John Gavin, a Hollywood actor who had major roles in the Roman epic “Spartacus” and Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller “Psycho” before being named U.S. ambassador to Mexico, where he had a tumultuous five-year tenure in the 1980s, died Friday at his home in Beverly Hills, California. He was 86.
A spokesman, Budd Burton Moss, announced the death but did not specify a cause.
After serving as a Navy officer in the 1950s, Gavin was hoping to work as a technical adviser on a movie about an aircraft carrier. The film’s producer, an old family friend, suggested that the strapping, 6-foot-4 Gavin have a screen test.
He found modest success as a contract actor at Universal studios, where he was sometimes hailed as “the next Rock Hudson.” Gavin had the lead role in “A Time to Love and a Time to Die” (1958), playing a German soldier returning to his ravaged homeland and falling in love during World War II. He received a Golden Globe Award as most promising new actor.
The film’s director, Douglas Sirk, next cast Gavin as Lana Turner’s suitor in the 1959 melodrama “Imitation of Life,” which explores issues of racial identity. In 1960, he played Julius Caesar in Stanley Kubrick’s Oscar-winning “Spartacus,” alongside Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis and Laurence Olivier.
The same year, Gavin appeared in Hitchcock’s “Psycho” as Sam Loomis, the lover of Janet Leigh’s character, Marion Crane. In a climactic scene in the film, he ends up at the Bates Motel with Marion’s sister, played by Vera Miles, and has a chilling encounter with Norman Bates, the murderous character portrayed by Anthony Perkins.
In other film roles, Gavin appeared with such acclaimed actresses as Sophia Loren, Susan Hayward and Doris Day, yet never broke through to mass stardom. His acting was often considered wooden, and Hitchcock called him “the stiff.”
Gavin was scheduled to play James Bond in “Diamonds Are Forever” (1971) before Sean Connery was lured back with a hefty salary to play the role he had given up four years earlier. In 1973, Gavin was again set to portray Bond before the producers decided to go with British actor Roger Moore in “Live and Let Die.”
In 1980, he campaigned for his old friend from Hollywood, Ronald Reagan, the Republican nominee for president. After Reagan won the election, he nominated Gavin as ambassador to Mexico.
The Senate confirmed Mr. Gavin for the post in 1981. From the beginning, as the Los Angeles Times noted five years later, “he displayed an instinctive ability to antagonize just about everyone whom diplomats usually try to cultivate.”
He was absent from Mexico a third of the time, often spending four-day weekends in Los Angeles. He insulted journalists from both Mexico and the United States, telling some that he knew their bosses and could get them fired.
His meetings with Mexican clergy members and opposition political groups were interpreted as efforts to interfere in the country’s internal politics. There were calls for him to be declared persona non grata and expelled from the country.
When Gavin resigned his ambassadorship in 1986, a column in Mexico City’s El Universal newspaper described him as “arrogant, imprudent and meddlesome” and as “one of the most ghastly ambassadors” to Mexico in years.
Nonetheless, Gavin had strong supporters in the United States, particularly among conservatives who praised his straight talk and unyielding nature.