bo Derek about John Derek, a man 30 years her senior who became not just her lover but her mentor and sole creative collaborator?

Born Derek Harris in Hollywood in 1926 to the silent film maker Lawson Harris and the film actress Dolores Johnson, Bo’s beau-to-be had matinee idol looks that saw him, in his youth, singled out for a movie career by David O. Selznick (who cast him in minor roles as a boyfriend of Shirley Temple in Since You Went Away and a sailor in I’ll Be Seeing You) before he was drafted into the second world war. It was Humphrey Bogart who renamed him John Derek, and Bogart who then cast him as Nick Romano in 1949’s Knock on Any Door, a performance that led a New York Times reviewer to describe Derek as “plainly an idol for the girls”. All the King’s Men, released the same year, did nothing to yank him from that pigeonhole.

Then came a watershed moment that wasn’t. At least three people’s lives would have panned out differently had Bogart’s Santana Productions, having brought the film rights to mystery writer Dorothy B. Hughes’s novel In a Lonely Place, stuck to their original plans to utilise Derek’s youthful magnetism in the leading role. Instead, the writers decided to make the character much older, meaning Bogart could take on the part instead. The 1950 adaptation turned out to be a masterpiece, and remains a noir classic, while Derek’s fate fell into the hands of Columbia, who immediately made him a staple in swashbucklers such as Rogues of Sherwood Forest (1950), Mask of the Avenger (1951), Prince of Pirates (1953), and The Adventures of Hajji Baba (1954). A smattering of more impressive turns included 1956’s The Ten Commandments and 1960’s Exodus, but his star was set to fade faster than his looks would.

Columbia had channelled Derek’s career in this direction because he was a massive hit with young people, which proved a prescient observation when it came to how his personal life played out. A graph plotting the age gaps involved in John Derek’s nuptial endeavours would make alarming viewing for any father of a nubile young woman itching to break into the world of post-war Hollywood cinema.


February 2022


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