Messy Facts About John Derek, The Failed Star

Messy Facts About John Derek, The Failed Star

Rebecca Wong

John Derek’s life was a tangle of bad decisions, thorny relationships, and career moves that never quite panned out. While he had his moments of heroism and even kindness, he pushed away many of the people closest to him, leaving a string of flabbergasted, confused, and broken individuals in his wake. Try to keep your head on straight as we navigate the life of John Derek, because things are about to get complicated.


1. His Mother Was A Stunner

John Derek, nee Derek Delevan Harris, had what can only be described as an incredibly messed-up childhood. Born on August 12, 1926, Derek was the son of an actor named Lawson Harris and an actress named Dolores Johnson. Derek’s mom was incredibly beautiful, turning heads wherever she went with her good looks (a trait that Derek ended up inheriting). His dad, on the other hand…

2. His Father Left Him

John Derek’s dad had a completely toxic attitude towards women, once telling young Derek that “All [women want] is your name.” Despite his father’s attitude, and despite his reputation as a huge playboy, Derek’s mom gave up her career in silent acting to marry his dad—which turned out to be a huge mistake. When John Derek was still a child, his dad abruptly walked out on them, leaving Derek and his mom to fend for themselves.

3. He Got A New Father

Derek’s mom, either unable to or afraid of going back into acting, spent some years as a parking-lot attendant before meeting a man named Russell Harlan. An excellent cinematographer, Harlan became a positive influence on John Derek, sparking a love for photography in the young boy. Derek was excited for his mom to marry Harlan, and to have Harlan as his new dad—but what happened next utterly broke Derek’s heart.

4. His Mom Betrayed Him

Derek’s mom and Harlan never married. While Derek believed that this was due to his mom’s drinking problem, his daughter would later claim that marrying a 30-year-old divorcee with a child was frowned upon at the time. Whatever the truth may be, Derek’s mom was heartbroken, and soon, her drinking kicked into high gear. Not long after, John Derek’s relationship with his mom took a turn for the disturbing.

5. She Obsessed Over His Looks

Derek’s mom was always obsessed with being beautiful, but as her drinking grew worse, her obsession morphed into a laser-sharp focus on young John’s looks. She did everything she could to make sure that his dark hair, gray eyes, and fine features stood out. And to be fair, what she did worked—John Derek was allegedly such a pretty child that people in the streets would stop to stare at him. It wasn’t long before Hollywood noticed him too.

6. His Was A Looker

Thanks to his mom and dad’s connections, Hollywood producers and studio heads soon took notice of Derek and his incredibly pretty features. Shortly after he turned 16, producer David O. Selznick began grooming him for the glitzy world of Hollywood. Unfortunately, John Derek quickly found out that Hollywood wasn’t all about being pretty and talented. Publicity stunts were what got actors famous, and Hollywood had some “special” stunts in store for Derek.

7. He “Dated” Shirley Temple

In a surprising twist of fate, it turned out that both Shirley Temple and John Derek ended up under contract to Twentieth Century Fox at the same time. This gave the studio the idea to, err, “gently force” the two to date as a part of a publicity stunt. In 1944, Twentieth Century Fox even gave Derek small roles in two of Temple’s films to really get the public excited about the new couple. This might’ve led Derek to eventual stardom, if not for what happened next.

8. He Joined WWII

In the same year that John Derek appeared in Shirley Temple’s films (Since You Went Away and I’ll Be Seeing You), Derek was drafted for service in WWII. While it put a sudden stop to his acting career, Derek never stopped seeing himself as “Shirley Temple’s boyfriend.” In fact, Derek chose to become a paratrooper because, in his words, “How could Shirley Temple’s boyfriend do less?” Unfortunately for Derek, Temple wasn’t quite as invested in their relationship…

9. He Lost It All

After returning from service, Derek’s life took a sudden and dramatic turn for the worse. He found out that Shirley Temple had given him the boot, and was now engaged to an actor named John Agar. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Twentieth Century Fox lost all enthusiasm towards developing John Derek as an actor, only giving him a bit part in A Double Life, released in 1947.

