Rhonda Fleming, Striking Star of the Silver Screen, Dies at 97

Rhonda Fleming - Photofest - H 2016
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Rhonda Fleming

She starred in 'A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court' and 'Out of the Past' and opened the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas in spectacular fashion.

Rhonda Fleming, the red-haired, green-eyed beauty who lit up the screen in such films as Spellbound, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, has died. She was 97.

Fleming, who also sparkled in Out of the Past (1947), the first of her many appearances in fabulous film noirs, died Wednesday in Santa Monica, her secretary, Carla Sapon, announced.

Not too far removed from attending Beverly Hills High School, Fleming appeared as a nymphomaniac in a mental institution in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), then followed up by playing George Brent's assistant, among those who reside in a creepy mansion, in Robert Siodmak's dark suspense thriller The Spiral Staircase (1945).

Fleming portrayed a schemer in Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past (1947), which starred Robert Mitchum as a hard-boiled detective hired by gangster Kirk Douglas to track down his girlfriend (Jane Greer).

She went on to appear in other film noirs, playing the wife of Dick Powell's jailed buddy in Cry Danger (1951) and Vincent Price's cheating spouse in Fritz Lang's While the City Sleeps (1956). She also was the target of a criminal (Wendell Corey) bent on revenge in The Killer Is Loose (1956) and the sister of Arlene Dahl in the sordid Slightly Scarlet (1956), based on a James M. Cain tale.

"I loved playing those parts," Fleming told film historian Rhett Bartlett in a 2012 interview. "They were naughty gals, and I was such a sweet little nice girl!"

Along those lines, she was Robert Ryan's two-timing wife, who leaves him to die in the desert, in the Technicolor 3D spectacle Inferno (1953).

Like another famous redheaded actress, Maureen O'Hara, Fleming was often called "The Queen of Technicolor." Color film and her sparkling green eyes, creamy skin and sizzling red hair were made for each other.

In the biopic Little Egypt (1951), Fleming played a belly-dancer with, as the movie poster proclaims, "the shape that shook the world." She also was especially glamorous as Cleopatra in Serpent of the Nile (1953).

Westerns also were a specialty. Fleming was Wyatt Earp's (Burt Lancaster) gambling lady friend in John Sturges' Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), and she appeared in The Redhead and the Cowboy (1951) with Glenn Ford, Pony Express (1953) with Charlton Heston and the 3D musical Those Redheads From Seattle (1953) with Gene Barry.

She made four films with Ronald Reagan from 1951-55, including the adventure tales Hong Kong (1952) and Tropic Zone (1953).

Fleming was a trained singer — her idol as a youngster was Deanna Durbin — and she performed and sang ably in the musical A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949). In the film, she played a princess romanced by a mechanic (Bing Crosby) who got knocked out and was transported back in time.

Fleming helped christen the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas in May 1957, singing and dancing as part of an opening-night bill that included singer Eddie Fisher. Her talent and shimmering Don Loper-designed nude gown brought her a great deal of attention.

"The atomic bomb didn't explode last night, but a new and lovely nightclub star — Rhonda Fleming — blasted her way at the Tropicana and made pretty music that was strictly big time stuff," a Los Angeles Herald-Express columnist gushed.

Legend has it that a cinematographer, as an exercise, once tried to shoot her in a way that would make her look bad. No matter the angle or technique, he concluded, Fleming always came out picture-perfect.

Fleming was married to theater chain mogul Ted Mann (of Mann's Chinese Theatre fame) from 1978 until his death in January 2001, and together they were a philanthropic force in Southern California.

She was born Marilyn Louis on Aug. 10, 1923, in Hollywood. Her mother, Effie Graham, was a model and actress who starred opposite Al Jolson on Broadway.

At age 16, while on her way to class at Beverly Hills High, young Marilyn was spotted by legendary Hollywood agent Henry Willson (he also discovered the likes of Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter and Natalie Wood), and he brought her to the attention of Gone With the Wind producer David O. Selznick.

She was in Selznick's office when "they decided they were going to screen-test me," she told Bartlett. "Henry said, well, let's go to the commissary and have a little lunch. … Suddenly these men from Mr. Selznick's office came in and they sat across the way and just kept staring.

"I said, 'What are they looking at, Henry?' He said, 'Just keep eating.' All of a sudden one of the men came up to Henry and whispered in his ear. He said, 'Never mind the screen test, we're going to sign her.' "

Selznick put her under contract, and Willson changed her name to Rhonda Fleming (but, she noted, it was Selznick who added the H in her first name).

After appearing in an uncredited role in the war drama Since You Went Away (1944), Fleming was cast as a patient at the Green Manors mental hospital in Spellbound, starring Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman.

In 1947, Fleming starred opposite Rory Calhoun in Paramount's Adventure Island, which was shot in color. The story of rag-tag adventurers who are tormented by a charismatic lunatic who rules a South Pacific island, the film and its lush island setting vividly backdropped Fleming’s own beauty.

Her work in A Connecticut Yankee led to another movie, she told Bartlett. "Bob Hope walked on the set one day," she recalled. "Bing introduced me to him. Bob said, 'Bing, if you can use her, I guess I can too,' and I went from being a little princess to being a dutchess in [1949's] The Great Lover."

Fleming also stood out (as a blonde!) opposite Jean Simmons in the emotional drama Home Before Dark (1958) and in the crime drama The Big Circus (1959), alongside Victor Mature.

On television, Fleming made guest appearances on such shows as Wagon Train, Police Woman, McMillan & Wife and The Love Boat.

After 1975, she was seldom seen onscreen, though she appeared in Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976) and The Nude Bomb (1980), which was executive produced by her husband, Mann.

Fleming also appeared on Broadway, making her debut in Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women in 1973.

Fleming became a prominent supporter of cancer research after her sister Beverly was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer in the late 1980s.

In 1991, she and Mann established the Rhonda Fleming Mann Clinic for Comprehensive Care at UCLA Medical Center, providing gynecologic and obstetric care to women, and they funded a resource center for women with cancer three years later. The couple also set up the Rhonda Fleming Mann Research Fellowship at the City of Hope.

"I'm not out to push me anymore," she told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. "These centers are in existence because, even though we had the best medical care, we had no psychological support. No one to turn to for the spiritual [support]. No environment that was pleasant to be in while she suffered so. There wasn't even a curtain in the examining room to hide personal things like your wig, or a prosthesis."

Fleming was married six times in all, with her husbands including actor Lang Jeffries (they appeared together in 1960's The Revolt of the Slaves) and producer Hall Bartlett.

She had one son, actor Kent Lane, by her marriage to physician Thomas Lane. Survivors also include granddaughters Kelly and Kimberly; great-grandchildren Wagner, Page, Linden, Lane and Cole; great-great grandchildren Ronan and Kiera; niece Lynne; and stepchildren Candace, Cindy, Jill and Kevin.

Fleming wished for donations to be sent to People Assisting the Homeless at 340 N. Madison Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90004-3504; Saint John’s Hospital and Health Center Foundation at 1328 22nd St., Santa Monica, CA 90404; and Childhelp at 4350 E. Camelback Road, Suite F250, Phoenix, AZ 85018.

Duane Byrge contributed to this report.