Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010

John Forsythe

It's said that a movie actor should have the musk of danger, and a TV actor the scent of security. That makes John Forsythe the template of TV stardom. His gift as an actor was that he never made it seem like acting — just like being the good-looking, confident, reassuring exemplar of something like American royalty. While he appeared in Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry and opposite Ann-Margaret in Kitten with a Whip, he was rarely the most noticeable person on the big screen. But he had a guardian angel in the Hollywood Hills: producer Aaron Spelling, who was pretty much responsible for the second half of Forsythe's career by casting him in Charlie's Angels (1976-81) and Dynasty (1981-89). Forsythe's Charles Townsend, head of his own L.A. sleuthing agency, was the boss of Angels Kate Jackson, Jaclyn Smith and Farrah Fawcett (replaced in the second season by Cheryl Ladd). Heard only on speakerphone, and seen only from behind, Charlie was Hugh Hefner as Philip Marlowe and the bachelor father of his Police Academy hotties. Dynasty, a nighttime soap opera about an oil family, was indebted to the hit series Dallas, but Spelling brought his high glitz, and Forsythe — who played patriarch Blake Carrington — his gravitas. As the Carrington family grew larger and crazier, as Alexis (Joan Collins) purred and Krystle (Linda Evans) pouted, Forsythe kept his hold on the viewers' belief and rooting interest. He knew that his job was to make the impossible sound plausible, and that the craft can be sedative as well as stimulant. If an actor is someone who sells the script without making it sound like a carny's come-on, then John Forsythe was John Barrymore. And he did it for 60 years.

Richard Corliss

A version of this story previously appeared on on Apr. 3, 2010.