His situation seemed hopeless, until a sudden opportunity gave Derek a second chance.

10. He Played A Killer

Shortly after A Double Life, John Derek found out through his acting teacher that actor Humphrey Bogart planned to create a movie adaptation called Knock on Any Door. This disturbing film featured a killer named Nick Romano, and Derek knew he would be perfect for the part. Derek wrote numerous letters to Columbia Pictures, convinced they would take him on for the role. When they didn’t, he went just a little bit…crazy.

11. He Broke Into A Studio

Words weren’t enough; it was time for action. Taking matters into his own hands, Derek stormed the studio barricades at Columbia Pictures, located Humphrey Bogart, sat the man down, and somehow persuaded Bogart to let him give a reading for the role of Nick Romano. The truly nutty part of all this is that it somehow worked; Bogart gave Derek the part.

The story of John Derek’s tenacity became legendary, and his portrayal of Romano shot Derek to stardom.

12. He Had The Talent

Recognizing him as a talented newcomer, Bogart signed Derek to a seven-year contract with Columbia Pictures. At first, it seemed like Derek’s career would be smooth sailing from here on out; he played a supporting role in the Academy Award-winning All the King’s Men in 1949, which led to many more offers from major studios all around Hollywood. There was just one problem: Columbia Pictures wanted John Derek all to themselves.

13. The Studios Stunted His Career

Time and time again, Columbia Pictures refused to let Derek take on leading roles from other studios, sticking him into their co-starring roles instead. To make things worse, Columbia began to type-cast him, only giving him “pretty boy” roles that were shallow and uninteresting. Even his fans began wondering “why they can’t see him more often in meatier roles.” Derek felt that the studios “were destroying him”—and the final blow was about to come.

14. The Studios Gave Him Terrible Roles

Columbia Pictures did eventually put Derek into leading roles, but he found these roles completely humiliating. He was cast as Robin Hood in Rogues of Sherwood Forest (released in 1950), and the swashbuckling captain Renato Dimorna in Mask of the Avengers, which released a year later. And while these roles certainly got John Derek more attention, what the critics wrote about him made Derek’s heart sink.

15. Critics Called Him A “Pretty Boy”

Derek wanted to be known as more than just a pretty face on the big screen, but critics were totally fixated on his good looks. One critic from the Los Angeles Times called him a “slim and beautiful youth,” while other critics commented on “how pretty his legs were” in his green tights as Robin Hood. The objectification was mortifying, but he kept at it, determined to make it as an actor. That was how John Derek ended up meeting Pati Behrs, his first wife. The poor woman…

16. He Met His First Wife

Derek and Behrs met in an acting class at Twentieth Century Fox. Behrs fell in love with Derek since he was the only one in the class who didn’t actively hit on her and violate her personal space. Derek, in his words, liked Behrs “because she was practically the only girl in town who didn’t giggle when I spoke to her.” It wasn’t long before the two married, and life for Derek was fantastic—for a while.

17. They Were Hollywood’s Perfect Couple

Shortly after the two wed, Behrs quit acting, and the two settled into their idyllic home in Santa Monica. For a year, things went smoothly—Derek loved how carefree and wild Behrs was, and the press even presented “Princess Pati and Handsome John” as the perfect couple. Things behind the scenes, however, became less-than-perfect when Behrs became pregnant with their son. Then, everything about their marriage changed.

18. They Drifted Apart

During her pregnancy, Behrs became increasingly cautious and overprotective. While this was totally understandable, she was no longer the carefree girl that Derek fell in love with. Slowly, Derek began to drift away, which likely made Behrs even more cautious and withdrawn. By the time their son Russell was born in 1950, his marriage with Behrs was in trouble. The birth of his son only made things even more complicated.

19. His Son Was A Miracle

It turned out that John Derek’s newly-born son had a major issue: he had a split esophagus. In an astonishing turn of events, the hospital staff detected his son’s condition, and happened to employ the only doctor in the States that could perform the life-saving surgery his son needed to survive. The fact that Derek’s son lived was nothing short of a miracle—unfortunately, the miracle was not enough to save Derek’s marriage.

