Shirley Temple Dead: Legendary Child Star Dies at 85

Shirley Temple
Shirley Temple
 20th Century-Fox Film Corporation/Courtesy of Everett Collection

Shirley Temple, the enchanting singing and dancing child star with the glowing corkscrew curls who saved a Hollywood studio and helped yank America from the throes of the Great Depression, died Monday night. She was 85.

Temple died of natural causes at her Woodside, Calif., home surrounded by her family and caregivers, said a statement from her agent.

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Temple recently had begun receiving hospice care, her nephew, Richard Black, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Making $1,250 a week at age 6, the incandescent Temple was a veteran of 46 features and one-reelers before she turned 13. A huge star in a pint-sized package, she received an average of 16,000 letters a month, and for one birthday, fans sent her 167,000 presents. She was the subject of a Salvador Dali surrealistic painting, and a nonalcoholic drink garnished with a maraschino cherry was invented and named after her so kids and adults could "imbibe" together.

A bigger box-office draw than Clark Gable (another actor with famous dimples), Temple captivated moviegoers with her furrowed brow, perplexed pouts and unrelenting cheeriness in such films as Bright Eyes (1934), in which she belted out her signature song, "The Good Ship Lollipop."

"On the good ship Lollipop, it's a sweet trip to a candy shop. Where bon-bons play, on the sunny beach of Peppermint Bay," she sang. The sheet music sold a half-million copies.

With the country still reeling from the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed, "As long as our country has Shirley Temple, we will be all right." Her influence extended to lands far away: Looking to curry favor with America, foreign dignitaries sent her such gifts as a miniature, drivable Rolls-Royce (from the Aga Khan in the Middle East) and a kid-size jade elephant (from China).

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The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented Temple at age 6 with the first Juvenile Academy Award "in grateful recognition of her outstanding contribution to screen entertainment during the year 1934." She is the youngest person ever to receive an Oscar statuette, miniature or otherwise.

Temple appeared in six other features that year, including the musical Stand Up and Cheer! She only had a small part in that movie -- the plot sees the U.S. government creating a "Department of Amusement" to shake the nation from its Depression doldrums -- but the picture quickly made Fox realize what a valuable asset it had on its hands.

On the verge of bankruptcy and tens of millions of dollars in debt, Fox merged with Twentieth Century Pictures in 1935, and studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck made the adorable tot his No. 1 priority. He put the finest talent on the lot to work on her pictures, and the Shirley Temple Development Division at one time employed 19 writers.

Four of Temple's most memorable films were released in 1935, including The Little Colonel, a Civil War musical drama where she tap-danced with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson on a staircase in one of the most enchanting cinematic sequences of all time.

She followed up that year with Our Little Girl and Curly Top -- which introduced another of her songs that became a classic, "Animal Crackers in My Soup" -- and The Littlest Rebel, in which she and Robinson appeal to President Lincoln for help in another Civil War saga.

A gold mine with glowing locks -- her mother Gertrude did her hair for each movie, with 56 corkscrew curls each time -- the plucky Temple was No. 1 at the box office for four straight years, from 1935 through 1938. During this stretch, Fox reworked her contract to pay her $50,000 per film.

After Temple was loaned out to Paramount in 1934 for the films Now and Forever with Gary Cooper and Carole Lombard and Little Miss Marker, Zanuck made certain that would never happen again. He refused to let her work at MGM on The Wizard of Oz (1939), and the part of Dorothy went to Judy Garland.

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The studio saw monstrous earnings from Temple's pictures, with the girl endorsing such products as dresses, cereal and soap. Her dolls sold at a rate of 1.5 million a year. She lost her innocence, or at least her belief in Santa Claus, "when my mother took me to see him in a department store, and he asked for my autograph," she once said.

In a 1988 interview with People magazine, she admitted she didn't realize how famous she was.

"I really didn't know it," she says. "When I asked my mother why crowds shouted my name and said, 'We love you,' she would dust it off by saying, 'Your work makes them happy.' She never let it go to my head."

