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Monday, September 3, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Actor Troy Donahue is dead at age 65

Los Angeles Times

Actor Troy Donahue, handsome heartthrob of teen films in the late 1950s and early '60s, died yesterday at a Santa Monica, Calif., hospital after having a heart attack last week. He was 65.

The tall, blond star of such films as "Rome Adventure" and "A Summer Place" was admitted to St. John's Hospital and Health Center on Thursday after a heart attack in his Santa Monica home after returning from the gym.

Bob Palmer, who knew Mr. Donahue for 40 years, said the actor had not been ill. "He was very active," Palmer said yesterday.

Mr. Donahue's career and life had numerous ups and downs after a burst of success in the late 1950s that put him — with Pat Boone and Elvis Presley — briefly at the top of the list of teen idols.

A decade later, he was battling drugs and alcohol. At one point, he later said, he lived in the bushes of New York's Central Park with his only belongings fitting into a backpack.

More recently, he had appeared in a number of straight-to-video movies, toured in a production of the stage musical "Bye Bye Birdie" and taught acting on a cruise ship for Holland America lines.

"He had his own income, so he wasn't in avid pursuit of his career," Palmer said. "He didn't consider himself a very good actor. He took his career lightly."

Born Merle Johnson Jr. in New York City, Mr. Donahue moved at 19 to Hollywood, where he was discovered by Warner Bros. The release of "A Summer Place," in which he starred with teen star Sandra Dee, made him for a time the studio's top fan-mail draw.

"A Summer Place" was a huge hit, as was the Max Steiner theme song.

He was given his screen moniker by Henry Willson, the same film agent who named Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter.

Between 1959 and 1965, Mr. Donahue appeared in seven movies for Warner Bros., including "Parrish," "Susan Slade" and "Rome Adventure," in which he starred opposite Suzanne Pleshette, who became the first of his four wives.

He also starred in two popular TV series, "Surfside Six," in which he played detective Sandy Winfield, and "Hawaiian Eye," in which he played hotel social director Philip Barton.

By the mid-1960s, his career had collapsed. A drinker since the seventh grade, he became more dependent on booze. In 1969, he moved to New York where, he later said, he let his "hair grow and did quite a bit of dope."

He did a stint in 1970 on the daytime soap "The Secret Storm." In 1974, he turned up in "The Godfather, Part II," cast as Talia Shire's down-and-out playboy boyfriend named, ironically, Merle.

In 1982, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous. "Really, I had no choice," he told The Toronto Star years later.

He is survived by a daughter, Janine; a son, Sean; and three grandchildren. He was engaged to his longtime companion, opera singer Zheng Cao, when he died.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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