Janet Leigh (born Jeanette Helen Morrison; July 6, 1927 – October 3, 2004) was an American actress, singer, dancer, and author, whose career spanned over five decades. Raised in Stockton, California by working-class parents, Leigh was discovered at 18 by actress Norma Shearer, who helped her secure a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Leigh appeared in radio programs before her first formal foray into acting, making her film debut in the drama The Romance of Rosy Ridge (1947). With MGM, she appeared in many films which spanned a wide variety of genres, which include the crime-drama Act of Violence (1948), the drama Little Women (1949), the comedy Angels in the Outfield (1951), the romance Scaramouche (1952) and the western drama The Naked Spur (1953). She played dramatic roles during the late 1950s, in such films as Safari (1956) and Orson Welles's film noir Touch of Evil (1958).
Leigh achieved her biggest success starring as Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock's jarring psychological thriller Psycho (1960).
For her performance, Leigh won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress and earned a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Intermittently, she continued to appear in films, including Bye Bye Birdie (1963), Harper (1966), Night of the Lepus (1972), and Boardwalk (1979). She made her Broadway debut in 1975 in a production of Murder Among Friends. She would also go on to appear in two horror films with her daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis: The Fog (1980) and Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998).
In addition to her work as an actress, Leigh also wrote four books between 1984 and 2002, two of which were novels. Leigh had two brief marriages as a teenager (one of which was annulled) before marrying actor Tony Curtis in 1951. The pair's highly publicized union ended in divorce in 1962, and after starring in The Manchurian Candidate that same year, Leigh remarried and scaled back her career. She died in October 2004 at age 77, following a year-long battle with vasculitis, an inflammation of the blood vessels.
Life and career
9 month-old Janet Leigh, c. 1927
Jeanette Helen Morrison was born on July 6, 1927, in Merced, California, the only child of Helen Lita (née Westergaard) and Frederick Robert Morrison. Her maternal grandparents were immigrants from Denmark, and her father had Scots-Irish and German ancestry. Shortly after Leigh's birth, the family relocated to Stockton, where she spent her early life. She was brought up in poverty, as her father struggled to support the family with his factory employment, and he took various additional jobs after the Great Depression.
Leigh was raised Presbyterian and sang in the local church choir throughout her childhood. In 1941, when her paternal grandfather became terminally ill, the family relocated to Merced, where they moved into her grandparents' home. She attended Weber Grammar School in Stockton, and later Stockton High School. Leigh excelled in academics and graduated from high school at age sixteen. During her final year of high school, Leigh married eighteen-year-old John Kenneth Carlisle in Reno, Nevada, on August 1, 1942.[a] The marriage was annulled five months later on December 28, 1942.
1946–1948: Discovery and early roles
Leigh pictured at age eighteen, c. 1945
; actress Norma Shearer
helped facilitate her contract with MGM based on this photo
In February 1946, actress Norma Shearer was vacationing at Sugar Bowl, a ski resort in the Sierra Nevada mountains where Leigh's parents were working at the time. In the resort lobby, Shearer noticed a photograph of Leigh taken by the ski club photographer over the Christmas holiday, which he had printed and placed in a photo album available for guests to browse.
Upon returning to Los Angeles, Shearer showed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) talent agent Lew Wasserman the photograph of the then-eighteen-year-old Leigh (Shearer's late husband Irving Thalberg had been a senior executive at MGM). She would later recall that "that smile made it the most fascinating face I had seen in years. I felt I had to show that face to somebody at the studio." Through her association with MGM, Shearer was able to facilitate screen tests for Leigh with Selena Royle, after which Wasserman negotiated a contract for her, despite her having no acting experience. Leigh dropped out of college that year, and was soon placed under the tutelage of drama coach Lillian Burns.
Prior to beginning her film career, Leigh was a guest star on the radio dramatic anthology The Cresta Blanca Hollywood Players. Her initial appearance on radio at age 19 was in the program's production "All Through the House," a Christmas special that aired on December 24, 1946. She made her film debut in the big-budget Civil War film The Romance of Rosy Ridge (1947), as the romantic interest of box office star Van Johnson's character. She got the role when performing Phyllis Thaxter's long speech in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo for the head of the studio talent department. During the shooting, Leigh's name was first changed to "Jeanette Reames", then to "Janet Leigh" and finally back to her birth name "Jeanette Morrison", as the studio felt "Janet Leigh" might cause confusion with actress Vivien Leigh. However, Johnson did not like the name and it was ultimately changed back to "Janet Leigh" (pronounced "Lee").[
Janet Leigh posing for a publicity photo, c. 1948
Immediately after the release of The Romance of Rosy Ridge, Leigh was cast opposite Walter Pidgeon and Deborah Kerr in the drama If Winter Comes (1947), playing a young pregnant woman in an English village. By early 1948, Leigh was occupied with the shooting of the Lassie film Hills of Home (1948), her third feature and the first in which she received star billing. She played the young wife of composer Richard Rodgers in MGM's all-star musical, Words and Music (1948). In late 1948, she was hailed the "No. 1 glamour girl" of Hollywood, although known for her polite, generous and down-to-earth persona.
