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Golden Age actress and singer Rhonda Fleming dies at 97

By Devin Kelly, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES - Rhonda Fleming, the green-eyed, auburn-haired actress who was known as the Queen of Technicolor during Hollywood's Golden Age and who made a mark as a philanthropist by channeling her wealth and prominence into helping others, has died. She was 97.

Fleming died on Wednesday in a Santa Monica hospital, her assistant, Carla Sapon, told the New York Times.

As a budding Beverly Hills High School teenager in the early 1940s, Fleming caught the eye of a talent scout for producer David O. Selznick. Selznick cast her in the 1945 Alfred Hitchcock film "Spellbound" and launched an international star.

Fleming deployed her talents as an actress and singer in starring roles opposite the top leading men in Hollywood, including Bing Crosby, Rock Hudson, Charlton Heston, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster and Ronald Reagan. Producers quickly discovered the striking visual impact of her eyes, hair and creamy skin in Technicolor, which put Fleming in high demand for the westerns, period pieces and jungle adventure movies of the 1940s and '50s.

But while Fleming never made, in her words, "a classic like 'Casablanca,'" she proved herself a versatile actress who took on challenges. She stood out as the secretary who frames Robert Mitchum's private eye character in the celebrated 1947 film noir "Out of the Past," and as the villainous stepsister in the 1958 psychological drama "Home Before Dark."

Her career, which spanned more than 40 films and numerous television parts, epitomized that of a true Hollywood working professional, said Jeanine Basinger, a film historian and author of "A Women's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women."

 

"She had what you would call a journeyman's career, in the most positive sense," said Basinger, a professor of film studies at Wesleyan University. "She endured. She labored. But she was on top of it. She could appear in any kind of movie."

She could sing, too - and a lifelong ambition to do so blossomed in 1957, when Fleming stepped out onto the stage of the newly opened Tropicana nightclub in Las Vegas to rave reviews. She also appeared on Broadway, performing in a 1973 revival of Clare Booth Luce's "The Women."

The actress was married six times, including for 23 years to Ted Mann of Mann Theaters, until he died in 2001.

Throughout her career, Fleming said she disliked the Queen of Technicolor moniker, preferring to point instead to her professional accomplishments.

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