Farley Granger, screen idol in Hitchcock thrillers

Farley Granger battled Robert Walker (left) in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train’’ (1951). Farley Granger battled Robert Walker (left) in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train’’ (1951). (Warner Brothers)
By Ula Ilnytzky
Associated Press / April 1, 2011

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NEW YORK — Farley Granger, the 1950s screen idol who starred in the Alfred Hitchcock classics “Rope’’ and “Strangers on a Train,’’ has died. He was 85.

Mr. Granger died at his Manhattan home Sunday of natural causes, said a spokeswoman for the New York City medical examiner’s office.

Mr. Granger was an overnight Hollywood success story. He was a 16-year-old student at North Hollywood High School when he got the notion that he wanted to act and joined a theater group.

Talent scouts for movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn saw the handsome youngster and signed him to a contract. His first movie was “The North Star’’ in 1943, a World War II story that starred Anne Baxter and Dana Andrews.

“It was one of those miracle careers,’’ he said. “I had no talent and no training whatsoever and suddenly I was thrown . . . [in] with Walter Huston, Erich von Stroheim, Anne Baxter, Ann Harding, and Walter Brennan.’’

A decade later, at the height of his Hollywood stardom, he walked away from it to really learn his craft. He spent the rest of his career in a mix of movies, television, and stage work.

Mr. Granger was born in San Jose, Calif., where his father was a car dealer. The business went bust during the Depression and the family moved to Los Angeles.

His career halted for Navy service during World War II — “I was chronically seasick.’’ But when he was mustered out he returned to Hollywood and the Goldwyn publicity machine.

“Goldwyn firmly believed in big hype and hoopla for his stars, so he’d publicize me in projects that were never even written just to get space in the fan magazines,’’ Mr. Granger once recalled.

The magazines ran pictures of Mr. Granger in swim trunks cavorting with such stars as Debbie Reynolds, Ann Blyth, and Jane Powell. But he said the only serious romance he had with a woman was with Shelley Winters.

In the 2007 memoir “Include Me Out,’’ written with his partner Robert Calhoun, Mr. Granger said he was bisexual.

He wrote about a Honolulu night that epitomized his life. A 21-year-old virgin and wartime Navy recruit, he was determined to change his status. He did so with a young and lovely female prostitute. He was about to leave the premises when he ran into a handsome Navy officer. Mr. Granger was soon in bed again.

“I lost my virginity twice in one night,’’ he wrote.

His lifelong romance with Winters was “very much a love affair.’’

“It evolved into a very complex relationship, and we were close until the day she died,’’ he said in a 2007 interview.

A brief affair with Ava Gardner began when both quarreled with their dates at a Hollywood Christmas party. “We met at the bar and left together,’’ he recalled in the interview. “It was a short but pretty intense and enormously fun affair.’’

He also wrote about his same-sex celebrity affairs. For a time, he lived with Arthur Laurents, writer of the stage and movie versions of “West Side Story.’’ In New York, Mr. Granger said he had a fling with Leonard Bernstein.

Mr. Granger made “Rope’’ in 1948 and “Strangers on a Train’’ in 1951. In the latter, based on the classic novel by Patricia Highsmith, he played a tennis star who meets a man on a train. The other man, played by Robert Walker, proposes that each of them murder the other’s troublesome relative. He tells Mr. Granger’s character, “Some people are better off dead — like your wife and my father, for instance.’’

Walker’s character carries out his part of the bargain, trapping Mr. Granger’s character in an ever-tightening circle of suspicion.

Beside the two Hitchcock thrillers, Mr. Granger appeared in “They Live By Night,’’ “Roseanna McCoy,’’ “Side Street,’’ “The Story of Three Loves,’’ “Edge of Doom,’’ and “Hans Christian Andersen.’’

But he wasn’t happy with most of the films he was offered. In 1953, he effectively fired his boss and headed for New York.

“I bought out my contract from Goldwyn, which had two years to go. It took every penny I had. It helped that I didn’t live a big fancy life, that I’d saved my money for a rainy day. Because that was a rainy day.

“I left Hollywood because I didn’t know my craft,’’ he said. “I was a star, but I knew nothing of the techniques of acting. I figured I’d better learn or I’d be in trouble when the star aspects of my career wore off.’’

He studied with Lee Strasberg and Sanford Meisner, among the top acting coaches.

“What saved my life then was live television, the so-called Golden Age of television drama,’’ Mr. Granger said. “I did a lot of it and loved it. Most movie actors were afraid to go into live TV because they weren’t used to it. I had to, just to make a living, but I also wanted to because it was the closest thing to theater.’’

He appeared in daytime soaps including “As the World Turns,’’ “Edge of Night,’’ and “One Life to Live,’’ for which he received a Daytime Emmy nomination.

But he said he preferred the stage: “I feel I’m much more relaxed in front of an audience than a camera. I feel the response. The live audience really turns me on and I like it.’’