John Smith, who changed his name from Robert Earl Van Orden as a joke, then gained starring roles in the TV Westerns “Laramie” and “Cimarron City,” died at his L.A. home Jan. 25 of what was probably a combination of cirrhosis and heart problems. He was 63.
Talent agent Henry Willson – who “discovered” and named Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter – accompanied the actor to court to change his name.
“You mean you’ve got a good name like Robert Earl Van Orden, and you want to take a common name like John Smith?” the judge asked.
“Yes, just plain John Smith,” the actor said. “I’m the only one in the business.”
Smith’s acting career peaked in the late 1950s. He played a deputy sheriff in “Cimarron City” (1958-59), then shared top billing in “Laramie,” playing a rancher in the Wyoming Territory. The show ran from 1959 to 1963.
Smith first performed under his given name as part of the Bob Mitchell Boys’ Choir in the Bing Crosby films “Going My Way” in 1944, and “The Bells of St. Mary’s” in 1946.
He played James Stewart’s younger brother in “Carbine Williams,” then dropped out of acting until Willson made him a star.
Other pix included “The High and the Mighty,” “We’re No Angels,” “Friendly Persuasion,” “The Kettles on Old MacDonald’s Farm,” “The Crooked Circle” and “Island of Lost Women.”
He previously was married to actress Luana Patten Smith.