Star of Psycho and Spartacus who almost became James Bond

Born: April 8, 1931;

Died: February 9, 2018

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JOHN Gavin, who has died after a long illness, aged 86, played Janet Leigh’s lover in Psycho (1960) and Julius Caesar in Spartacus (1960) and he very, very nearly played James Bond in Diamonds are Forever (1971).

Gavin was signed up and his casting was officially announced just three months before shooting began. However discussions continued in secret with Sean Connery, who had second thoughts about a possible comeback when he read the quality of the cheque. He received more than $1 million, which went to his Scottish International Education Trust charity.

It was strictly a one-picture deal with Connery. Gavin was paid for not making Diamonds are Forever and was still in the frame for the next Bond film Live and Let Die (1973). But then Roger Moore, who had been in the producers’ thinking previously, became available and went on to play 007 for the next 12 years.

By that time Gavin’s career had taken a very different course when his old friend Ronald Reagan controversially appointed him as US ambassador to Mexico.

Gavin’s mother came from a distinguished Mexican ranching family, his father was Chilean, he was born Juan Vincent Apablasa in Los Angeles and he was fluent in Spanish.

He studied law, economics and Latin-American Affairs at Stanford and served as an intelligence officer in the US Navy in the 1950s. A family friend was making a film involving a ship on which Gavin had served and Gavin offered to be technical advisor. The director suggested Gavin should take a screen test. Gavin, who had no acting experience and intended to become a lawyer, reluctantly agreed.

Gavin later said that Universal offered him so much money that he could not say no. He made his debut in the 1956 western Raw Edge and was promoted to lead in A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958), a wartime tearjerker directed by Hollywood’s master of melodrama Douglas Sirk.

Gavin was tall and classically handsome and elicited numerous comparisons with Rock Hudson. But several reviewers thought his acting dull and wooden. He worked again with Sirk on the romantic drama Imitation of Life (1959), where he was overshadowed by a strong female casting, including Lana Turner.

Although he had significant roles in Spartacus and Psycho, the films are remembered for the bravura performances of Kirk Douglas in the former – along with everyone who got to stand up and declare that they were Spartacus, and by the homicidal Anthony Perkins in the latter.

In the 1960s Gavin worked increasingly in television and his career seemed to be going nowhere when he was signed for Bond. Having got stuck on the 007 launchpad, he became increasingly involved in politics and, like Reagan, served as president of the Screen Actors Guild.

There was consternation in the both the US and Mexico when he was appointed ambassador in 1981. At a Senate confirmation hearing, he was asked how anyone could justify the job going to an actor. Gavin replied that he could “prove that I’m no actor” if the senators watched any of his films.

He was accused of meddling in internal Mexican affairs and angered many locals when thousands died in an earthquake and he said: “We have been extremely fortunate... The types of hotels that fell down were not the types normally frequented by citizens of the United States.”

But he was praised on both sides for improving business links. He resigned in 1986, served on the boards of various companies and did charity work. He is survived by his second wife actress Constance Towers and by two daughters from his first marriage.

BRIAN PENDREIGH