Susan Harrison, 'Sweet Smell of Success' Actress, Dies at 80

United Artists/Photofest
Susan Harrison in 1957's 'Sweet Smell of Success'

She also appeared on 'The Twilight Zone' and 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents' before ending her brief career in 1963.

Susan Harrison, who starred opposite Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis as the sensitive younger sister of an unscrupulous newspaper columnist in the hard-boiled drama Sweet Smell of Success, has died. She was 80.

Harrison died March 5 at a nursing facility in North Hills, California, her daughter, Darva Arellano, told The Hollywood Reporter.

"She was an amazingly talented and highly trained actress who started acting on Broadway and became a bona fide movie star," Arellano wrote on Instagram. "She had many titles, but to me she was my sweet Mom, and there will never be another like her."

Outside of Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Harrison appeared only one other time on the big screen, as a member of a ruthless street gang seeking to silence an eyewitness in Phil Karlson's Key Witness (1960). The movie was an early vehicle for Dennis Hopper and also starred Jeffrey Hunter.

On television, Harrison was unforgettable in 1961 as the ballet dancer trapped alongside a clown, hobo, army major and bagpiper in a nondescript room in the Twilight Zone episode "Five Characters in Search of an Exit."

Also that year, she appeared in the Breck Shampoo Co.'s 1961 presentation of Rudyard Kipling's The Light That Failed opposite Richard Basehart, and on an installment of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, directed by Sweet Smell editor Alan Crosland Jr., she played a teenager feigning a daylight assault.

In her most famous role, Harrison portrayed Susan Hunsecker, the sister of Lancaster's deplorable tabloid columnist J.J. Hunsecker. His character was a none-too-veiled reference to real-life gossip king Walter Winchell.

Susan's romance with jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (Martin Milner) is sabotaged by press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), who is working on behest of J.J.

Her vulnerability reaches a devastating climax in the film's finale in an upper-floor apartment of The Brill Building. "For all the things you've done, J.J., I know I should hate you. But I don't. I pity you," she says.

Shot on location in midtown Manhattan, Sweet Smell of Success was written by playwright Clifford Odets and screenwriter Ernest Lehman (whose next project would be North by Northwest). Inducted into the National Film Registry in 1993, it is admired for its taut screenplay, Elmer Bernstein score and stunning black-and-white cinematography from James Wong Howe.

"Not only was Odets always there, everyone was always there," Harrison told Eddie Muller at a retrospective screening in 2007. "There were constant daily around-the-table discussions, revisions, changes. Everyone was welcome to their input. It was most democratic. I had never in my entire experience saw such a hands-on, constantly changing, totally co-operative group."

The drama was directed by Alexander Mackendrick, who helmed popular Ealing Studios pictures Whisky Galore! (1949), The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955). Overseeing Mackendrick's first American film was Lancaster, who produced Sweet Smell of Success through his Hecht-Hill-Lancaster company.

"Although [Mackendrick] was very gentlemanly and acted quietly normally, on the set he was commanding and ferocious. And as a matter of fact, the integrity of his leadership was the strongest comfort probably for all us, certainly for me," Harrison recalled.

Born on Aug. 26, 1938, in Leesburg, Florida, Harrison was the daughter of vaudeville performers. She studied at the School of Performing Arts in the Bronx and then at Boston University under the direction of Odets protege Peter Kass.

Harrison made her onscreen debut in 1956 on an installment of Star Treater, appeared on Broadway in William Saroyan's The Cave Dwellers a year later and guest-starred in 1960 on NBC's Bonanza as a gypsy and love interest of Michael Landon's character. But after a 1963 gig on the ABC medical drama Breaking Point, she left show business to focus on her family.

In recent years, Harrison reconnected with acting at the Los Angeles wing of the Actors Studio.

In February 2000, her daughter, then known as Darva Conger, was declared the winner of Fox's Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? However, her marriage to Rick Rockwell was annulled months later.

Survivors also include her son D.H. and grandchildren Cassius, Naomi and Chase.

Mike Barnes contributed to this report.