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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,570

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This is the grave of Janet Leigh.

Born in 1927 in Merced, California, Jeannette Morrison grew up in Stockton. I can see why she would want to move to Hollywood! Leigh graduated from high school and was just living at home. Her parents were fairly well off so it wasn’t uncomfortable or anything. But Leigh got discovered by Norma Shearer. In 1946, Shearer was vacationing at Lake Tahoe. Her father had taken some pictures of locals and one of them was of Leigh. Shearer was like, that’s a face for Hollywood! So she went back to Hollywood and used her significant connections (her ex-husband was Irving Thalberg) to get the girl some attention. MGM was interested and they signed Leigh to a contract without even an acting test. Leigh was like, uh, OK. And a career began. Before this, she had gone to what is today the College of the Pacific in Stockton, majoring in music and psychology. She didn’t finish there, but even into her career she enrolled in classes at USC.

Leigh did a bit of radio as she prepared for the movies. But she was in the films as early as 1947, in The Romance of Rosy Ridge, a stupid Civil War era romance. But the point here is this was her film debut and she played the love interest of the hero, played by Van Johnson. It was right about this time that the studio settled on Janet Leigh for her stage name, despite some objections that it was too close to Vivian Leigh’s name, which seems reasonable to me. By the time Leigh was in her third film, the Lassie vehicle Hills of Home, in 1948, she received star billing.

As it turned out, Leigh was quite versatile. She could do musicals, comedies, drama, pretty much whatever you needed. Plus her look appealed to audiences. So she shot to the stars pretty fast. Act of Violence, the Fred Zinneman noir with Robert Ryan and Van Heflin, didn’t do that well at the box office but did great among critics. Little Women, where she played alongside Elizabeth Taylor and June Allyson, was a big box office hit for MGM and its director Mervyn LeRoy. For the next several years, Leigh was just sort of everywhere and doing a huge variety of roles. She did high end arty comedies such as Strictly Dishonorable. She did silly popular comedies such as Angels in the Outfield. She played a serious nun in The Red Danube, about the horrors of communism taking over eastern Europe. She was cast as top love interest of big male stars, such as working that role with Glenn Ford in The Doctor and the Girl. She worked with James Stewart in the excellent western The Naked Spur, one of the more interesting entries into that genre in the 50s. She did work in Martin and Lewis films, in swashbucklers, in cop films.

She also started working with Tony Curtis. They fell in love and married in 1951, having two children, one of whom is Jamie Lee Curtis. The marriage lasted 11 years. It was her third already and she would have one more. It was his first, he would end up with six. They formed their own production company and became a power couple before the marriage started falling apart in the late 50s.

Leigh would have her greatest roles in the late 50s and early 60s. The first of these is in Touch of Evil, which is a ridiculous and yet wonderful movie. The idea of Charlton Heston playing a Mexican is absurd on the face of it and yet the cast and Orson Welles’ direction make this one of the most wondrous pieces of pulp ever filmed. Leigh plays Heston’s new American wife as they get waylaid trying to solve a murder along the border that involves Welles’ corrupt cop. She filmed The Vikings with Kirk Douglas right after that and it was a huge blockbuster, though I haven’t seen it. There were a couple more films. Then Alfred Hitchcock came calling to cast her in Psycho. Yep, she could play that frosty blonde too. Evidently, watching Psycho after it came out so scared Leigh that she tried to avoid showers for the rest of her life. This became her iconic role, for better or for worse. It’s extremely rare that any one scene becomes so iconic that it defines an actor’s life. But that shower scene sure did it. She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for that role as well, the only time she received an Oscar nomination.

Then there was Leigh’s work in John Frankenheimer’s astoundingly good 1962 thriller The Manchurian Candidate, with Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, and Angela Lansbury. There was a bit of time off for the divorce from Curtis and then her single life, which lasted less than 24 hours before she married again. But Leigh was also tired of working. She was at the height of her stardom. But she had her daughters and she wanted time with them. She started turning down roles, including The Pink Panther. In 1966, she started working again for the first time in three years, but the roles were not what they were, though she did still work alongside big actors like Paul Newman and Lauren Bacall.

By the 70s. most of Leigh’s work took place on TV, as was common with older actors. Mostly, these were forgettable (or forgotten in any case) made for TV movies. She also started working on the stage in the mid 70s, which she had never done before. She worked the occasional film in this era, most notably in Boardwalk, with Ruth Gordon and Lee Strasberg. She also worked with her daughter Jamie Lee in John Carpenter’s The Fog, in 1980.

Leigh also started writing her memoirs. In fact, she would publish four books in her later years. There Really Was a Hollywood was a best seller upon its publication in 1984. In 1995, she published  Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller, which of course fans were excited to read. She even published two novels, set in the classic Hollywood of her heyday. And as one would expect, she flourished in the old actor roles of the era. Yep, she was on The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, and Murder She Wrote. This was truly the trifecta of TV shows where aging actors guest-starred. In fact, she did the former two shows on multiple occasions. Her last film was 2005’s Bad Girls from Valley High, which has a bunch of kids now forgotten and also Christopher Lloyd.

Also, unlike so many of the Hollywood figures we have profiled in this series of late, Leigh actually was a good liberal and consistently supported Democrats.

Leigh died in 2004 of vasculitis. Sounds unpleasant. She was 77 years old.

And hey, it is also the grave of some dude named Robert Lecky. Hi Bob!

Janet Leigh is buried in Westwood Memorial Park, Los Angeles, California.

If you would like this series to visit other people nominated for Oscars in 1960, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. This happens to be one of those years where there were lots of British actors nominated, plus a surprising number of people alive, including Shirley Jones, who won Best Supporting Actress that year for Elmer Gantry. Chill Wills, nominated for Best Supporting Actor for The Alamo, is in Glendale, California. John Wayne, who as producer of The Alamo, was the top-line person for that film’s Best Picture nomination, is in Newport Beach, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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