20. His Children Burdened Him

Although Derek’s son lived, he was sickly and needed round-the-clock care. As a result, Derek’s wife became his son’s full-time nurse. This was not the home life that Derek envisioned for himself; he was not prepared to be the father of a sickly child and husband to an (in his view) overprotective mother. By the time they had their second child, Sean Catherine, in 1953, their marriage was on the rocks—then Derek proceeded to make things even worse.

21. He Became A Control Freak

Not only did Derek begin seeing other women, but he actively brought them to his home, where his wife and children still lived. On top of that, John Derek began strictly controlling Behrs’s diet and constantly had her on various exercise regimes. He became fanatically obsessed with making her beautiful (sound familiar?). With the cracks in their marriage widening, it wasn’t long before another woman swooped in and stole Derek’s heart.

22. He Began An Affair

The woman who stole John Derek’s heart was none other than the then 17-year-old Ursula Andress. This was already creepy enough, but things only get creepier when you consider the fact that Andress basically spoke no English when the two met. Still, Andress was young, exciting, and distracted Derek from his troubled marriage. The two began having an affair, but what Derek didn’t know was that Andress came with baggage.

23. He Had A Stalker

Andress’s baggage came in the form of an actor and boyfriend. Maybe you’ve heard of him: James Dean. When Derek and Andress started their affair, Dean was not happy; he even went so far as to stalk the two in his car while Derek and Andress were driving down Sunset Boulevard. Derek continued to date Andress, however, and things continued to escalate between Derek and Dean.

It soon led to an inevitable showdown between the two men.

24. He Fought Over His Girlfriend

The alleged showdown began after Derek dropped Andress off at her home one day. As soon as Derek stopped in front of Andress’s home, Dean walked out the door and offered to drive Derek around in his brand-new Porsche. Derek’s friends tried to stop him from getting into the car; they had no doubt that Dean’s intentions were far from good. Derek, however, wasn’t going to back down. He hopped into Dean’s car, which quickly roared to life.

25. He Kept His Cool

With Derek in the passenger seat, Dean careened down the streets of Hollywood, driving over curbs, going up and down sidewalks, and screeching up Laurel Canyon. Dean wanted to give John Derek a good scare, but was infuriated when Derek kept as cool as a cucumber. Frustrated at Derek’s lack of reaction, Dean drove back to Andress’s home in a fury.

It gave Derek a good laugh—but nobody was laughing in the aftermath. 

26. He Left His Family Behind

John Derek walked out on Behrs and his children in late 1955 to be with Andress, and finalized their divorce by 1956. Just one year later, Derek and Andress married in a quickie ceremony in Las Vegas. For the next couple of years, the new couple traveled through Europe, with Derek acting in a few movies along the way. All too soon, their money began to run out. Seeing their chance, CBS gave Derek an offer too good to refuse.

27. He Hated Acting

CBS asked Derek to return to Los Angeles in order to appear in a television series called Frontier Circus, and even offered to pay for both Derek’s and Andress’s plane tickets home. Without many options, Derek agreed, but he did so with a heavy heart. By this point, Derek had grown to dislike acting and wanted to become a director. It also didn’t help that, back in Los Angeles, his ex-wife and kids were waiting for his return.

28. He Was A Terrible Father

When John Derek wasn’t busy on the set of Frontier Circus, he spent his time trying (and failing) to be a father to his kids. To say Derek didn’t really do a great job is an understatement; not only did he fail to pay alimony, but he had a cruel habit of commenting on both Russell’s and Sean Catherine’s weight, which didn’t exactly win him brownie points with them. By the time the filming of Frontier Circus ended, Derek was more than ready to leave town again

29. He Became A Director

John Derek’s next stop was the Philippines, where he planned to finally make his directorial debut. With Andress at his side, Derek began production for a film called Once Before I Die in 1964; in addition, the couple took on acting roles for the movie. However, directing didn’t turn out to be the dream job that Derek had in mind. Not only was production for the movie rife with problems, but it led to heartbreak for Derek too.

