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Johnny Duncan, a popular guy around Hollywood who played Robin the Boy Wonder in a Batman serial that was shown in theaters in 1949, has died. He was 92.
Duncan, who taught Lana Turner the Lindy, palled around with Humphrey Bogart and had his head chopped off by Kirk Douglas in a sword fight in Spartacus, died Feb. 8 at his home in Davenport, Fla., his family announced.
He also appeared, mostly as a background player, in such films as Mervyn LeRoy’s Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944); Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool (1949); John Ford’s When Willie Comes Marching Home (1950); Bedtime for Bonzo (1951), starring Ronald Reagan and a chimp; and the infamous Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), directed by Ed Wood.
Duncan, though, is best known for starring as a shaggy-haired Robin/Dick Grayson in Batman and Robin, a 15-chapter serial from Columbia Pictures. He appeared opposite Robert Lowery as the Caped Crusader/Bruce Wayne, and they battled the black-hooded criminal The Wizard in the series that took three months to make and typically played for young audiences on Saturday mornings and afternoons.
Batman co-creator Bob Kane had wanted a 16-year-old actor to play Robin, but producer Sam Katzman at Columbia thought Duncan would be perfect for the role — even though he was 26 at the time.
“[Kane] said, ‘Oh, no, I don’t want a guy 26 years old; you know, that’s as old as Batman,’ ” Duncan recalled in a very entertaining 2005 interview. “So anyway, they looked at, gosh, kids and kids and kids and kids, and finally they couldn’t find anybody — Kane didn’t like ’em, so Sam called me and says, ‘Hey, John, you know, wear some jeans or somethin’ and a sweater and look as young as you can and, for God sakes, don’t comb your hair. Just come on over.’ So I did. And so when I walked in the door, before I was even introduced, Kane says, ‘Hey, that’s Robin.’ So that’s how I got the part.”
A native of Gower, Mo., near Kansas City, Duncan learned how to tap dance at an early age and toured with acts that included The Will Mastin Trio, which featured Sammy Davis Jr. and his father. He was discovered by a 20th Century Fox talent scout, and he and his whole family packed up and drove west to Hollywood.
He danced in nightclubs on Hollywood Boulevard, and that’s where he met Turner, then a teenager.
In one of his first movies, Duncan played a sailor in the Bogart film Action in the North Atlantic (1943), and he became good friends with the star.
“Bogey was a great guy,” he said. “He was a little guy like Jimmy Cagney, and Bogart and Alan Ladd and all of us were very good friends. We partied together with their wives, and when a part in a picture or something would come up for a little guy, why, usually I’d get it.”
Bogart later gave him a job as another sailor in The Caine Mutiny (1954).
Duncan also played the title role in The Million Dollar Kid (1944), one of several movies he made with The Bowery Boys/East Side Kids.
His last film was Spartacus (1960).
“So I had this fight with Kirk Douglas, a sword fight, and he cuts my head off,” he said. “And when he cuts my head off, this [fake] blood and stuff squirts out like the veins in my neck. And, my God, they had to cut it, it was so gruesome. It squirted all over Douglas, all over the other actors around and everything, and today it would have been great. … But in those days, they said, ‘Oh, my gosh. We can’t let that be in the film’.”
Survivors include his wife of 18 years, Susan; children Cathy, Sean, Mandy, Maranda and Landon; grandchildren Danny, Tyler, Zachary, Juliah, Nataley, Caden, Chance and Evelyn; and great-grandchildren Kelly, Angie and Mike.
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