Troy Donahue, a blonde, blue-eyed teen idol who captivated the hearts of many on the big screen during the ’50s, once found himself homeless and living in New York City’s Central Park.
The actor, who struggled with alcoholism, eventually had a Hollywood comeback before his death in 2001 at age 65. Now, his life is being explored in a new book titled “Inventing Troy Donahue – The Making of a Movie Star,” where several co-stars and others who knew the late heartthrob spoke out about his rise and fall.
“I realized there was no book about Troy Donahue and his life was far more interesting than people even realized,” author Michael Gregg Michaud told Fox News Digital. “He achieved a high level of stardom and then almost disappeared. I met him a few times and he was just a lovely, lovely man. And I was interested in how a young actor could undertake a career that blossomed so quickly and then it suddenly ends.”
Donahue’s career in Hollywood was nearly over from the start. The actor, born Merle Johnson Jr., drove cross-country at age 20 from New York City to California in hopes of finding work in films. One evening, Donahue sat alone at The Golden Pheasant in the San Fernando Valley. His sun-kissed features caught the eye of William Asher, a producer at Columbia Studios and James Sheldon, a TV director who worked with James Dean. He was quickly offered a screen test at Columbia.
But on the weekend before his big meeting, Donahue suffered a near-fatal accident. Donahue, a heavy drinker, “got bombed” before hitting the road. His car skidded off Malibu Canyon Road and plowed through a wooden guardrail, plummeting 40 feet down into the canyon before smashing into a tree that stopped the vehicle from falling 250 feet below.
“They say my face was just two blue eyes staring out of a bucket of red paint,” Donahue once recalled.
Donahue slipped in and out of consciousness for two days. He suffered two cracked ribs, a bruised spinal cord, a concussion, a cracked kneecap and a crushed kidney. According to Michaud’s book, Donahue lost a tooth and needed 10 stitches in his nose, as well as 40 in his scalp.
“He, of course, missed his screen test,” said Michaud. “He was more upset about that than his injuries. He slowly, but surely recovered. Then in the summer of 1956, a friend introduced Troy to an actress named Fran Bennett, who was represented by Henry Wilson, a notorious agent. Henry thought Troy would be great and wanted to represent him. Troy went to Universal for a test and he was signed right away. He was just 21 years old.”
It was Wilson, who gave Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter their names, who told his protégé he was “a Troy Donahue.” While Donahue made about a dozen films in a year, it was 1959’s “A Summer Place,” a sweeping melodrama starring top actress Sandra Dee, that made him a star.
“It was an enormous success,” said Michaud. “But the truth is, he wasn’t ready for that overwhelming success. He certainly wanted to be a movie star, but he wasn’t ready for this overnight tidal wave. He always had issues with his self-esteem. He suffered from insecurity, which is probably why he was drinking at a very early age. His father, whom he adored, died of Lou Gehrig’s disease. He never really got over that.”
“It was very hard on him,” Michaud continued. “Once he began drinking, he didn’t stop for decades. He wanted to do a good job. He certainly looked the part of a movie star, but he wasn’t trained as an actor. The director of ‘A Summer Place,’ who was extremely patient, later said it would take 11 or 12 takes before you could get anything out of him. I think it was just too much on this young man. He was handsome, he had all sorts of girlfriends that he didn’t always treat very well and he was a party animal… But then he had to shower for work and be mobbed, stampeded everywhere he went. It was an awful lot.”
Some of Donahue’s co-stars described him as a loner.
“Connie Stevens and Diane McBain said the same thing,” Michaud explained. “I think it all goes back to his father’s death. He watched him suffer, wither away and die… He wanted people around him, but he was a lonely person… Diane said he was sweet and funny, but also a loner in the crowd. I think that’s what drove him into all these romantic relationships because he didn’t want to be alone. But a lot of times, he chased after emotionally unavailable people… I think he was just afraid people would leave him… I think it haunted him, honestly. He was a lost soul. He graduated from simple booze and pot to cocaine, uppers, downers and everything else.”
The height of Donahue’s fame only lasted about five years. During that time, he was receiving up to 7,000 fan letters a week. Many even climbed over the fence of his home, hoping to get a glimpse of the star. The roles kept coming both in films and television. But by the late ‘60s, the studios stopped making the same “youth films” that catapulted Donahue to stardom. His clean-cut image was no longer desirable.
In 1969, Donahue, struggling to find work, left LA.
“Diane McBain talked about how they were all cut loose,” said Michaud. “They were terminated from the studio one by one. They had no idea what to do. He did a film called ‘My Blood Runs Cold,’ which was just terrible. It was such a departure from the beautiful blonde, blue-eyed boy at the beach. He was trying to transition into other types of roles. He was previously in ‘Palm Springs Weekend,’ which he hated. He objected to it. He called it a ‘beach party movie in the desert.’ He was drunk out of his mind throughout filming. Carole Cook, who was in the picture with him, said he was the most beautiful guy she’s ever seen, but he was bombed from morning ‘til night. Despite all this, he was tired of playing a teenager on spring break, and he did put his foot down. He was suspended immediately. It was the beginning of the end.”
An unemployed Donahue, who was a drinker since the seventh grade, relied heavily on alcohol to cope. He moved back to New York, where he attempted to score gigs. Money was running dangerously low.
“He ended up filing for bankruptcy after his second divorce,” said Michaud. “There was no more work. For six months, Donahue said he lived in a bush in Central Park [in 1970] and kept everything he had in a backpack.”
“I went home with fans for a hot meal or a shower,” Donahue once admitted. “And a couch or bed to sleep in.”
A former classmate – Francis Ford Coppola – heard about Donahue’s plight. It was the filmmaker who offered him a part in his new movie “The Godfather Part II.” Donahue played Merle Johnson.
“Coppola heard about what Troy was going through and wanted to help,” said Michaud. “He was paid $10,000 for the role. It was a small role, but a memorable one.”
After starring in the 1974 film, Donahue joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Over the years, he landed bit parts, including one in John Waters’ 1990 film “Cry-Baby” opposite Johnny Depp.
“He was very happy,” said Michaud. “He worked quite a lot. He did mostly direct-to-video, low-budget movies. But he was working again. And he enjoyed his sobriety. He was proud of himself. He encouraged people to get a grip if they were having a problem with addiction because he was able to do it. Life for him became very peaceful. After four marriages, he found love with mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao, and they had a quiet life in Santa Monica. Troy even said at one point, ‘I’m really happy to just be Mr. Cao.’… And then he discovered he had a son and a daughter he didn’t know about. They were then introduced to him in his life… I believe he was very happy in the end.”
Donahue suffered a heart attack in 2001. He regained consciousness, but died the next day.
“When we talked about Hollywood, he had a wonderful attitude about it,” said Michaud. “There was a screening of ‘A Summer Place’ that he attended – he hasn’t seen the film in years. He said, ‘When I saw the close-ups of me and Sandra Dee from so many years ago, we just looked so beautiful. Just look at us. All of a sudden, I understood.’”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.