Known for her red hair and camera-friendly looks, Fleming starred in a string of studio pictures and films noirs in the Hollywood golden age
Rhonda Fleming in a publicity shot for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound in 1945. Photograph: SNAP/Rex Features
Rhonda Fleming, the actor nicknamed “The Queen of Technicolor” and who appeared with Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, Ronald Reagan and other film stars of the 1940s and 1950s, has died. She was 97.
Fleming’s assistant Carla Sapon told the New York Times that Fleming died on Wednesday in Santa Monica, California.
From her first film in colour, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949) with Bing Crosby, Fleming became immensely popular with producers because of her vivid natural colouring. It was an attraction she would later regret.
“Suddenly my green eyes were green. My red hair was flaming red. My skin was porcelain white,” Fleming remarked in a 1990 interview. “There was suddenly all this attention on how I looked rather than the roles I was playing. I’d been painted into a corner by the studios, who never wanted more from me than my looking good and waltzing through a parade of films like The Redhead and the Cowboy.”
Before Reagan entered politics, Fleming co-starred with him in Hong Kong, Tropic Zone, The Last Outpost and Tennessee’s Partner. “He surprised everyone because he never looked in a mirror,” she once said of Reagan. “How many actors can you say that about?”
In the big-studio era, many new personalities were publicised as having been discovered in quirky ways: Kim Novak while riding a bicycle past an agent’s office, Lana Turner spotted in a malt shop. In Fleming’s case, young Marilyn Louis was reported to have been headed to class at Beverly Hills High School when a man followed her in a big black car and told her, “You ought to be in pictures.” She avoided him, but he turned up at her home and offered to be her agent. The man, in fact, was Henry Willson, a well-known Hollywood agent who also masterminded the early careers of Rock Hudson and Robert Wagner.
At 19 Louis was awarded a six-month contract at the studio of David O Selznick and given a new name: Rhonda Fleming. She played a bit part in the 1944 wartime drama Since You Went Away, and then Alfred Hitchcock chose her to play what he described as a “nymphomaniac” in Spellbound, starring Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. “I rushed home, and my mother and I looked up ‘nymphomaniac’ in the dictionary,” she said later. “We were both shocked.”
Spellbound led to another suspense film, The Spiral Staircase, in which she was strangled by the villain, George Brent. With Selznick concentrating on the career of his wife, Jennifer Jones, he lost interest in his contract players, and Fleming left the studio to freelance. Her next films were Abilene Town, a Randolph Scott western; Out of the Past, a film noir with Robert Mitchum; and Adventure Island, a tropics thriller starring Rory Calhoun.
She won a leading role in A Connecticut Yankee, a Crosby musical based on the Mark Twain story, after Deanna Durbin dropped out to retire to France. Crosby was so impressed that he recommended her to Bob Hope, with whom she starred in The Great Lover.
Ironically, the Crosby/Hope films that established her as a major figure proved to be ones she was never able to top. She remained a star for 15 years, but except for the Lancaster-Douglas Gunfight at the OK Corral, most of her performances came in B pictures that exploited her looks. “I made the mistake of doing lesser films for good money,” she said in a 1976 interview. “I was hot, they all wanted me – but I didn’t have the guidance or background to judge for myself.”
Among her 1950s films were While the City Sleeps, directed by Fritz Lang and co-starring Dana Andrews. She played Cleopatra in the 1953 film Serpent of the Nile. But many titles were forgettable: The Eagle and the Hawk, The Last Outpost, Little Egypt, The Killer Is Loose, Slightly Scarlet, Those Redheads from Seattle and Pony Express (with Charlton Heston).
After her film career cooled off, Fleming took a singing act to Las Vegas, appeared in TV shows and commercials, starred on Broadway in a revival of The Women and sang as the temptress Lalume in Kismet for the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera.
While still in her teens, Fleming married her high school sweetheart, Thomas Lane. A son, Kent, was born in 1941. When Lane returned from Army service, Rhonda had become a star, and the marriage ended in 1947. Three other marriages also ended in divorce, to Beverly Hills surgeon Lewis Morrill (1952-1958); actor Lang Jeffries (1960-1962); and producer-director Hall Bartlett (1966-1972). In 1977 Fleming married mogul Ted Mann, who built the Mann Theater chain, and the marriage lasted until his death in 2001.After Mann died, Fleming married for a sixth time, to Derol W Carlson, who died in 2017.