By Anthony McCartney
LOS ANGELES — John Gavin, the tall, strikingly handsome actor who appeared in “Spartacus,” ”Psycho” and other hit films of the 1960s before forsaking acting to become President Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Mexico, died Friday at age 86.
Gavin, who was also a former president of the Screen Actors Guild, died Friday, said Brad Burton Moss, manager of Gavin’s wife, actress Constance Towers. Moss did not provide the cause of death.
After appearances in a handful of 1950s B-movies, Gavin’s breakthrough came in 1958 when he landed the lead role of a World War II German soldier in “A Time to Love and a Time to Die.”
The film was based on an Erich Maria Remarque novel, and Universal Studios, having won an Academy Award in 1930 with its adaptation of Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” was hoping lightning would strike again.
With a postwar audience hungering for escapism, however, it didn’t happen and neither the film nor its leading man fared well with critics.
Universal didn’t lose faith, however, starring him opposite Lana Turner in a remake of the soap opera “Imitation of Life” the following year. Then came the role of Janet Leigh’s divorced lover, Sam Loomis, in the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock classic “Psycho.”
Gavin went on to make a flurry of films over the next two years but his career began to wane by the end of the 1960s.
He made a few other films and appeared on such TV shows as “Fantasy Island,” ”The Love Boat” and “Hart to Hart,” but he was already on the road to another profession, diplomacy.
Gavin arrived in Mexico in 1981 well equipped for the job. His father had invested in the country’s mines, and ancestors of his Mexican-born mother were among California’s first Spanish settlers. Gavin had often visited Mexico in his youth and was fluent in Spanish and Portuguese.
While in the Navy in the early 1950s, he served in Panama as Pan-American affairs officer to the Navy commandant, and during a lull in his acting career he was appointed special adviser to the secretary-general of the Organization of American States. His assignment was to promote President John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress to help Latin American countries improve their economies.
He had also become friends with Reagan when both were actors at Universal, and their friendship continued when Gavin became president of the Screen Actors Guild in 1961, a position Reagan previously held.
When Reagan appointed Gavin ambassador, he cited the political turbulence in Latin America and quipped, “If you’re not attacked at least once a month, I’ll feel you’re not doing your job.”
Indeed, the Mexicans were initially dubious about having a former movie star as their U.S. ambassador, but he soon won the country over. The 6-foot-4-inch leading man and his statuesque blonde wife, Constance Towers, an actress and singer in Broadway musicals and Hollywood films, made a stunning couple and were admired by Mexicans. He remained in the job until 1986.
A conservative Republican, he was approached in 1991 by officials in President George H.W. Bush’s administration about running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Democrat Alan Cranston.
He declined, citing business and family matters.