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He Was an Idol in the 50s, but Then He Became Homeless

One of the most endearing heartthrobs of classic Hollywood was Troy Donahue. He became a star in the 1950s and was lauded for his good looks and his incredible talent. Yet, his career was short-lived as his life wasn’t as glamorous as it was depicted on screen.

Troy Donahue battled many demons and among these were addictions to alcohol and drugs. This made it harder for him to focus on his work and soon enough, the offers stopped rolling in.

His life was full of glory and tragedy. Yet, his contributions to American cinema are immeasurable and his legacy is still appreciated by aspiring actors today. His story is one we need to reflect upon. It’s not always a pretty story, but it’s one that we need to know about…

Join FactsVerse to learn about how he was an idol in the 50s, but then he became homeless…


In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Troy Donahue was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Troy Donahue appeared in a string of hit movies and TV shows – beginning in the 1950s. He started off with a few uncredited and rather forgettable roles. But it wasn’t long until his career took off.

Of course, Troy Donahue had acting in his genes. He is born Merle Johnson Jr. on January 27, 1936, in New York City. His mother retires as a stage actress. His father is the manager of the motion-picture department of an automobile company. With such a background, was there anything else he was destined for?

In an interview later in his life, he states that he wants to be an actor and knew nothing else. As a child he would read plays and was fascinated by Broadway especially. His parents, however, didn’t want him to pursue acting but they couldn’t convince him otherwise. The acting bug bit him as a boy, and there was no turning back.


Eventually, his good looks and charming personality won him more roles and made him one of the most popular leading men of his generation. From an outsider’s perspective, he had it all – he was pursuing his dream career, he was loved by his fans, he was handsome, and he was respected. What more could one want?

For whatever reason, Merle, now known as Troy Donahue began taking drugs and abusing alcohol when his career was going well. It was due to these addictions that his career began to decline. The offers became less and less and as he got older, he was no longer the young heartthrob. He was still getting the odd role here and there but they didn’t match up to his previous success. Appearing in a B-grade horror film “Click: The Calendar Girl Killer” simply wasn’t on the same level as him playing the lead role in the 1961 film “Parrish” when he was 25.


In some ways, he was a James Dean type figure. He was lauded for his handsome looks and for his capacity as a leading man early in his career. He continued to inspire aspiring actors. But despite his legacy, his career and life weren’t going to well as he got older and he even became homeless. In 1968, he had to declare bankruptcy and he began to get turned away from casting agents. Around this time, he also spoke out against the Vietnam War which didn’t win him any favors in the industry.

He eventually returned to New York to get back on his feet. He still acted, but his acting work wasn’t as great. Also, he wrote several screenplays under a pseudonym. He had a brief comeback in The Godfather Part II when he was given a small role by director Francis Ford Coppola. His character was named Merle Johnson – which was his birth name. Over the next 2 decades he continued to work sporadically, mostly to survive – rather than doing great work.

However, in the year 2000, Troy Donahue was able to make an unexpected comeback. He was tracked down by a fan who wanted to write a book about him. The book “Inventing Troy Donahue – The Making of a Movie Star” helped bring back an interest in Troy Donahue’s life and career.  It also so happened that the year 2000 was the last year he made a film.

Sadly, he died on September 2nd, 2001, from a heart attack. He was 65 years old.



Troy Donahue’s romantic life was rather exciting – after all, what could be expected of a heartthrob? However, he was more successful with on-screen relationships than with off-screen ones. He was married 4 times and all his marriages ended in divorce. His last marriage was with actress Suzanne Pleshette which only lasted 8 months and 4 days.

His marriages hadn’t produced any children, but when he was a bit older, Troy Donahue realized that he had been a father without knowing it. He was reunited with a woman whom he had a relationship with and she told him he had a son. The boy was 13 years old and Troy took a look at him and realized that it was his son.

Troy Donahue got to meet his son and the two of them became close immediately –  without any issues. One wonders how Troy Donahue’s life would have been if he met his son earlier and settled down with the boy’s mother earlier. His womanizing life is one of the reasons why he became financially irresponsible and this led to his turning to drugs and alcohol. While being a heartthrob might seem glamorous, the decadence that comes with it can lead to one’s downfall – as was the case with Troy Donahue.

But while his life had its tragedies, one must also remember it’s a story of how he continued to persevere no matter how tough the going got!


In the 1980s, after about two decades of destroying himself with alcohol and drugs, Troy Donahue had hit rock bottom. He was living in a miserable apartment – far from the glamour of Beverly Hills, which is where one would expect him to live. Struggling to make ends meet, and he knew he had to find a way to kick his addiction habit. He had to make a change, and he decided that a rehab center was the only way to get back on his feet.

Troy Donahue’s journey to sobriety was a long and challenging one, but it was one of the best decisions he made. He still loved acting and this was the only life he wanted to live. He was able to seek professional help to help him fight his addiction. Also, he fell in love with acting again and began to seek better roles. While his later career isn’t on the same level as during his youth, he still had a few great works that are worth a mention.


He appeared in great films such as Tin Man, Grandview USA, Fight to Win, Cyclone, Hollywood Cop, Deadly Prey, Bad Blood, Sexpot, Sounds of Silence, Deadly Spygames, Cry-Baby, Double Trouble, and the TV movie, Legion. His final credit was the film The Boys Behind the Desk.

During this second half of his life, Troy Donahue became an advocate for recovery and worked relentlessly to raise awareness about how substance abuse can destroy one’s life. His life was marked by tragedy but it is also the story of recovery and redemption. Through it all, he was sometimes unappreciated, but he was never forgotten. He remains one of the most respected actors of his generation and one of the greatest leading men of the Golden Age of Hollywood.



The book “Inventing Troy Donahue – The Making of a Movie Star” was released just in time. A year later, we lost Troy Donahue but the book was enough to reignite an interest in his life and career. Since then, he’s been discussed more by fans, film critics, and cinephiles alike – who all affirm that he deserves an important place in Hollywood history.

Troy Donahue was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars during the 1950s and 60s and had his career continued on an upward trajectory, one might have expected he’d be revered with the likes of Cary Grant or James Stewart. His failed marriages and addiction brought him to financial ruin as well as made him lose out on several great roles. Yet, somehow, his legacy from the 50s and 60s was enough to gain him the respect among industry colleagues. This is what led him to snag the small role as Merle Johnson in The Godfather Part II and earn $10,000 – which must have helped him get back on his feet a bit.


Despite the challenges in his life and his struggles, he largely maintained a great reputation amongst most of his colleagues. He was respected and the industry welcomed him back when he kicked his drug and alcohol habit. He left us too soon and one wonders what would have happened had he lived longer and had a full career comeback.

If you’ve seen Troy Donahue’s films, you’ll know why he was such a great star. If you haven’t, now’s the best time to get introduced to his great body of work.

He was an idol in the 50s, but then he became homeless.

And now, we remember him for his recovery and comeback and the incredible legacy that he left behind…

Are you a fan of Troy Donahue? Did you know any of these tragic details about his life?

In fact, here’s what we’d like to hear from you:

Do you think that the tragedies of a movie star’s life helps to further their legacy?

Or is it only their talents that cause them to be remembered generations after they pass away?

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