Derek was born Derek Delevan Harris in Hollywood, California, the son of actor/director Lawson Harris and actress Dolores Johnson.
His striking good looks were noticed, and he was being groomed for a movie career by both David O. Selznick and his agent Henry Willson (who gave him the temporary stage name of Dare Harris) with small roles in Since You Went Away (1944) and I'll Be Seeing You (1944).
He was drafted in 1944 into the United States Army, and saw service in the Philippines during the last days of World War II.
After the war, Derek had a small role in A Double Life (1947) when he was approached Humphrey Bogart, who renamed him John Derek and cast him as Nick (Pretty Boy) Romano, an unregenerate killer, in Knock on Any Door (1949), a socially conscious melodrama directed by Nicholas Ray. Derek was recognized as a talented newcomer, "plainly an idol for the girls", as Bosley Crowther put it in a review for The New York Times. The Los Angeles Times called him "a handsome hot-eyed newcomer who makes the case for this product of the city's slums - 'live fast, die young and have a good looking corpse' - all too fascinating for everybody's comfort."
The film was made for Bogart's company and released through Columbia, who signed Derek to a seven-year contract in April 1948.
Derek followed that picture with a supporting role as the son of Broderick Crawford in All the King's Men (1949), the Best Picture Oscar winner for its year, starring Broderick Crawford. In September 1950 the actor had his name formally changed to "John Derek".
Columbia promoted him to lead roles, as Robin Hood in Rogues of Sherwood Forest (1950) with Alan Hale; the Los Angeles Times called him a "slim and beautiful youth". He was meant to follow it with The Gainsville Circus but the film was never made.
Instead Columbia put him in another swashbuckler, Mask of the Avenger (1951), then they gave him a good dramatic role in a prestige film, Saturday's Hero (1951), as a college football player.. The novel had been bought specifically as a vehicle for Derek. He was in a crime noir, The Family Secret (1951), then reunited with Crawford in Scandal Sheet (1952).
Derek was borrowed by Republic Pictures for a war film, Thunderbirds (1952). He went back to Columbia for Prince of Pirates (1953), a swashbuckler for Sam Katzman; two Westerns, Ambush at Tomahawk Gap (1953), with John Hodiak and The Last Posse (1953) with Crawford. He was back with Hodiak for Mission Over Korea (1953), a Korean War film, then was borrowed by Republic Pictures for Sea of Lost Ships (1953). In July 1953 Derek left Columbia.
Derek made another film for Republic, The Outcast (1954), a Western. Walter Wanger used him for The Adventures of Hajji Baba (1954) released by 20th Century Fox, a surprise hit.
He had a showy role as John Wilkes Booth in Prince of Players (1955) at Fox then was in a drama An Annapolis Story (1955) at Allied Artists.
In March 1954 Derek signed a long term contract with Paramount.
Derek made several films for Paramount: Run for Cover (1955), a Western with James Cagney and Nicholas Ray and The Leather Saint (1956), a boxing film. He also appeared as Joshua in The Ten Commandments (1956). He wanted to make a film about Joaquin Murrieta but it was never made.
Derek travelled to Italy to appear in Pirate of the Half Moon (1957). He made a Western Fury at Showdown (1957) and a movie in Britain The Flesh Is Weak (1957). He supported Cornel Wilde in Omar Khayyam (1957), and starred in High Hell (1958). In Europe he was in Prisoner of the Volga (1959) and he played an Arab in Exodus (1960). He was in a TV series Frontier Circus.
Derek disliked acting. He later said he "was never into it. If they'd given me the greatest role in the world it wouldn't have helped. I used to go to the directors of my films and say: 'I'm not an actor but I'll turn up on time and know my words.' In the 13 films I made I only ever did one take per scene. Directors never went for a second because they knew it'd be no different from the first. I never liked acting. Or my films. Maybe one, a cheap little Western called The Outcast. I liked that because I love horses. One of the troubles was I had a monotone voice which went even flatter when I tried to act. When I saw my first film Knock On Any Door in Italy I only liked it because my voice was dubbed by an Italian actor who had a lot of fire in his voice."
Dissatisfied with his career as an actor, Derek turned to film directing. He directed his second wife Ursula Andress in two war films, appearing alongside her: Nightmare in the Sun (1965) and Once Before I Die (1965).
