October 17, 2020 - 2:48 pm
LOS ANGELES — Actress Rhonda Fleming, the fiery redhead 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 died Wednesday in Santa Monica, California, assistant Carla Sapon told The Associated Press.
From her first film in color, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court ” (1949) with Bing Crosby, Fleming became immensely popular with producers because of her vivid hues. 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,’” she said.
Before Reagan entered politics, the actress 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?”
Fleming possessed a fine singing voice, and later in her career sang onstage in Las Vegas and in a touring act.
Discovered on way to high school
In the big-studio era, many new personalities were publicized 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 eluded him, but he turned up at her home and offered to be her agent.
Legend or not, at 19 Louis was awarded a six-month contract at the studio of David O. Selznick and 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 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 recalled. “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: “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 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.”
Mostly B movies
Ironically, the Crosby/Hope films that established her as a luminary 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 reflected 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,” “Crosswinds” and “Pony Express” (with Charlton Heston), “Inferno,” “Those Redheads from Seattle,” “Yankee Pasha,” and “Gun Glory.”
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.
She was born in Los Angeles in 1923. Her mother, Effie Graham, had appeared in a 1914 Broadway musical with Al Jolson, and her grandfather was a theatrical producer in Salt Lake City. She studied acting, but as a backup also took classes in shorthand, typing and bookkeeping.
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. For many years, they lived in matching 4,300-square-foot condominiums, one on top of the other in a Century City high-rise. “I treasure my privacy, and Ted needs his,” she once explained. “We love each other very much. I’m much more fulfilled today than at any time in my life.”
After Fleming’s sister, Beverly Engel, died of cancer in 1991, Fleming and her husband established the Rhonda Fleming Mann Resource Center for Women with Cancer at the UCLA Medical Center. They also was active in various other charities for cancer patients, children and the homeless.
A couple of years after Mann died, Fleming married for a sixth time, to Derol W. Carlson, who died in 2017.
The late Associated Press correspondent Bob Thomas compiled material for this story.