Jan Merlin brought nasty, grinning, near psychotic cads to perfection in films and TV throughout the ‘50s.
Jan more or less bookended these contemptible roles by playing good guys—first as Cadet Roger Manning in “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet” starting in 1950 and then in ‘58-‘59 as Lt. Colin Kirby on ABC’s “Rough Riders”, co-starring Kent Taylor and Peter Whitney.
Jan was born April 3, 1925, on the lower east side of New York City where his parents were caretakers of a Russian Orthodox Church on East 4th Street. Jan’s father was Peter Wasylewski, a Russian who came to America in 1912. His mother was Theresa Gusiakowna, an Austrian Polish lady who arrived here in 1913. They met and were married in 1914. At age 10, when his father died, Jan entered Grace Church School for boys, a choir school where he sang in the choir until his voice changed at 15, which is how he paid to attend a private school.
Enlisting in the Navy in 1942 after WWII broke out, Jan served on destroyers as a torpedo man, spending most of his time in the South Pacific. They fought battles from Wake Island, New Guinea, Tarawa, up through the Gilbert and Marshal Islands and Okinawa.
Leaving the Navy after the war in 1946 without a trade to follow, a chance meeting with the owner of a summer theatre in Fishkill, New York, found Jan putting his artistic talents to work designing and building sets. Believing he could do what he was seeing the actors do, Jan enrolled a year later in the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre and studied under the renowned Sanford Miesner. Frank Butler, the actor who told him of the famous school, also suggested he change his Slavic name to Jan Merlin. After being taught how to speak, dance, and the rudiments of acting, Jan returned to summer stock as an actor in Fishkill, doing as many plays as he could. He then returned for a second semester at the Neighborhood Playhouse and another season of summer stock.
Down to his last nickel when the season was over, and wondering how he’d make a living, Jan answered a cattle call casting for Josh Logan’s “South Pacific”. Interviewed by Logan, he was told one of the boys was leaving the big hit “Mr. Roberts” and which play would he rather be in? Stunned, Jan chose “Mr. Roberts” because, as he told Logan, “I can’t sing.” He stayed with the Broadway play for two years.
About the end of the second year, they were casting for TV’s “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet”. Jan’s cocky, self-assured attitude won him the role of sassy Roger Manning.
Feeling typed with the same character, Jan left after three and a half years, spending time in Africa, a county he’s always studied and loved ever since he read TARZAN OF THE APES as a child. When he returned to the states, he also returned to “Corbett” for six months, then did several off-Broadway shows including “Rope”. During the run of “Rope”, he was contacted by Universal and cast in “Six Bridges to Cross” (‘55). Jan worked non-stop in film and TV for 41 years, doing two plays in Hollywood as well, with his last role on a TV movie shown in 1992.
Jan believes, “The ‘heavy’ is the engine which actually runs the film…he’s the reason for stirring up all the action and leads the rest of the cast on a merry chase until the end, when he generally gets his just desserts. It’s always the most interesting role in the film and it’s a challenge to find different ways to die. The ‘good guy’ gets top billing and the girl, but he’s only reacting to whatever the ‘bad guy’ has done. The audience already knows how the hero will end up, but never knows what or how the bad guy is going to do something next at any point in the film.”
“I did happen to get cast as a dashing romantic hero for my TV series, ‘The Rough Riders’, and had a hard time adjusting at first. My directors were constantly telling me to lighten up, until I began to enjoy surviving each time, often getting to smooch the girl before riding off with my horse.”
“I was a likeable fellow in the movie ‘Screaming Eagles’ but would have preferred not to have changed roles with Tom Tryon—but he wanted to be a ‘heavy’ for a change, and I wanted to try being a ‘hero’…and anyway, the ‘heavy’ had to lug the blinded hero around for most of the movie…and Tom had more muscle and height than I did—so it worked out for the best.”
“One of the disadvantages of being a ‘good guy’ is having to look heroic and clean cut, while the ‘heavy’ can be as grungy as he pleases…or sometimes wears far more fancy duds than his pursuer…maybe even be better looking! I guess I loved playing westerns most for being able to just play the role and not fuss with a comb and makeup checks all the time.”
One of his most interesting, yet torturesome, film roles was being made-up for and wearing all the mask disguises for cast members of “The List of Adrian Messenger” in ‘63, for which he received no screen credit. Now, Jan has written a fictionalized account about his painstaking experiences making the film, SHOOTING MONTEZUMA published in 2001.
Jan first became a novelist in ‘82 with BROCADE, a war novel recently republished by Xlibris as AINOKO.
Off of that, an old friend who was now head writer on the “Another World” soap opera persuaded Jan to join his group of writers. Jan worked for that series for about five years, earning an Emmy in ‘75 and an Emmy nomination in ‘79.
Jan was first married to actress Patricia Ann Datz in 1951. His son Peter, now co-founder and co-owner of Aerospace Archeology Field Research Team, commonly known as an “X-Hunter”, was born in 1964. Jan’s wife Pat died of cancer in 1986.
Nowadays, from his home with his second wife Barbara Doyle (whom he married in 1988) in Burbank, California, Jan writes to please himself, including his African novel, GUNBEARER—PART ONE and GUNBEARER—PART TWO, both published in ‘99 and GYPSIES DON’T LIE published in 2000. He also recently completed CRACK POTS and THE PAID COMPANION OF JOHN WILKES BOOTH with co-author William Russo in ‘03. “As I gradually began to write more and more, I realized I loved doing something without any interference whatever…all my novels are completely my own work, and no one can make changes to the stories or the characters or the plots. There’s much reward in using past life situations, past acquaintances and past travels as the basis for books. Sometimes a character can be identified; most times, not…since many are created from combinations of people I’ve known…and some are merely invented.”
“Writing novels became another form of reaching an audience for me, touching them far more intensely than from a stage. I sometimes drew tears or laughter from a theatre audience…now I do it with my pages…pages which contain far more depth than any TV or film performance can express due to the limited length of a script…half hour…one hour or two or more…mini series…all suffer the lack of exposition a novel grants the reader. I choose whatever is to be kept in the story; nothing gets cut unless I do it myself. Which is why I don’t write scripts anymore. Far too restricting! And too many fingers in the pie after submission.”