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All that piano training from John’s mom turned out to be as valuable a resource as his comedic sense. A while after enjoying the presidency of the Dramatic Association at Yale and graduating there with a bachelor’s then a Master of Arts degree, he entered the acting company of the renowned Katherine Cornell in 1932. Cornell was to portray a concert pianist in the play Alien Corn and John was, by now, so adroit at the instrument that he became her “ghost” pianist offstage while she mimed the action at the piano before the audience. He impressed her.
When Cornell toured 3 plays in repertory the next year, John was invited to play roles in all three. The tour would be a long, arduous trek by train and, as it turned out, John’s roommate on the theatrical odyssey was another newcomer named Orson Welles. The pair shared sleeplessly noisy upper and lower berths, enduring a sandstorm in Texas and a rainstorm so fierce on the way to Seattle on Christmas Eve that the train had to inch its way over a partially washed-out bridge. Inside, the unnerved cast and crew held quivering drinks in hand and waited to toast safe passage and the end which had come to prohibition a few days earlier.
He joined the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 with Bob Hope, Josephine Baker (a personal hero of mine) and funny lady Fanny Brice. Because of his earlier association with Orson Welles, Hoyt became a member of Welles’ then startling and now legendary Mercury Theatre in 1937. It was during this time that he married his first wife, Marian Burns, whom the New York Post described as a “former athletics teacher,” and became the father of his only biological child, a son named David.
It was not until the age of 40 that he became “Hoyt,” moving the family to Hollywood. Paramount Studios performed the name change and quickly fastened onto Hoyt’s panache with dialects and languages (he spoke five).
During this time when audiences were enjoying being irritated by all those Nazis, indignant fathers and forbidding megalomaniacs that Hoyt portrayed, in his real life, he was tending to his sick wife Marian who, it was known, would probably never recover from medical problems aggravated by alcoholism. (I happened to catch a glimpse of this more compassionate persona in a John Hoyt performance the other night in “The Case of the Prodigal Parent” episode of Perry Mason on a DVD. You've got to love him, too, as a psychiatrist gently talking Barbara Stanwyck out of jumping from a window ledge in The Lady Gambles 1949.)
As expected, Marian did not survive and John soon after married Dorothy Haverman who had been a close family friend with one son. They were married for his last 25 years. Dorothy talked of how important his one-man touring production of The Gospel According to St. Mark was to him and how the tour de force, “opened a door,” in his spiritual life.
I never saw Gimme a Break but many may remember Hoyt as a regular on that sitcom as Grandpa Kanisky. (I have to say that Dorothy Hoyt's description in the ...Corning... book of John's erotic arrangements during the Gimme a Break period leaves me a little shaken. She documents that he did like his lovers questionably young and, apparently, in clusters.) Trekkies surely know that Hoyt was the wise chief medical officer in the pilot episode of Star Trek.
In 1956, John played The Shaman in the unintentionally silly movie The Conqueror with stars John Wayne, Susan Hayward and actress Agnes Morehead. There has always been a strong suspicion that the deaths of Wayne, Hayward, Morehead and Dick Powell, who directed, as well as the eventual deaths of an alarming number of other cast and crew were linked to that filming. They died of cancer; the location shooting was done in Utah near an atomic test site in neighboring Nevada. John Hoyt died of cancer in 1991.
But he lived his life with stamina. At the age of 76, John moved with his wife to Santa Cruz to be near their family, obliging him to commute nearly 350 miles to Hollywood to carry on his television work.
Marc Scott Zicree, who did not often comment on individual actors’ crafts in his guide The Twilight Zone Companion must have a special appreciation of Mr. Hoyt. “Hoyt is one of that small band of character actors,” he wrote, “who infuse individuality into every role they play, never letting a character become invisible or anonymous.” True. And a good thing too - especially considering that Hoyt kept popping up on the series Hogan’s Heroes as various stereotyped Germans: I counted 3 assorted generals, 2 different field marshals and a colonel.
The distinctly individual actor was survived by 10 grandchildren after his prolific artistic life. ~FW
Take Notice: There is a younger actor with the name “John Hoyt” who has had roles in several major films including 2013's Once Upon a Time in Brooklyn (formerly titled The Goat). Sort of feels like a “cut and paste” overwrite of the original.
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