30. She Cheated On Him

For one, the cast and crew for Derek’s movie were not fully paid. As if this didn’t cause Derek enough problems, rumors began swirling that his wife was having an affair with Ron Ely, an actor playing a small part in the movie. The rumors dogged Derek throughout the filming of the movie, and continued haunting him even after filming for the film wrapped up. Eventually, it became all too much for Derek.

31. He Kicked Her Out

In 1964, the weight of the rumors surrounding Andress’s affair caused John Derek to crack. In a fit of anger, Derek threw Andress out of his home and shut the door in her face. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Once Before I Die released eight months later—and was a financial failure. Everything about his first directorial venture was an utter disaster, and things didn’t improve when he went home to the States.

32. His Family Was Dysfunctional

Back in the States, Derek once again had to face his ex-wife and kids, but things with his family were quickly taking a turn for the dysfunctional. Not only was his ex-wife still demanding that he pay alimony (and rightfully so!), but his kids openly rebelled against him. His son, for example, repeatedly got into trouble with the authorities for hot-wiring cars. As the months passed by, his family situation grew increasingly out of control.

33. He Sent His Family Away

Things came to a head after Derek’s son was sent to Juvenile Hall, where he promptly got into (and lost) a fight with an inmate. Frustrated, Derek sent his entire family away from America, hoping that having his family travel abroad would somehow magically fix things (spoiler alert: it didn’t). In the relative peace that followed, Derek took the time to concentrate on his career, which eventually led him to his next love.

34. He Met “The One”

In 1965, Derek met actress Linda Evans, almost 20 years his junior, who starred in the American drama The Big Valley. Derek was absolutely smitten with Evans, telling his kids that “Linda is the sweetest, loveliest girl. Her lips have never felt a lie on them.” As their relationship deepened, Evans began financing his alimony payments; she even encouraged him to repair his relationship with his kids.

Derek acquiesced…which turned out to be a terrible mistake.

35. His Son Ran For It

In 1968, John Derek allowed his son to live with him once again in the States. After a month of living together, his son ran away from home without a word, leaving Derek dumbfounded and enraged in equal measure. From there, things rapidly went downhill. Upon hearing of their son’s disappearance, his ex-wife insisted on returning to the States along with their daughter. Life for Derek was about to get even crazier.

36. He Fought With His Daughter

Things with Derek and his ex-wife and daughter get off to a rough start. For a long time, Derek suspected his ex-wife of turning his children against him, and those feelings spilled over after he brought his daughter to his home. Derek accused his daughter of neither loving him nor respecting him, and insulted his ex-wife to boot. The argument escalated into a screaming match, and, in a moment of passion, Derek revealed a dark secret to his daughter.

37. He Broke His Daughter’s Heart

According to John Derek, he only married his ex-wife out of pity. Apparently, he originally wanted to break things off, but stopped short when Behrs threatened to commit suicide. To really twist the knife in his daughter’s heart, Derek claimed that he never wanted to have children. Whether this is true or not is up in the air, but one thing was for sure: what he said was cruel. I wonder how he felt a few months later, then, when a tragedy nearly took his daughter away for good.

38. He Nearly Lost His Daughter

Derek and his daughter were attending a dinner party when a freak accident occurred. While rushing through the party, his daughter accidentally smashed into a plate-glass door, which tore open her leg and cut her thigh down to the bone. Derek immediately ran to his daughter’s side and rushed her to the hospital, where she received over 175 stitches to her left leg. The accident shook Derek to his core; he knew he had to change.

39. He Tried To Change

After nearly losing his daughter, Derek softened towards her considerably. In 1968, when Derek decided to marry Evans, he asked his daughter to be their witness; she happily obliged. Derek then took his daughter with him and his new wife to Switzerland, where he planned on directing a film he wrote called Wild Flowers. With his daughter and new wife at his side, things were looking up…until they weren’t.

40. He Failed As A Director

Switzerland didn’t work out as Derek had planned. Most of the crew members he hired for the filming of Wild Flowers were close friends of his. Although his intentions were good, most of his friends were highly underqualified for the job; the fact that they were filming in the blizzard-like condition of the Alps didn’t help either. His next two films (A Boy… A Girl and Childish Things) also went by unnoticed.

