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Overview for Janet Leigh
Janet Leigh

Janet Leigh


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Also Known As: Jeanette Helen Morrison,Jeanette Reems Died: October 3, 2004
Born: July 6, 1927 Cause of Death: vasculitis
Birth Place: Merced, California, USA Profession: Cast ... actor author


Actress Janet Leigh's early film career found her playing wholesome ingénues in everything from musicals and Westerns to comedies and thrillers, which made excellent if artistically unremarkable use of her generous smile and unflaggingly positive nature. But in 1960, Leigh's name - and terrifying screams - became synonymous with cinematic legend as Alfred Hitchcock's doomed heroine in the infamous stabbing shower scene from "Psycho." Despite her later roles, which were eventually superceded by turns as a mother, humanitarian and best-selling author, audiences would still forever remember those fateful 45 seconds of the dying Leigh, glimpsed in naked silhouette, her hands tearing vainly at the shower curtain as her blood spirals down the drain. Like the film itself, Leigh became an enduring part of the fabric of movie history.

Born Jeanette Helen Morrison on July 6, 1927 in Merced, CA, she was the only child of Helen Lita and Frederick Robert Morrison, an insurance and real estate agent, and spent her childhood moving from town to town due to her father's changing jobs during the Great Depression. A bright girl who skipped several grades in school, Leigh took music and dance lessons, making her public debut at age 10 as a baton twirler for a marching band. Her favorite times were the afternoons spent at the local movie house, which she referred to as her "babysitter." She had an impetuous side as well - at the age of 14, she ran away to Reno, NV to marry her childhood sweetheart, John Carlyle. The union lasted only one day before her mother caught up with her and had it annulled. Leigh then returned to high school, graduating just before her 16th birthday, and went on to study music and psychology at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA. By the time she was 19, Leigh was on to her second marriage to a struggling musician named Stanley Reames.

While visiting her parents at a ski lodge near Truckee in northern California, where her father was a desk clerk, Leigh's peaches-and-cream complexion attracted the attention of retired MGM matriarch Norma Shearer, who asked to present a photo of Leigh to talent agent Lew Wasserman. Shearer then arranged for Leigh (whose prior acting experience consisted of a college play) to be signed with MCA's talent agency. After just a single screen test, Leigh left college and signed her first studio contract with MGM for $50 a week. Displaying an innate acting ability, Leigh's debut was in a leading role opposite the studio's then top male star, Van Johnson, in 1947's "The Romance of Rosy Ridge," for which she was billed as Janet Leigh. Though little-remembered today, the film marked the beginning of Leigh's ascent. She was immediately cast as songwriter Richard Rogers' wife in the studio's all-star biopic, "Words and Music" (1948).

By 1949, her marriage to Reames was over, and Leigh was making five movies a year. Her breakthrough role came that year in MGM's Technicolor adaptation of "Little Women" (1949), in which she starred opposite such established young actresses as Elizabeth Taylor, June Allyson and Margaret O'Brien. Leigh's acclaimed performance as the restrained Meg March, the beautiful eldest daughter who struggles to reconcile her desire to marry with her devotion to her family, enabled her to stretch her acting abilities like never before. That same year, Leigh appeared opposite Errol Flynn, Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon and Robert Young in the costume drama "That Forsythe Woman" (1949). Critics railed against the overblown production, yet singled out Leigh for what was the film's most credible performance.

Leigh's roles in the early 1950s were largely ornamental; she was the attractive ingénue or object of romantic desire for male stars ranging from Stewart Granger in "Scaramouche" (1952) to Robert Wagner in "Prince Valiant" (1954). There were exceptions to this string of aesthetically pleasing if unchallenging lineup; she showed a feisty comic side as a reporter in the baseball fantasy "Angels in the Outfield" (1951), and found herself in the center of intense rivalry between James Stewart and Robert Ryan in Anthony Mann's iconic Western, "The Naked Spur" (1953). Off-screen, Leigh was also the focus of considerable attention from high-powered men in the business. She caught the eye of RKO chief Howard Hughes, who hoped to woo her with appearances in several of his films. However, she was soon linked to up-and-coming heartthrob Tony Curtis, whom she eventually married in 1951. Their nuptials were the center of a media frenzy in the tabloids, who dubbed the attractive duo "Hollywood's Perfect Couple." They were also occasional co-stars in five lackluster film projects, ranging from the biopic "Houdini" (1953) and "The Black Shield of Falworth" (1954) to "The Vikings" (1958) - all of which did little to attract audiences, but helped diffuse Leigh's cookie-cutter image.

Leigh came into her own late in the decade when she signed on to appear in Orson Welles' film-noir thriller "Touch of Evil" (1958), replacing her sweet innocence with sexual intensity as Susan Vargas, the newlywed wife of a Mexican narcotics agent (Charlton Heston) who is terrorized by a gang of local thugs and later, Welles' corpulent local police official. Though considered a film noir classic, "Evil" was severely re-edited by Universal before its original release and proved a commercial failure. A restored and re-edited version of the film - true to Welles' original conception - debuted in 1998 to worldwide critical plaudits. Only much later did Leigh reveal that she filmed nearly all of "Evil" while hiding a broken arm behind costumes and convenient staging.

