Dina Merrill, Actress Who Exuded Elegance, Dies at 93

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Dina Merrill

The aristocratic star appeared in such films as 'Desk Set,' 'Butterfield 8' and 'Operation Petticoat,' and was married to Cliff Robertson and Ted Hartley.

Dina Merrill, the actress, heiress and RKO executive whose blend of beauty and refinement made her the perfect woman to portray socialites on screens big and small, has died. She was 93.

Merrill died  Monday at her home in East Hampton, N.Y., The New York Times reported.

As the daughter of Wall Street maverick E.F. Hutton and Marjorie Merriweather Post, heir to the Post Cereals fortune, Merrill was born into and raised in New York society, and her characters often came from upper-crust backgrounds as well.

She made her feature debut in 1957 as one of the eager young research assistants who work for TV executive Katharine Hepburn in the comedy Desk Set, and she played a long-suffering wife whose husband (Laurence Harvey) cheats on her with Elizabeth Taylor's character in Butterfield 8 (1960).

In John Frankenheimer's The Young Savages (1961), Merrill portrayed the well-to-do wife of an assistant district attorney (Burt Lancaster), and she was a sophisticate who's not crazy about Glenn Ford's kid in The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1963).

Hollywood sure liked the way she looked in uniform: She played a WAC in two episodes of The Phil Silvers Show in 1956, and was an ensign in the 1959 feature Don't Give Up the Ship and a Navy RN opposite Cary Grant the same year in Operation Petticoat. And Twelve O'Clock High promoted her to captain during a 1966 episode.

Merrill also stood out on the big screen in Fred Zinnemann's The Sundowners (1960), the Bob Hope comedy I'll Take Sweden (1965) as well as in the Robert Altman films A Wedding (1978) and The Player (1992).

Merrill's personal life matched the glamour of her onscreen persona. She was married three times. The first, in 1946, was to Stanley M. Rumbough Jr., an heir to the Colgate-Palmolive fortune. They had three children, Nina, David and Stanley III, before divorcing in 1966.

Later that year, Merrill wed actor Cliff Robertson. They had one daughter, Heather. One of the campier highlights of their time together came in 1968 when they appeared on TV's Batman. Wearing a white-fringed, cowgirl miniskirt, Merrill mugged it up as "Calamity Jan" opposite Robertson's nefarious Western villain Shame. The two then reprised the characters for a cameo in another episode featuring The Penguin (Burgess Meredith).

Merrill and Robertson divorced in 1989, and she married Ted Hartley soon after. An actor on Peyton Place, Hartley became CEO of RKO Pictures — the company behind Citizen Kane and King Kong — when he and Merrill purchased 51 percent of the legendary studio in 1991. She served as vice chair and appeared in several of RKO's efforts during the 1990s and 2000s.

She was born Nedenia Marjorie Hutton on Dec. 29, 1923, in New York City, the only child of her moneyed parents. There were two older half-sisters from her mother's first marriage to Edward Bennett Close, the grandfather of actress Glenn Close.

At the urging of her father, Merrill enrolled in George Washington University. But after one term, she decided college wasn't for her and returned home. "He told me he'd do anything in the world for me if I'd just go to law school and then run for Congress," the actress told People magazine in 1980. "But I said, 'Daddy, I want to be an actress.' He said, 'You'll never see your family.' I said, 'You think as a congresswoman I'll see my family?' "

Merrill then studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (the school would honor her with a lifetime achievement award in 2005). Although her father's investment acumen reportedly made her a millionaire by age 17, Merrill took on a $10 an hour job modeling in-house at Vogue.

On the advice of a brother-in-law, she changed her name. (The new last name was inspired by one of her father's Wall Street colleagues, Charles E. Merrill — the Merrill in Merrill Lynch).

After several years of summer stock, Merrill made her Broadway debut in 1945 in The Mermaids Singing. She would return to the Great White Way in 1975 for a revival of Angel Street and again in 1983 to perform in the musical On Your Toes.

After her 1946 stage run ended, Merrill put her acting career on hold to marry and raise a family. A decade would pass before she would take up her dramatic ambitions in earnest, ultimately blossoming into a film and television standout.

Once called "Hollywood's Next Grace Kelly," Merrill was first seen on television in 1955 on Four Star Playhouse, where she played a sophisticated mystery woman whom Dick Powell meets as he embarks on a cryptic journey.

The actress would grace dozens of TV shows as a guest star throughout the 1950s (Climax!, Playhouse 90, Sunday Showcase — in What Makes Sammy Run?), the '60s (The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Burke's Law, Dr. Kildare, Bonanza, Run for Your Life, Mission: Impossible) and the '70s (Medical Center, Cannon, Marcus Welby, M.D., The Odd Couple, Hawaii Five-0, The Love Boat). 

During this time, Merrill also was a regular game show panelist on To Tell the Truth, What's My Line?, Match Game and Password All-Stars and appeared as a celebrity subject on I've Got a Secret.

On the short-lived 1984 NBC series Hot Pursuit, Merrill starred as a rich woman who kills her husband and then pins the murder on a young couple. She also was seen on Hotel, Murder, She Wrote, The Nanny, Roseanne and numerous made-for-TV movies.

Her later film credits included Just Tell Me What You Want (1980), Twisted (1986), Caddyshack II (1988), Fear (1990), True Colors (1990), The Point of Betrayal (1995), Mighty Joe Young (1998) and Shade (2003).

When Merrill wasn't dazzling audiences on the screen, she was busy with business and philanthropic endeavors.

In 1969, Merrill created the cosmetic line Amaranthe for Coty. In 1980, she joined the board of directors of the company bearing her father's name — E.F. Hutton. She retained her seat when the company merged with Shearson Lehman/American Express in 1988 to become Shearson Lehman Hutton Inc. and stayed through 2006, two years before Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection. In 1986, she partnered with Bruce Graham to create film and television productions under Greenroom Enterprises. Several years later, she and Hartley ran RKO Pictures.

After her son was diagnosed with diabetes in 1963, Merrill founded the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. The actress also was heavily involved for decades in the New York City Mission Society. Another favorite cause was Orbis International, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting blindness and eye diseases in developing countries.

In 1982, President Reagan appointed Merrill to the board of trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. She also was a trustee of the Eugene O'Neill Foundation.

In addition to her husband, Merrill is survived by her daughter Nina and son Stanley. Her son David was killed in a boating accident in 1973, and daughter Heather, an actress and screenwriter, died of ovarian cancer in 2007.

In 2011, the Guild Hall Academy of the Arts in East Hampton honored Merrill with its Lifetime Achievement Award. On the theater organization's commemorative video, actor Michael Douglas described her allure, saying: "Dina became the icon for class and charm. One famous casting director still orders her staff to 'Give me a Dina Merrill kind of actress.' "

"From the time I was five, I knew I wanted to be an actress," Merrill said during the Guild Hall tribute, which also inaugurated the Dina Merrill Pavilion. "I love my life as an actress. There are so many good stories."

 

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