But for his preference for theater work and the intervention of the Second World War, John Justin might have been a movie star from his first featured role in 1940. Born John Justinian de Ledesma in Knightsbridge, London, in 1917, he was the son of a rancher from Argentina, and he was raised mostly on that ranch. He returned to England for his education, and while still a boy developed an interest in flying. By the time he was 12, he was a fully qualified pilot, though he wasn't permitted to fly solo until somewhat later, because of his age. In his mid-teens, Justin found himself drawn to acting as a career, and initially his father's money did help open doors for him. But after the trade depression of the early '30s -- which cost his father most of his fortune -- the boy was forced to survive on his own devices. Justin picked up the experience that he needed working with the Liverpool Repertory Theatre, which led him to his debut role on the London stage. But times were hard in the theater from the mid-'30s onward, and he lived under near-starvation circumstances, before deciding to return to Argentina, and to do that he had to work his passage across the Atlantic. He lived on his father's ranch and was content and comfortable, but then the desire to return to the stage hit him, and he worked his passage back across to England.
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Justin had a role in a play on London's West End in the late summer of 1938, when his agent sent him for an audition at London Films, where he was put into an Arabian Nights-type costume and told to play a scene with a young Indian actor -- Sabu -- on a small boat. They got along famously for the scene, and Justin returned to his stage work. A few days later, he was suddenly notified that he'd won the role of the deposed king in London Films' new production of The Thief of Bagdad, working alongside Sabu, June Duprez, and Conrad Veidt. The film was supposed to go into production in mid-1939, and probably would have wrapped in September, but problems with the choice of director, and creative decisions by producer Korda led to the scrapping of much of the work done that summer. Before Justin knew it, the country was at war -- Germany having invaded Poland at the start of September 1939 -- and he was obligated to go into uniform. But Korda was able to keep him on the production, which later moved to Hollywood and didn't finish shooting until August 1940.
The movie was a huge hit, but Justin was never able to avail himself of the fame he'd achieved. Upon finishing his work on the film, he went right into uniform. Justin made use of his flying skills during the war, but not in combat; he served as a Spitfire test pilot and flight instructor, and was also released for a time to work in Leslie Howard's production of The Gentle Sex, a tribute to the women's army. Justin remained under contract to Korda and appeared in films for the producer late in the war and right into the 1950s, but upon returning to civilian life, he chose to concentrate on theatrical work, which was his preference for the rest of his life. He did do some very good film work on occasion, in David Lean's The Sound Barrier (1952), in which he portrayed Philip Peel, a test pilot (probably his best film role); and he was memorable in the 20th Century Fox film Island in the Sun (1957) as Dorothy Dandridge's lover. He also enjoyed his work opposite Moira Shearer in The Man Who Loved Redheads (1955), and seemed to be one of the very few people involved with that picture to have had a good time working on it.
However, theater was Justin's main interest, and he became a member of the Old Vic company in 1959. He made his Broadway debut the following year, in Little Moon of Alban. Still, The Thief of Bagdad -- which was revived regularly in theaters well into the 1970s, and still gets shown in repertory in the 21st century -- elicited fan mail for decades, even into the 1990s. His continued recognition for that early role in a notably protracted production always seemed to please and amuse the actor, even 60 years on from his involvement in the picture. John Justin passed away in November of 2002. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi