Patricia Morison, Star of the Original ‘Kiss Me, Kate,’ Dies at 103

Patricia Morison - H 2015
Courtesy Everett Collection

Patricia Morison - H 2015

She also stood out in such films as 'The Song of Bernadette' and 'The Fallen Sparrow' and faced off against Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes in 'Dressed to Kill.'

Patricia Morison, the glamorous star who originated the role of the shrewish actress diva in the delightful 1948 Cole Porter musical Kiss Me, Kate, has died. She was 103. 

Morison, who also appeared on stage opposite Yul Brynner in The King and I in such films as The Song of Bernadette (1943), died Sunday at her home in Los Angeles of natural causes, according to publicist Harlan Boll.

With a mane of exuberant, dark hair that reached her hips, Morison often was cast as a villainess or "the other woman" on the big screen. She notably played Sherlock Holmes' smiling adversary Mrs. Hilda Courtney, who is desperate to collect three matching musical boxes, in Dressed to Kill (1946), the 14th and last installment in the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce series.

With Morison as its centerpiece, the first staging of Kiss Me, Kate — a musical-within-a-musical centered on a production of William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew — ran for two and a half years and 1,077 performances on Broadway. It reeled in six Tony Awards, including the very first one for best musical.

A real knockout, Morison portrayed movie star Lilli Vanessi, who plays the character of Katherine in the show; Kate's ex-husband, Fred Graham (Alfred Drake), stars opposite her and also produces. It was Morison who introduced such memorable songs as "So in Love" and "I Hate Men" and, in a duet with Drake, "Wunderbar."

(The two would reprise their roles for a 1958 Hallmark Hall of Fame TV version of the musical.)

"When I first heard 'So In Love,' when Cole Porter played it for me, it just knocked me out. It was a beautiful gift," she told Los Angeles magazine in March 2015. As for "I Hate Men" she said, "I could do a lot of things in character that I would never do in real life. I would never throw plates around and bang tankards."

Kathryn Grayson starred as Lilli/Kate in the 1953 film version for MGM.

You won’t see Morison in the 1947 film noir classic Kiss of Death, even though she did some of her best work as the wife of Nick Biano (Victor Mature), a crook who refused to rat out his partners and is sent up the river. A henchman hired to look after her and her baby rapes her, and she’s so ashamed, she puts her head in an oven and commits suicide.

"I got a wire from [Fox studio chief] Darryl Zanuck: 'Pat, this is a breakout performance, you were so wonderful. I would not be surprised if you got a supporting actress Oscar nomination for this,'" she told THR's Scott Feinberg in a 2013 interview.

Audiences, however, never witnessed her performance. "The whole thing got cut out," Morison said. "The censor said you could not show a rape, and you could not show a suicide."

Morison was born in 1915 in New York. Her father was a playwright and actor who showed up as a servant in Mervyn LeRoy's Little Women (1949), and her mother served in British intelligence operations during World War I.

She graduated from Washington Irving High School in Manhattan, took acting classes at the Neighborhood Playhouse (she met Edmond O’Brien there), studied dance with Martha Graham and made her Broadway debut at age 18 in the short-lived 1933 comedy Growing Pains.

Later, she served as Helen Hayes' understudy in the drama Victoria Regina, also starring Vincent Price, but never made it to the stage. (When Hayes couldn't make it, the show, in this case, did not go on.)

In 1938, Morison made an impression when she starred in the operetta The Two Bouquets opposite Leo G. Carroll and future Kiss Me, Kate co-star Drake. That got the attention of Paramount, which signed her to a contract and brought her to Hollywood, nicknaming her "The Fire and Ice Girl."

She made her film debut in Persons in Hiding (1939), playing a bad woman who pushes her man (J. Carrol Naish) to commit murder.

In addition to appearing as Empress Eugenie opposite Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette, Morison appeared with Ray Milland in the comedy Are Husbands Necessary? (1942), with John Garfield in the thriller The Fallen Sparrow (1943) and with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in the romantic comedy Without Love (1945).

Her other films included Night in New Orleans (1942), Lady on a Train (1945), Song of the Thin Man (1947), Queen of the Amazons (1947), Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan and the Huntress (1947) and Song Without End (1960) — as writer George Sand in the Franz Liszt biopic — and Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976).

When Tony-winning actress Gertrude Lawrence died of liver cancer just months into the original Broadway production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I, Morison stepped in to play widowed British schoolteacher Anna Leonowens opposite Brynner. She also toured with him in a road production, all the while refusing his advances ("he was a naughty boy").

On television, she played a psychiatrist in 1952's The Cases of Eddie Drake and appeared on a 1989 episode of Cheers.

Morison, who turned 100 on March 19, 2015, celebrated the occasion at a private party at the Pantages Theatre and an event at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Watch Feinberg's chat with the charming Morison, below.