CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Loathsome. Vicious. Vile. Creepy. Sniveling, psychotic, homicidal weasel. Not words you expect to read in an obituary.
On stage, on television and movie screens, Charleston High graduate John Davis Chandler was all those awful things and more. He played crazed killers, sadistic hoodlums, dope addicts and punks, the dregs of depravity.
He died in February, barely two weeks past his 73rd birthday.
From his obituary in California's Tolucan Times, published two months after his death: "He specialized in portraying mean, neurotic and dangerous villains ... made an impressive film debut in his sole starring part as the titular sniveling, psychotic, homicidal weasel gangster in 'Mad Dog Coll' ... made an effectively loathsome appearance as a vile bushwhacker in the spooky horror western 'The Shadow of Chikara' ... was excellent as vicious punk Arthur Reardon in 'The Young Savages.'"
On Feb. 16, a neighbor concerned about Chandler called police. They found him on the kitchen floor, dead, presumably from a heart attack or stroke after a long struggle with lung cancer.
His wife, Marti, died of cancer about 15 years ago. Later, a girlfriend also died of cancer. Chandler lived alone after that, in the same small apartment he rented in Toluca Lake when he first went to California.
The Tolucan Times obituary, posted online two days later, mentioned guest spots on such top TV shows as "ER," "Murder, She Wrote," "Hill Street Blues," "Gunsmoke," "Colombo," "Route 66" and "Fantasy Island." Chandler acted in more than 60 television productions and nearly 40 movies.
"Chandler paints a terrifying picture of human degradation," a reviewer said about his performance in "Once a Thief." He portrayed James Sargatanas, "the epitome of evil."
Director Ralph Nelson said: "For an actor ... to be able to interpret the evil of human nature as he does in this film is an extraordinary feat."
Friends in Charleston don't remember John Davis Chandler that way.
At Charleston High School, they called him J.D. Or John Davis. Never just John. He was small and wiry, scholarly and athletic, a blue-eye blonde with an easy smile and an upbeat personality, the All-American boy.
"He was always mean in the movies, but I never could connect with that image," said Charleston High classmate Phyllis Murdock Cowley. "He was jolly, always happy. And you were happy to be around him."
"In his first movie, 'The Young Savages,' he played a killer," said longtime friend Hal Ashworth, a retired cardiac surgeon in Bluffton, S.C. "He had this sneer on his face the whole time, and it kind of labeled him for the rest of his career."
His mother didn't mind his bad-boy persona. "I say it just shows what a good actor he is, because he never did a mean thing in his life," she said in a 1978 Charleston Gazette story.
Chandler graduated from Charleston High in 1952. He was vice president of the student council, ranked at the top of his class academically, played piano with the symphony and had the lead in most of the school plays, Ashworth recalled. "He was just an outstanding person all around."
"He was an outstanding actor and a class tennis player," said classmate Luther Godbey, now of Ocean Isle Beach, N.C. "He had a brilliant mind."
"He was a bit of a character, just a little bit different, a little on the wild side," said classmate Bob Fletcher.
Described in an Internet article as "the bohemian son of a prominent Charleston, W.Va., physician," Chandler was born in Hinton on Jan. 28, 1937, the second son of Dr. Arthur C. Chandler, a family physician. His brother, Art Jr., preceded him by two years.
In 1938, his father moved the family to New York while he received training in ophthalmology.
Chandler's brother explained his father's switch from family practice to ophthalmology: "One night, he delivered a baby and his pay was a half sack of potatoes and half of a ham. He decided try something else."
In 1940, the family moved to Charleston's East End. In 1949, they moved to South Hills.
"Growing up, he was a little sickly," Art Chandler Jr. said of his brother. "He had tonsillitis a lot, and there were no antibiotics. So he was a little fellow, thin."
He idolized his older brother. "He was on me like glue. If anyone picked on him, I was there."
At private summer camps, he picked up on archery, ran track, played basketball and won awards as best all-around camper.
John Davis Chandler was about 8 when he fell in love with tennis. "He had so much natural ability it was unbelievable," his brother said, "but he wasn't highly competitive. If he lost, he lost. He was basically shy. He didn't like the accolades that go along with doing too well.
"He was playing in the finals of the Kanawha Valley Junior Tennis Tournament when he was 17. He roared through the first set. The second set, he started having trouble. But he won the thing.
"He told me later that he changed his grip in the second set. In the middle of a tournament, he decided to change his whole approach to the game."