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Rhonda Fleming, film star of 1940s, dies at 97

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FILE - In this March 1, 1955 file photo, Actress Rhonda Fleming reads in her penthouse apartment in Rome.  Actress Rhonda Fleming, the fiery redhead who appeared with Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, Ronald Reagan and other film stars of the 1940s and 1950s, has died, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020.
FILE - In this March 1, 1955 file photo, Actress Rhonda Fleming reads in her penthouse apartment in Rome. Actress Rhonda Fleming, the fiery redhead who appeared with Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, Ronald Reagan and other film stars of the 1940s and 1950s, has died, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020. She was 97.(AP Photo/Jim Pringle, File) Photo Gallery

LOS ANGELES  — Actress Rhonda Fleming, the fiery redhead who appeared with Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, Ronald Reagan and other film stars of the 1940s and 1950s, has died. She was 97.

Fleming died Wednesday in Santa Monica, Calif., assistant Carla Sapon told The Associated Press.

From her first film in color, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” (1949) with Bing Crosby, Fleming became immensely popular with producers because of her vivid hues.

“Suddenly my green eyes were green. My red hair was flaming red. My skin was porcelain white,” Fleming remarked in a 1990 interview. “There was suddenly all this attention on how I looked rather than the roles I was playing.

“I’d been painted into a corner by the studios, who never wanted more from me than my looking good and waltzing through a parade of films like ‘The Redhead and the Cowboy,'” she said.

Before Reagan entered politics, the actress co-starred with him in “Hong Kong,” “Tropic Zone,” “The Last Outpost” and “Tennessee’s Partner.”

“He surprised everyone because he never looked in a mirror,” she once said of Reagan. “How many actors can you say that about?”

Fleming possessed a fine singing voice, and later in her career sang onstage in Las Vegas.

In the big-studio era, many new personalities were publicized as having been discovered in quirky ways.

In Fleming’s case, young Marilyn Louis was reported to have been headed to class at Beverly Hills High School when a man followed her in a big black car and told her, “You ought to be in pictures.” She eluded him, but he turned up at her home and offered to be her agent.

At 19 Louis was awarded a contract at the studio of David O. Selznick and a new name: Rhonda Fleming. She played a bit part in the 1944 wartime drama “Since You Went Away,” and then Alfred Hitchcock chose her to play a nymphomaniac in “Spellbound,” starring Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck.

“I rushed home, and my mother and I looked up ‘nymphomaniac’ in the dictionary,” she recalled. “We were both shocked.”

After her film career cooled off, Fleming took a singing act to Las Vegas, appeared in TV shows and commercials, starred on Broadway in a revival of “The Women” and sang as the temptress Lalume in “Kismet” for the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera.

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