For years, the Leigh-Curtis romance was hailed as Tinseltown's happiest marriage: Their first daughter, Kelly was born on June 17, 1956, followed two years later on Nov. 22, 1958 by Jamie Lee, who, like her parents, went on to become a Hollywood star in her own right. In 1960, director Alfred Hitchcock offered Leigh the role that would secure her a place in the annals of Hollywood history. Hitchcock sent her the novel Psycho - which formed the basis of the script - and was based on the true-life story of Wisconsin psychopath Ed Gein, whose crimes later informed "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1974) and "The Silence of the Lambs" (1992). The end result was a landmark in Hollywood moviemaking, both controversial and shocking - partly because of its violence and partly because the director did the unthinkable and killed off Leigh, his top-billed star, 40 minutes into the film. Her character, Marion Crane - another erotically charged role - flees her job with $40,000 of her boss' money, only to meet a gruesome end in the shower of an out-of-the-way motel managed by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). The famous shower sequence became the film's show-stopping highlight, thanks to Hitchcock's subtle editing - which never showed the knife entering Leigh's flesh - and Bernard Herrmann's shrill score, but it was Leigh's performance, at once arousing, shocking, and ultimately tragic, which provided its most memorable scene.

A breakthrough in movie entertainment, "Psycho" was an enormous box-office success and later a fixture of popular American culture, as well as the focus of numerous film studies textbooks. Leigh, who became somewhat of a cult figure as a result of that unsettling scene, received a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Crane, as well as the only Oscar nomination of her career. It also ushered Leigh into superstar territory. But while her career prospered, her marriage deteriorated - due to Curtis' philandering ways. Their 11-year marriage finally ended when Leigh found a stash of marijuana and told her husband to get rid of it because of the children. In 1962, Leigh was granted a quick divorce and married her fourth and final husband, stockbroker Robert Brandt. Meanwhile, Curtis, who admitted to cheating on Leigh throughout their marriage, left her for Christine Kaufmann, the 17-year-old German co-star of his latest film "Taras Bulba" (1962). From then on, Leigh dedicated herself to being a wife and mother, as well as a committed political activist, which she had begun after befriending John F. Kennedy. At one point, she was even asked by President Lyndon Johnson to become American Ambassador to Finland, but declined because of family commitments. Always a humanitarian, in 1962, Leigh toured South America to promote the Peace Corps.

Leigh's shift in priorities largely signaled an end to her streak of hits at the box office, though there was still the occasional film of note during the 1960s. She had a minor but memorable role in John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962) as a woman who meets a frazzled Sinatra on a train and engages him in a fascinatingly bizarre conversation of non-sequiturs. Leigh late received top billing alongside Dick Van Dyke in Columbia's film adaptation of the hit Broadway show "Bye Bye Birdie" (1963). Although Leigh's role was originally as prominent as her billing, Columbia executives decided to re-focus the film on its rising teen sex symbol Ann-Margret at the expense of both Leigh and Van Dyke. However, Leigh made the most of her screen time and proved she had retained her flair for comedy after years of noir thrillers.

After 1966, Leigh spent most of her career doing forgettable guest appearances on TV shows and playing supporting movie parts in the 1970s. Leaving movies behind, one of Leigh's best known small screen roles was in "Columbo: Forgotten Lady" (ABC) as a retired Hollywood song and dance star. She also made a return to the big screen with her younger daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, in John Carpenter's horror film "The Fog" in 1980. Nearly two decades later, she renewed her "scream queen" status with a cameo in the 1998 horror sequel, "Halloween H20: 20 Years Later." Her last film was the largely unseen "A Fate Totally Worse than Death" in 2000.

In 1984, Leigh turned from award-winning actress to scribe with her autobiography There Really Was a Hollywood and as co-author of Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller in 1995, in which she discussed at length her own memories of the project, as well as her response to its enduring legacy. She eventually developed a modestly successful career as an author, beginning in 1996 with her first novel, House of Destiny, which explored the lives of two whose friendship forged an empire that would change the course of Hollywood's history. And in 2002, she published a follow-up, The Dream Factory, which was set in Hollywood during the height of the studio system - an environment with which she was intimately familiar.

In addition to her lengthy acting career, Leigh served on the board of directors of the Motion Picture and Television Foundation, a medical services provider for actors. Among her many honors was an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from her alma mater at University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA on May 14, 2004. Five months later on Oct. 3, 2004, after a year-long battle with vasculitis, the 77-year-old screen legend died in her sleep at her Beverly Hills home after suffering cardiac arrest, with her two daughters and husband by her side.

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