Derek eventually quit acting. "In this town people think you must be nuts to do something like that," he said. "They can't believe you just didn't enjoy it."
He directed A Boy... a Girl (1969) with Dean Paul Martin, and Childish Things (1969) with his third wife, Linda Evans.
In 1973 he directed Bo Derek in Fantasies, which was released years later. He made Love You (1979). The film 10 made his wife Bo a huge star so Derek was able to raise the funds for Tarzan, the Ape Man (1981) which became a sizeable hit.
They intended to follow it with Eve and That Damned Apple but when Universal delayed financing they decided to make Bolero (1984) for Cannon, which was an unhappy experience for the Dereks. His last film as director was Ghosts Can't Do It (1990).
An accomplished photographer, Derek photographed the last three of his four wives (at different times) for nude spreads in Playboy magazine.
Derek directed the music videos for Shania Twain's "Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?" and "Any Man of Mine".
Derek married Turkish-born prima ballerina Pati Behrs Eristoff in 1948.
They had a son, Russell Andre (1950–1999), who was paralyzed in a 1969 motorcycle accident, and a daughter, Sean Catherine (born 1953), who later wrote a memoir titled Cast of Characters, published in 1982, about their dysfunctional relationship. Derek walked out on his wife and family in August 1955 after meeting 19-year-old aspiring Swiss actress Ursula Andress, who spoke almost no English when they met. He and Behrs were divorced in 1956.
In 1957, after finalizing his divorce from Behrs, he married Andress in a quickie Las Vegas ceremony, but she left him in 1965 for French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo.
Derek subsequently became involved with American actress Linda Evans, at the time starring in television's The Big Valley, who reduced her appearances on the show to spend more time with him, and financed his alimony and child support payments to Behrs, as he had quit acting by then to pursue photography and directing. They married in Mexico in 1968, with Sean as a witness.
Derek, Evans and 16-year-old high school dropout Mary Cathleen Collins traveled to the Greek island of Mykonos in 1973 to make the film And Once Upon a Time (unreleased until 1981, under the title Fantasies). During filming, Derek and Collins began an affair. Evans returned to the states and filed for divorce in 1974, but Derek and Collins stayed in Europe until she turned 18 in November of that year, in order to avoid statutory rape charges.
Collins became known to the public as Bo Derek following their marriage on June 10, 1976 in Las Vegas, and achieved international fame in 1979 with her role in the Blake Edwards film 10. The couple remained together until John died in 1998.
Derek had a heart attack in 1986.
John Derek died on May 22, 1998, from cardiovascular disease in Santa Maria, California at the age of 71. His remains were cremated.
Features:Since You Went Away (1944)
I'll Be Seeing You (1944)
A Double Life (1947)
Knock on Any Door (1949)
All the King's Men (1949)
Rogues of Sherwood Forest (1950)
Mask of the Avenger (1951)
Saturday's Hero (1951)
The Family Secret (1951)
Scandal Sheet (1952)
Prince of Pirates (1953)
Ambush at Tomahawk Gap (1953)
The Last Posse (1953)
Mission Over Korea (1953)
Sea of Lost Ships (1954)
The Outcast (1954)
The Adventures of Hajji Baba (1954)
Prince of Players (1955)
An Annapolis Story (1955)
Run for Cover (1955)
The Leather Saint (1956)
The Ten Commandments (1956) as Joshua
Pirate of the Half Moon (1957)
Fury at Showdown (1957)
The Flesh Is Weak (1957)
Omar Khayyam (1957)
High Hell (1958)
Prisoner of the Volga (1959)
Nightmare in the Sun (1965)
Once Before I Die (1966)
Short Subjects:The Nest (1943)
Screen Snapshots: Hollywood Awards (1951)
Screen Snapshots: Meet Mr. Rhythm, Frankie Laine (1952)
Screen Snapshots: Hollywood's Mr. Movies (1952)
Screen Snapshots: Hollywood Stars to Remember (1954)
Nightmare in the Sun (1965)
Once Before I Die (1966)
A Boy... a Girl (1969)
Childish Things (1969)
Love You (1979)
Tarzan, the Ape Man (1981)
Ghosts Can't Do It (1990)