Robert Jack Stein was an American actor best known for his career on Broadway. He was better known by his professional name, Bobby Van. A native of New York, Van was virtually raised backstage by his vaudeville parents. Initially, Van performed under the professional name King but later chose to use Van. He started his career as a trumpet player and went on to appear in several Broadway musicals. After signing a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the early 1950s, he made his screen debut in the 1952 musical film ‘Skirts Ahoy!’ In the ensuing years, he acted in over 20 films and TV projects. However, Van is mostly remembered for his extensive stage work. In 1971, he was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical for his performance in the Broadway revival of the musical comedy ‘No, No, Nanette’.
Childhood & Early Life
Born on December 6, 1928, in The Bronx, New York, USA, Bobby Van was the son of Mina Anapolsky and Harry Stein. His family was Jewish, and his parents were vaudeville performers. As a result, he spent much of his childhood backstage, watching many unforgettable Depression-era acts.
Van began his professional career under the stage name King, which was inspired by his father, whose stage name was also King (a member of the trio “Gordon, Reed and King”). He reportedly decided to use Van after he saw a poster of Van Johnson on his sister’s bedroom wall.
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At the beginning of his professional career, Bobby Van was a trumpet player. After performing at a venue in the Catskills with his band, he was requested to replace another act as a song and dance man. His act was very popular and garnered positive reviews. He realised how he loved performing live as a solo act. This eventually led to Broadway.
One of his earliest Broadway performances was in the 1950 production of the musical revue ‘Alive and Kicking’. He was cast as Junior (15 years later) in the 1954 Broadway revival of the musical ‘On Your Toes’ at the 46th Street Theatre. Premiering on October 11, 1954, the play was performed 64 times.
In 1959, he appeared in a production of composer Richard Rodgers and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II’s musical ‘Oklahoma’. Some of the other plays he had performed in are ‘Doctor Jazz’ (1975) and ‘Damn Yankees’ (1979).
In the early 1950s, Van entered into a contract with MGM and started appearing in their films. He debuted on the big screen in an uncredited role as himself in Sidney Lanfield’s ‘Skirts Ahoy!’ (1952).
In 1953, he played the titular character in the musical film ‘The Affairs of Dobie Gillis’. He also appeared in ‘Because You're Mine’, ‘Kiss Me, Kate’, and ‘Small Town Girl’. In the last film, his performance of ‘Jumping Song’ brought him widespread recognition. It has also been recreated multiple times.
His first television appearance came in 1955 in an episode of the CBS series ‘The Ford Television Theatre’. In the 1960s, he worked alongside Mickey Rooney in several films and TV shows.
He and his wife Elaine Joyce were featured in 1970s game shows like ‘Tattletales’ and ‘Match Game’. He also served as the host on ‘Showoffs’, ‘The Fun Factory’, and ‘Make Me Laugh’.
In later years, Van guest-starred in TV shows like ‘The Invisible Man’ (1975), ‘Wonder Woman’ (1976), ‘CHiPs’ (1978), ‘The Love Boat’ (1979), ‘Battlestar Galactica’ (1979), and ‘Beyond Westworld’ (1980).
He made his last screen appearance in the 1980 telefilm ‘The Hustler of Muscle Beach’. He also served as a choreographer on two films: ‘The Ladies Man’ (1961) and ‘It’s Only Money’ (1962).
In 1971, Bobby Van starred as Billy Early, a lawyer, in the Broadway revival of the musical comedy ‘No, No, Nanette’. The production drew massive positive response and brought him a Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical.
Family & Personal Life
Bobby Van had been married twice in his life. His first wife was actress Diane Garrett, with whom he exchanged wedding vows on September 11, 1952. However, they chose to keep their union a secret until 1953.
The couple tried to conceive for several years but following a miscarriage in 1956, they decided to adopt a boy named Peter in 1959. Van and Garrett’s divorce was finalised on September 27, 1966.
Van tied the knot with actress Elaine Joyce on May 1, 1968. One week later, however, Van approached the court seeking an annulment. He stated that the marriage was a sham and had not been consummated. He also said that the then-24-year-old Joyce had told him that she wanted children but that was only to make him agree to the marriage.
Joyce later revealed on ‘Tattletales’ that she had “tried to run away” before their marriage. A preliminary divorce was also filed in 1968, but they did not ultimately go through it. Van and Joyce were married until his death in 1980. They had a daughter together, Taylor, who was born in 1976.
In 1979, Van was informed by his doctors that he had a malignant brain tumour. He passed away on July 31, 1980, in Los Angeles, and was buried at Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery in Los Angeles.