Coleen Gray, Star of 'Kiss of Death' and 'Nightmare Alley,' Dies at 92

Courtesy of Everett Collection
Coleen Gray with Victor Mature in the 1947 film "Kiss of Death."

The actress, a favorite of film noir fans, also appeared in 'Red River,' 'The Killing,' 'Kansas City Confidential' and 'The Leech Woman.'

Coleen Gray, the dark-haired beauty who stood out in such film noir thrillers as Kiss of Death, Nightmare Alley and Kansas City Confidential, has died. She was 92.

Gray, who also starred opposite John Wayne in Howard HawksRed River (1948) and played crook Sterling Hayden’s attractive accomplice in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), died Monday of natural causes at her home in Bel Air, longtime friend David Schecter told The Hollywood Reporter.

“My last dame is gone. Always had the feeling she'd be the last to go,” Eddie Muller, founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, wrote on Facebook. They collaborated on his 2001 book, Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir.

Gray was “introduced” to audiences in Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death (1947) as Nette, the girlfriend and future wife of ex-con Nick Bianco (Victor Mature), who battles psychopathic killer Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) in a bid to go straight once and for all.

The Nebraska native then segued to a role as scheming carnival barker Tyrone Power’s aide in Nightmare Alley (1947), then appeared as Wayne’s sweetheart Fen in Red River.

In Kansas City Confidential (1952), Gray portrayed the law-school daughter of a former cop (Preston Foster) who engineers a bank heist by framing a delivery man played by John Payne. (Gray and Payne’s characters fall for each other in the movie, and they were romantically linked offscreen as well.)

Gray also starred in the Frank Capra horse picture Riding High (1950), where her scene with Bing Crosby and Clarence Muse singing “Sunshine Cake” was the favorite film moment of her career.

She played a nurse femme fatale in The Sleeping City (1950) opposite Richard Conte, was manhandled by a creature in The Vampire (1957) and discovered the secret to immortality (but not without consequences) in The Leech Woman (1960).

Gray spent much of the 1960s on television, with guest-starring roles on such shows as Rawhide, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, 77 Sunset Strip, Mister Ed, Perry Mason and Family Affair.

Later, on the NBC drama McCloud, she played the wife of police chief Peter B. Clifford (J.D. Cannon) in a few episodes.

She was born Doris Bernice Jensen on Oct. 23, 1922, in Staplehurst, Neb. At age 7, she and her family moved to Hutchinson, Minn., and she studied drama at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. 

With only $26 to her name, she took a Greyhound bus to Hollywood. She enrolled at USC and then drama school and starred in the play Brief Music. She was seen by an agent and signed with Fox, where she made her movie debut for the studio in State Fair (1945).

In 1949, Gray starred on Broadway in Leaf and Bough with Charlton Heston

Gray was married three times, the first to screenwriter, producer and future TV director Rod Amateau and the last to biblical scholar Joseph “Fritz” Zeiser, who died in 2012 (they were together for more than 30 years). Survivors include her daughter Susan, son Bruce, stepsons Rick and Steve and several grandchildren.
 
A memorial service at Bel Air Presbyterian Church is being planned.
 
Twitter: @mikebarnes4
 
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