A Troy Donahue Top 10

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Troy Donahue is getting the red carpet treatment on TCM tonight with a marathon of movies that feature the tall, blond and blue-eyed heartthrob. Donahue was an object of lust for countless teenagers during the late 1950s and early 1960s but he isn’t a particularly well regarded actor. In fact, critics heaped plenty of scorn on Donahue during his career and he became the butt of gentle jokes in musicals (A CHORUS LINE, GREASE) and television shows (THE SIMPSONS). Despite this, Donahue appeared in a number of entertaining and impressive films before he died in 2001 at age 65. The conventionally handsome actor wasn’t afraid to take roles that subverted his pretty boy image and besides being a favorite performer of filmmaker Delmer Daves, he worked with many notable directors who often employed his talents multiple times including Douglas Sirk, Jack Arnold, Blake Edwards, Raul Walsh, Monte Hellman, Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone and John Waters. In anticipation of TCM’s programming, I thought I would share a list of my Top 10 Favorite Troy Donahue movies. Some of them will be airing tonight and the others can be found on video, DVD or streaming online.

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MONSTER ON CAMPUS (dir. Jack Arnold, 1958)

Jack Arnold directed some of the most beloved monster movies and science fiction films made in the 1950s including IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953), CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954), TARANTULA (1954) and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957). MONSTER ON CAMPUS is not as highly regard as the previous films mentioned but it’s a surprisingly entertaining and chill filled thrill ride thanks to some stylish camerawork by Oscar winning cinematographer Russell Metty and Arnold’s innovative direction. In the film Donahue plays a student assisting one of his professors (Arthur Franz) procure a prehistoric fish that’s been dosed with radiation. Things start getting strange after Donahue’s trusty dog manages to lick the toxic waste water that the fish was preserved in and transforms into a blood hungry beast. Donahue’s role is limited but he’s a perfectly fine looking blank canvas and it’s easy for audiences to project their fears and hopes onto him.

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IMITATION OF LIFE (dir. Douglas Sirk, 1959)

Troy Donahue only had a small role in Douglas Sirk’s lush melodrama but it’s an unforgettable one. In one of the first films that allowed him to subvert his teen idol image, Donahue plays the love interest of Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), a beautiful mulatto girl passing as white in 1940s America. In a truly horrific scene, Donahue viciously beats Sarah Jane when he discovers that her mother is black which sets in motion a series of unfortunate events. Donahue’s cold and utterly heartless demeanor is chilling to watch and for a few brief moments the handsome young actor transforms into one of the screens most ugly and bigoted villains.

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A SUMMER PLACE (dir. Delmer Daves, 1959)

A SUMMER PLACE is the film that made Troy Donahue a star and the idol of millions of teenagers around the world and it’s easy to see why. Director Delmer Daves, who was highly influenced by Douglas Sirk, shot Donahue as if he was a young Adonis cavorting with Sandra Dee on sandy beaches in the summer sun. The two impossibly blond and tan teenage lovebirds are incredibly likable and we want their romance to succeed as they navigate the various trials and tribulations of youth.

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SUSAN SLADE (dir. Delmer Daves; 1961)

This meticulously orchestrated melodrama that makes the most of its California coastal setting was Donahue’s third team-up with director Delmer Davies and second with costar, Connie Stevens. Much like A SUMMER’S PLACE, Donahue and Stevens play a young couple who have to overcome various social obstacles and adult hang-ups (including an unplanned pregnancy and criminal connections) before they’re allowed to formally hookup. It’s easy to appreciate the movie’s camp classic status (it’s one of John Water’s favorites!), but young people flocked to SUSAN SLADE because they enjoyed watching the sun-kissed Donahue and Stevens buck convention while ushering in the sexual revolution of the sixties.

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ROME ADVENTURE (dir. Delmer Daves; 1962)

Donahue met his first wife, brunette beauty Suzanne Pleshette, during the making of Delmer Daves’ ROME ADVENTURE. The film is another romantic melodrama from the creative team that brought us A SUMMER’S PLACE and SUSAN SLADE but this time most of the action takes place in Italy. Donahue’s character must choose between his first love (a very sexually aggressive and feisty Angie Dickenson) and a new romance blossoming with Pleshette as the two roam around Europe on train and scooters while looking beautiful in technicolor. There are some surprisingly adult moments in the film and Donahue’s allowed to flex is acting muscles alongside his talented costars. In addition, it’s just plain fun to watch the sparks fly on screen between Donahue & Pleshette in the eye-candy laden ROME ADVENTURE.

