Actress Eleanor Parker Dies at 91

Eleanor Parker Headshot - P 2013
Courtesy Everett Collection

Eleanor Parker Headshot - P 2013

The transformational star collected three best actress Oscar nominations in a six-year span and starred in such films as "Caged," "Detective Story," "Interrupted Melody" and "The Sound of Music."

Eleanor Parker, who somehow remained a Hollywood mystery woman despite a dazzling array of work that included three best actress Oscar nominations in the 1950s, has died. She was 91.

Parker died Monday at a medical facility near her home in Palm Springs of complications from pneumonia, her friend told the Associated Press.

Parker earned her Oscar noms during a remarkable six-year span. She played a naive 19-year-old who transforms into a hardened convict in Caged (1950); starred as Kirk Douglas’ wife with a secret in William Wyler’s film noir Detective Story (1951); and portrayed real-life Australian opera star and polio victim Marjorie Lawrence in Interrupted Melody (1955) opposite Glenn Ford.

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During a career that spanned more than half a century, the Ohio native also starred as the smothering wife of recovering heroin addict Frank Sinatra in Otto Preminger’s tense The Man With the Golden Arm (1955); as a woman with three distinct personalities in the drama Lizzie (1957); and as the jealous baroness Elsa Schraeder in Robert Wise’s classic musical The Sound of Music (1965).

Screenwriter William Ludwig, who shared an Oscar for his work on Interrupted Melody, wrote in a 1986 biography about Parker that moviegoers “didn’t go to her films to see Miss Parker being Miss Parker in a different dress or locale. You went to see that person she created on film.”

That ability for the real-life person to disappear onscreen led author Doug McClelland to title the biography Eleanor Parker: Woman of a Thousand Faces.

“I don’t always recognize myself when I see my own [still] pictures,” Parker said in the book. “Even to me, they look like Ingrid Bergman, Pat Neal, Myrna Loy, Joan Fontaine and Eleanor Powell at various times. I never look like me. Frankly, I think all this is wonderful. What woman doesn’t like a little mystery about herself?”

Eleanor Jean Parker was born on June 26, 1922, in Cedarville, Ohio. Her father was a math teacher. At age 15, she attended the Rice Summer Theatre on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, earning her keep “by [ushering] and waiting on tables. They finally let me appear in one play, a bit in What a Life!,” she told The New York Times.

Parker worked in Cleveland to gain professional stage experience in summer stock and continued to pursue her career at the Pasadena Playhouse. On her 18th birthday, she signed a contract with Warner Bros.

“I knew I’d get in pictures,” she told Movie Show magazine in 1946. “I wasn’t even afraid of all the tough luck stories I’d heard about other girls who had gone to Hollywood but hadn’t conquered. I knew that if I trained myself properly, I’d be ready for the break when it came.”

Although her first role in a film — a bit part in Raoul Walsh’s They Died With Their Boots On (1941) — was cut from its final version, Parker went on to gain national recognition as the top-billed woman in such films as Pride of the Marines (1945) as John Garfield’s sweetheart, in Of Human Bondage opposite Paul Henreid and in an adaptation of the Broadway comedy The Voice of the Turtle (1947) with Ronald Reagan. Nine years before she played a three-way personality in Lizzie, she starred as identical first cousins in The Woman in White (1948).

In 1950, Caged earned her the best actress award at the Venice International Film Festival, and she was named Mother of the Year by the Society of American Florists. More importantly, she completed her contract at Warner Bros., which had suspended her many times when she refused roles she felt were unsuitable.

After starring in Valentino (1951) at Columbia and Detective Story at Paramount, Parker signed with MGM, which allowed her to make one film a year elsewhere, and began at the studio by becoming a redhead for the swashbuckling Scaramouche (1952) opposite Stewart Granger. For the demanding Interrupted Melody, she secluded herself in a mountain cabin in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., and listened to opera records day and night, learning 22 arias.

Her film resume also included The King and Four Queens (1956) with Clark Gable; a remake of The Seventh Sin (1957); a reteaming with Sinatra for Frank Capra’s A Hole in the Head (1959); Return to Peyton Place (1961) in the role originated by Lana Turner; the comedy Panic Button (1964); and as a Hollywood talent scout in The Oscar (1966).

Wise, who had directed Parker in Three Secrets (1950), came back to Parker for the pivotal Sound of Music role as the aristocratic baroness in the eventual Oscar winner for best picture that starred Julie Andrews.

“She fit the bill perfectly,” the producer-director once said. “We engaged her and she was wonderful in the part, a sort of light ‘heavy’ who was also ultimately quite touching. I have great admiration for Eleanor Parker, an artist of first rank.”

(Laura Benanti played Elsa in the recent live NBC version of The Sound of Music.)

Parker also worked in television, and received an Emmy nomination in 1963 for her portrayal of a woman whose fear of men drive her to drink and hallucinate in an episode of The Eleventh Hour. She played a Hollywood studio chief’s secretary on NBC’s Bracken’s World and landed a Golden Globe nom but quit the show in 1970 after the first of the drama’s two seasons.

Parker later appeared on such series as Hawaii Five-O, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island and Murder, She Wrote. Her last credit came on the 1991 telefilm Dead on the Money.

Parker was married four times — to Fred Losee (1943-44), producer Bert E. Friedlob (1946-53), artist Paul Clemens (1954-65) and Chicago theater executive Raymond Hirsch (1966 to his death in 2001).

Mike Barnes contributed to this report.