As many film-actors have before and since, Van Heflin began on stage. To put it mildly, he had a string of busts, which began in 1928, until 1936 and “End of Summer”. By chance, Katherine Hepburn saw the play and asked Heflin to take the role of Lord Gerald Waring Gaythorne in the upcoming production of “A Woman Rebels”, she convinced RKO pictures to give him the part and the rest, as they say, ‘is history’. After a couple of duds for RKO, Heflin returned to Broadway in, 1939, in the comedy, “The Philadelphia Story”, which ran for more than 400 performances.
In 1940 he appeared in “Santa Fe Trail” directed by Michael Curtiz, which garnered him solid reviews. But, it was 1942 that changed Van Heflin’s fortunes for the good, with his Oscar winning (Best Supporting Actor) turn in “Johnny Eager”. Heflin may not go down as one of the finest of actors, but, he is remembered for his consistency, and his adaptability. His best works, I believe are, as Jeff Hartnett in “Johnny Eager”, 1941; as the sometimes intractable rancher Joe Starrett in “Shane”, 1953; as Fred Staples in “Patterns” (his best lead role), 1956 and as Dan Evans in “3:10 to Yuma” in 1957. Van Heflin always provided a good character in study, with star quality presence and a wonderfully textured voice, with an off-hand delivery. Looking back at his body of work in the 1940’s through the 1950’s one will not be soon disappointed at his choices or his performances.
By C. S. Williams