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PALM SPRINGS WEEKEND (dir. Norman Taurog, 1963)

PALM SPRINGS WEEKEND is typical of many teenage beach party (or ski party) films of the decade and marred by some ill-timed comedic performances but it made my Top 10 list for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, the film takes place in Palm Springs during the early sixties while a bunch of college kids are on spring break. The decor and setting are pure eye-candy for anyone who admires mid-century design. The film would also be the last “teen flick” that Troy Donahue appeared in. All that time spent in the California sun is starting to wear on Donahue’s features and he seems bored most of the time that he’s on screen. But he does get to romance Stefanie Powers (THE GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E.) and sing the movie’s title track, which is catchy little pop number called “Live Young.”

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MY BLOOD RUNS COLD (dir. William Conrad, 1964)

After appearing in questionable movies like PALM SPRINGS WEEKEND that portrayed him as a perpetual teen, Donahue was ready for a serious career change and wanted out of his contract with Warner Bro. so he jumped at the chance to play a disturbed killer in this unusual thriller directed by William Conrad. Conrad is probably best remembered as the star of popular television shows (CANNON and JAKE AND THE FATMAN) but the talented character actor directed a small number of interesting thrillers including MY BLOOD RUNS COLD. This odd tale stars Donahue as a man obsessed with an impulsive heiress (sixties sexpot Joey Heatherton) who believes that she is his reincarnated lost love. Donahue hoped the film would broaden his acting opportunities but unfortunately it was a box office bomb. Apparently audiences weren’t interested in seeing Donahue play against type and studio head Jack Warner, who had groomed the young actor since signing him in the late 1950s, was not happy with the role choices and declining ticket sales associated with Donahue’s name. Warner promptly ended Donahue’s contract with Warner Bros. after filming ended and proceeded to bad mouth the actor all over Hollywood. This would lead to a career decline for the blond blue-eyed heartthrob that he never really recovered from.

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COME SPY WITH ME (dir. Marshall Stone, 1967)

This isn’t one of the best spy spoofs made in the late 1960s but I’m a sucker for any James Bond knock-off that features a great soundtrack (including a title song written and performed by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles!) and takes place in an exotic setting (the Caribbean islands). Much as he was in PALM SPRINGS VACATION, Donahue seems rather bored by the proceedings and its apparent that his recreational drinking was taking a toll on his boyish good looks but the movie works for me mainly due to his female costar, the lovely Andrea Dromm (THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING). Unfortunately, this would be Dromm’s last film and Donahue’s heavy drinking, along with his recreational drug use, would eventually become detrimental to his career and health.

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SWEET SAVIOR aka THE LOVE THRILL MURDERS (1974)

In 1969, Donahue left Hollywood in an attempt to shed his old image for good. He moved to New York where he grew his hair long, wore a beard and took up motorcycle riding. However, his continued heavy drinking had damaged his professional reputation as well as his health. Finding work had become increasingly difficult and he apparently squandered untold amounts of money on recreational drugs, which left him homeless and living in Central Park for a brief time. During this period, Donahue appeared in this somewhat sleazy exploitation thriller based on the infamous Manson family murders. The almost unrecognizable star plays a creepy cult leader who convinces his followers to crash a party and commit murder. Despite the low-budget, problematic script and leering manner of the production, Donahue is surprisingly good as the enigmatic motorcycle riding Moon. Donahue reportedly knew the real Manson, who he had played volleyball with back in Hollywood, so he had some real life experiences to draw from and he’s very believable as a man able to convince pretty young things to do his bidding.