Shirley Jane Temple was born in Santa Monica on April 23, 1928. Her father, George, was a banker, and her mother was a homemaker. She had two older brothers. Her mom claimed that her baby's very first words were a lyric to a Rudy Vallee song, and she enrolled her incredibly bright daughter in dance school.

In 1932, the 3-year-old Temple appeared in the first of her eight Baby Burlesks one-reelers -- parodies of movie hits or current events that had tykes in roles made famous by adults. At age 5, she signed with Fox, meteorically ascending from contract player to full-fledged star after Stand Up and Cheer played theaters.

The studio kept its biggest star sheltered in her own bungalow on the lot in an effort to preserve her natural childlike charm. "If I lost my innocence," she recalled a studio exec telling her, "it would show in my eyes." Her films were always filled with boundless optimism and an uncanny ability to melt the hardest of hearts.

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Temple graduated to starring in well-regarded literary adaptations such as Wee Willie Winkie (1937), directed by John Ford. From 1937 to 1940, she toplined such films as Heidi, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Little Miss Broadway, the Technicolor gem The Little Princess, The Blue Bird (Fox's answer to The Wizard of Oz) and Young People.

Those last two films, though, were flops. Soon, Mickey Rooney, another youngster, was king of the box office, and Fox and Temple ended their association in 1940. Her parents placed the 12-year-old Temple in a school for girls, and she eventually signed a contract with MGM.

As a teenager and young adult, she starred in the World War II drama Since You Went Away (1944); The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer (1947) opposite Cary Grant and Myrna Loy; Ford's Fort Apache (1948) with John Wayne and Henry Fonda; and her final feature, A Kiss for Corliss (1949) with David Niven.

Temple's last professional affiliation with show business was in the late 1950s and early '60s, when she hosted and sometimes starred in Shirley Temple's Storybook and The Shirley Temple Show on television.

Temple married John Agar (seven years her senior) in 1945 when she was 17, in a Los Angeles wedding that attracted thousands of her fans. They had a daughter, Linda, and Agar became an actor, appearing with Temple in Fort Apache and Adventure in Baltimore (1949). Troubled by his excessive drinking and constant flirtations, Temple filed for divorce in 1949 and retired from acting.

Months after the divorce was finalized, Temple met Charles Black at the Outrigger Club while on a Hawaiian vacation in Waikiki. A San Francisco businessman and former naval officer, Black confessed to her that he had never seen any of her movies. He proposed 13 days after they met, and they wed in Carmel Valley, Calif., in December 1950. They had a son, Charles, in 1952 and a daughter, Lori, in 1954.

Black died in their Woodside home of bone marrow disease in August 2005, and Temple's nephew, Richard, said she was lonely ever since. All three of her children also survive her.

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A Republican, Temple unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1967 on a platform supporting America's involvement in the Vietnam War. A year later, President Nixon appointed her a U.S. delegate to the United Nations. She later served as the U.S. ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia and as the State Department's chief of protocol.

In 1972 at age 44, Temple was one of the first public figures to talk about having a mastectomy, paving the way for open discussion of a formerly taboo health subject. "It is my fervent hope that women will not be afraid to go to doctors for diagnosis when they have unusual symptoms," she said then.

In 1988, Temple published her best-selling autobiography, Child Star, and received Kennedy Center honors. She accepted the Screen Actors Guild's Life Achievement Award in 2006 but stayed out of the public eye in her final years.

"When I was 3 years old, I was delighted to be told that I was an actress, even though I didn't know what an actress was," she said to much laughter at the SAG presentation.

"I have one piece of advice for those of you who want to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award: Start early!"

A statement from Temple's family read in part, "We salute her for a life of remarkable achievements as an actor, as a diplomat and most importantly as our beloved mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and adored wife for fifty-five years of the late and much missed Charles Alden Black…. We ask that our family be given the opportunity at this time to grieve privately."

Private funeral arrangements for Temple are still pending but a remembrance guest book will soon be opened at shirleytemple.com. Contributions in her memory may be made to the Commonwealth Club of California's 2nd Century Campaign or to the Education Center at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, according to the family's statement.

Duane Byrge contributed to this report.

Twitter: @mikebarnes4

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