Unable to make his mark as a director, Derek returned home, where a surprise visitor was waiting for him.

41. His Son Returned

Derek’s son suddenly showed up soon after he returned from Switzerland. His son swore that his troublemaking days were behind him and that he was ready to turn over a new leaf. Derek, desperately wanting to believe him, welcomed his son home and bought him a motorcycle as a welcome home gift. In a not-so-shocking twist, his son promptly crashed the bike before the day had even ended.

For Derek, the aftermath of his son’s accident was devastating.

42. Tragedy Rocked His Family

At the hospital, the doctor gave John Derek the horrific news: His son was paralyzed for life from the chest down. The news threw his entire family into chaos; his daughter blamed Derek for causing the accident, and Derek, in turn, became increasingly overprotective of his daughter. At the same time, he still had no luck with his directorial projects and was running out of money. Soon, John Derek found himself in dire straits.

43. He Had Nothing Left

By the 1970s, Derek was completely broke. In desperation, Derek began to write and shop the script for a film called And Once Upon a Time around Hollywood. After several tentative deals fell through, an agent named Kevin Casselman finally agreed to take on Derek’s film in 1972, as long as he cast a young teen named Cathy Collins as the lead. Unbeknownst to Derek, Collins was about to change his life.

44. He Changed Her Completely

At first, Derek and Collins absolutely hated each other. Collins resented the fact that Derek wanted to change her entire image; not only did he demand that she lose weight and dye her hair, but he even renamed her to “Bo Derek.” Despite their hatred of each other, Derek and Collins, along with his wife, agreed to go ahead and shoot the movie in Greece together.

It was during the filming of the movie that something between Derek and Collins changed.

45. He Threw It All Away

While filming And Once Upon a Time, Derek’s life took a dark turn: He began having an affair with the underaged Collins. Rightfully angry, Evans returned to the States and began divorce proceedings in 1974. Derek, for his part, stayed in Europe with Collins, fearing that he would be thrown behind bars if he returned with Collins while she was underaged.

When they eventually returned to the States, nothing good awaited them.

46. Karma Caught Up To Him

Derek married Collins on June 10, 1976, but the marriage wasn’t a fairy tale. For one, Collins’ parents were less-than-happy that a man decades their daughter’s senior was marrying their kid, and for another, Derek had left And Once Upon a Time incomplete. He spent months dodging angry financiers and even sold his home to cover his debts. Derek didn’t have a penny to his name, and things with his new wife were going downhill too.

47. He Hit The Jackpot

Derek and Collins disagreed bitterly over the direction of Collins’s career. Over his wife’s protests, Derek began putting Collins into less-than-savory, exploitative films, which he shot himself. Derek continued to push Collins’ image as Hollywood’s hottest vixen, until his wife eventually landed her career-defining role in the film 10 in 1979. Her appearance shot both herself and Derek to stardom.

48. Directing Was Not His Forté

Using his wife’s new clout in Hollywood, Derek raised the finances to attempt yet another directorial project; this time, he planned to direct Tarzan, the Ape Man in 1981. You can probably guess by now that the movie flopped. John Derek made several more attempts in the director’s chair, but he was becoming increasingly old and was slowing down. The hectic period of Derek’s life had come to a close.

49. He Rushed To Her Side

Remember Derek’s strange encounter with James Dean? Well, few know just how close to disaster he was. The day after his chilling experience driving around with Dean, Derek got a phone call from Andress that changed everything. Dean had gotten into a lethal accident sometime in the night, in the very same car that he tried to scare Derek in. Derek immediately left home to be at Andress’s side, going so far as to leave town with her in order to escape the press.

50. His Life Was Messy

On May 22, 1998, John Derek lost his battle with cardiovascular disease; his remains were cremated shortly after. Derek’s life was a messy tangle of career failures and relationship drama. He never quite managed to reconcile with his children, nor did he ever really manage to become a superstar director. His legacy now lives on in the people he left behind.

Sources: 1, 2, 34


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