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THE GODFATHER: PART II (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

Despite many setbacks, Donahue was able to revive his career and get professional help for his substance abuse problems after Francis Ford Coppola offered him a small role in the highly lauded sequel to THE GODFATHER that paid handsomely. In THE GODFATHER: PART II, Donahue plays one of Connie Corleone’s (Talia Shire ) boyfriends named Merle Johnson, which was actually the actor’s real name before an agent recommended he change it to the more billboard friendly “Troy Donahue.” It was a nice return to form for the low-key actor who had played a desirable love interest in many big-budget Hollywood romances during the 1960s while Coppola was learning his craft.

Did I neglect to mention one of your favorite Troy Donahue films? Feel free to share it in the comment section below!

11 Responses A Troy Donahue Top 10
Posted By Karen Barr : April 9, 2015 7:57 pm

I had Troy Donahue confused with Phil Donahue (the once-upon-a-time talk show host) for the longest time. No disrespect intended to Phil, but I couldn’t figure out why the girls at the slumber party in GREASE were singing about him. I had a much better idea after seeing Rome Adventure. Beautiful shots of Italy in this flick.

Posted By Bill : April 9, 2015 8:23 pm

True or not, he said that “Troy” became a popular name in black communities, after him and his treatment of Susan Kohner in Imitation Of Life. Supposedly also a factor in Raoul Walsh’s retirement after doing A Distant Trumpet with him.

Posted By Qalice : April 9, 2015 8:55 pm

Neither because of nor in spite of Troy Donahue, I love both “A Summer Place” and “Susan Spade.” They’re both remarkable examples of Hollywood working out its confusion about the sexual revolution on camera. I first saw “Summer Place” as a young girl, and the scene when Sandra Dee’s character is forced by her mother to undergo a gynecological exam to prove her virginity completely freaked me out. Seeing it again at a later age (thank you, TCM!), I couldn’t help but notice how carefully the camera recorded the sexual attractiveness of the young people as they broke society’s rules. “Susan Spade” might not be as good a movie, but it’s still a great reminder of times when a woman would try to help her daughter by acting as her grandchild’s mother. It’s difficult now to appreciate that giving birth outside of wedlock was considered so shameful as to be life-ruining, and in 1961 it must have been something to see Susan proclaim in front of God and everybody that the baby really belongs to her own unmarried self!

Posted By Steve Burrus : April 10, 2015 1:40 am

You missed mentioning the movie “Parish” which Donahue was in, with a much better actor Karl Malden!

Posted By george : April 10, 2015 8:50 pm

I haven’t seen MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS since I was a kid, and I didn’t know Donahue was in it. I’ll have to check it out.

Posted By Steve Burrus : April 10, 2015 9:24 pm

what a crying shame that this “god” for all of the teenage girls way back then then went on to lead such a dissipated life, i.e., drug taking, which then led to such a tragic death! Another “what-could-have-been” Hollywood life for him as other actors/actresses’ lives have been also.

Posted By swac44 : April 11, 2015 3:59 pm

I’ve watched Rome Adventure a couple of times on TCM, two of my favourite actresses, beautiful locations and my favourite vehicle (I’ve talked before about being a Vespa nut) make for a winning combination. I’m intrigued by the way Delmer Daves got away from the westerns that showed him to be a master craftsman and into these winning and progressive ’60s romantic dramas.

Thanks for posting that great still of Troy and Suzanne on a vintage scoot I’d dearly love to own someday.

Posted By george : April 12, 2015 1:27 am

A SUMMER PLACE (a movie I like a lot) is the only movie I can recall with the word “supercilious” in the dialogue. And Donahue delivers the line.

Posted By Steve Burrus : April 12, 2015 1:49 am

“george” just where in thart movie, i.e., what scene, was that word uttered by Donahue anyway?

Posted By george : April 12, 2015 3:03 am

It’s an argument between Donahue and his father (Arthur Kennedy), I think near the end of the movie.

Donahue’s line: “You can’t make her cheap! You can’t do it! In spite of your damned supercilious, intelligent mind. And with or without your consent, we’re getting married!”

(Dialogue courtesy of Internet Movie Database)

Posted By Steve Burrus : April 12, 2015 3:24 am

thanx for answering my questikon. Did you ever see Donahue in “Parish”, from 1964 I believe? the author of this column on him never mentioned him in it.

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