John Gavin, Actor in 'Psycho' and 'Imitation of Life,' Dies at 86

Courtesy of Photofest
John Gavin with Janet Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock's 'Psycho' (1960)

He was oh-so-close to playing James Bond in 'Diamonds Are Forever' and served as President Reagan's ambassador to Mexico in the 1980s.

John Gavin, the movie heartthrob who starred in Imitation of Life, Psycho and Thoroughly Modern Millie, has died, The Hollywood Reporter has confirmed. He was 86.

Gavin, who served as President Ronald Reagan's ambassador to Mexico in the 1980s, died Friday morning, said Budd Burton Mossa, a rep for the actor's wife, actress Constance Towers.

He and Towers, a regular on soap operas and the star of the Sam Fuller experimental films Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, married in September 1974.

Hailed as a second coming of Rock Hudson at Universal Pictures, Gavin played Lana Turner's love interest in Douglas Sirk's remake of Imitation of Life (1959); portrayed Sam Loomis, who as Janet Leigh's boyfriend helps solves the mystery of Norman Bates, in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960); and was the object of Julie Andrews' and Mary Tyler Moore's affections in George Roy Hill's Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967).

Director William Friedkin wrote on Twitter on Friday, "A sad day, my great friend John Gavin died. This morning. One of the finest men I knew. And like a brother to me. May he Rest In Peace."

In films released in 1960, the Los Angeles native appeared as Julius Caesar in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus and helped rescue Doris Day from thieving husband Rex Harrison in the thriller Midnight Lace.

The strapping 6-foot-4 Gavin also starred on two short-lived series in 1964 and '65: as the framed lawman on the ABC Western Destry and as a freighter captain on NBC's Convoy.

The American actor was signed and all set to play James Bond in Diamonds Are Forever (1971) before Sean Connery returned after sitting out On Her Majesty's Secret Service (in which George Lazenby played 007) to reclaim the role of the superspy.

In May 1981, Gavin — who spoke fluent Spanish and had been appearing in commercials south of the border for Bacardi rum — quit a Broadway-bound revival of Can-Can to accept Reagan's invitation to serve as ambassador to Mexico.

According to a 1983 article in People magazine, he presided over what was then America's third-largest embassy, with 1,181 employees. He resigned from the post in June 1986.

Gavin's film credits also included A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958), also directed by Sirk; A Breath of Scandal (1960); the Susan Hayward-starrer Back Street (1961), another remake; Tammy Tell Me True (1961), with Sandra Dee; The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969); and Pussycat, Pussycat, I Love You (1970).

Like Reagan, Gavin served as president of the Screen Actors Guild. Gavin ran for a second term in 1973 but was defeated by Dennis Weaver.

John Anthony Golenor was born in Los Angeles on April 8, 1931. His mother was born in Mexico, his American father had mining interests in the country, and he grew up bilingual.

He attended St. John's Military Academy in L.A., Beverly Hills High School and Villanova Prep in Ojai, California, before studying the economic history of Latin America at Stanford University. He graduated from college in 1952, then served in the U.S. Navy as an Air Intelligence Officer.

After his military discharge, the dark-haired Gavin was intent on a career in the diplomatic corps but at the suggestion of a friend went into acting. He studied with the respected coach Jeff Corey, landed a contract at Universal and was billed as John Gilmore in Raw Edge (1956).

Through the '60s, Gavin served as special adviser to two secretaries general of the Organization of American States.

While under contract at Universal, Gavin ventured into Mexico against the wishes of the studio and appeared as the title character in Pedro Paramo, a 1967 Spanish-language film set during the Mexican Revolution. A hit outside the U.S., it enhanced his reputation with Universal execs, who cast him in Thoroughly Modern Millie. He won critical accolades for his ability to do romantic comedy.

Gavin later starred as a heart surgeon on the 1979 ABC miniseries Doctors' Private Lives and played Cary Grant in a 1980 NBC telefilm about the life of Sophia Loren (the actress played herself).

He also appeared on Broadway in the 1973 romantic comedy Seesaw, and his TV credits included The Virginian, Hart to Hart, Medical Center, Mannix, The Doris Day Show, The Saint and Fantasy Island.

In 1987, Gavin was named president of Univisa Satellite Communications, then the owner of the Spanish-language TV programmer Univision.

He was married to Cecily Evans from 1957 to 1965. His godfather, prolific songwriter Jimmy McHugh ("I'm in the Mood for Love"), introduced him to Towers.