1949–1958: Contract with MGM and independent films
Leigh appeared in a number of films in 1949, including the thriller, Act of Violence (1949), with Van Heflin and Robert Ryan, directed by Fred Zinnemann. Though a financial failure, it was well received by critics. She also had a significant hit with MGM's version of Little Women, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott, in which she portrayed Meg March, alongside June Allyson and Elizabeth Taylor. The film was generally well received by critics. Also in 1949, Leigh appeared as a nun in the anti-communist drama The Red Danube, which earned her critical acclaim, followed by a role as Glenn Ford's love interest in The Doctor and the Girl. Other credits from 1949 include as June Forsyte in That Forsyte Woman (1949) opposite Greer Garson and Errol Flynn, and as Robert Mitchum's leading co-star in the RKO-produced Holiday Affair (1949). That December, she started work on Josef von Sternberg's adventure-drama film Jet Pilot, in which she starred as the female lead opposite John Wayne. Producer Howard Hughes' constant re-editing would cause the film to be delayed almost eight years before being released.
At MGM she appeared in Strictly Dishonorable (1951), a comedy with Ezio Pinza, based on a play by Preston Sturges. The film received mild critical acclaim. Leigh then appeared in the baseball-themed fantasy farce Angels in the Outfield (1951), which was a significant commercial success. The same year, RKO borrowed Leigh to appear in the musical Two Tickets to Broadway (1951), which was a box-office success. She was one of many stars in the anthology film It's a Big Country: An American Anthology (1952) and appeared in a romantic comedy with Peter Lawford, Just This Once (1952). Leigh had a significant commercial success with the swashbuckler-themed Scaramouche (1952), in which she starred as Aline de Gavrillac opposite Stewart Granger and Eleanor Parker. Next, she received top-billing in the critically acclaimed comedy Fearless Fagan (1952), about a clown drafted into the military, followed by a role opposite James Stewart in the Western The Naked Spur (1953). The latter, though a low-budget feature, was one of the top-grossing films of the year, and noted by several critics for its psychological components. Less well received was the comedy Confidentially Connie (1953), in which Leigh starred opposite Van Johnson as a pregnant housewife who helps trigger a price war at a local butcher shop.
Paramount borrowed Leigh and Curtis for the biographical feature Houdini (1953)–the couple's first film together–with the two appearing as Harry and Bess Houdini, respectively. The couple also appeared as guests on Martin and Lewis' Colgate Comedy Hour before Leigh was loaned to Universal to appear in the musical Walking My Baby Back Home (1953). Leigh was cast as Robert Wagner's love interest in the Fox-produced adventure film Prince Valiant (1954), a Viking-themed feature based on Hal Foster's comic of the same name. Also in 1954, Leigh had a supporting role in the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedy Living It Up (1954) for Paramount, followed by Universal's swashbuckler film The Black Shield of Falworth (1954), in which she appeared opposite Curtis, marking their second feature together. Leigh also starred opposite Robert Taylor in MGM's film noir Rogue Cop (1954), portraying a femme fatale lounge singer. Variety deemed her performance in the film "satisfactory," but faulted the screenplay for being illogical. Following that film, Leigh ended her contract with MGM after eight years.
Leigh in a photo for the magazine Photoplay
In April 1954 Leigh signed a 4-picture contract with Universal, where her husband was based. She also signed a contract with Columbia to make one film a year for five years. Leigh appeared in Pete Kelly's Blues (1954) with Jack Webb (who also directed), and subsequently starred in her first feature under the deal with Columbia: the title role in the musical comedy My Sister Eileen (1955), co-starring Jack Lemmon, Betty Garrett and Dick York, and based on a series of New Yorker stories about two sisters living in New York City. In early 1955, Leigh and Curtis formed their own independent film production company, Curtleigh Productions. Columbia cast Leigh in Safari (1956) opposite Victor Mature, shot in Kenya for Warwick Pictures. The same year, Leigh and Curtis gave birth to their first child, daughter Kelly. She subsequently made her television debut in an episode of Schlitz Playhouse, "Carriage from Britain". In 1957, the film Jet Pilot, which Leigh had filmed in 1949, was finally released.
1958–1969: Critical acclaim and hiatus
In 1958, Leigh starred as Susan Vargas in the Orson Welles film noir classic Touch of Evil (1958), done at Universal with Charlton Heston, a film with numerous similarities to Alfred Hitchcock's later film Psycho, which was produced two years later; in it, she plays a newlywed tormented in a Mexican border town. Leigh would later describe shooting the film as a "great experience," but added: "Universal just couldn't understand it, so they recut it. Gone was the undisciplined but brilliant film Orson had made." Next, Leigh co-starred in her fourth film with Curtis, The Vikings (1958), produced by and co-starring Kirk Douglas, and released in June 1958. Distributed by United Artists, the film had one of the most expensive marketing campaigns of the 1950s. It was ultimately a blockbuster, grossing over $13 million internationally. Leigh's next film, The Perfect Furlough, was released in early 1959, in which she again co-starred with Curtis, playing a psychiatrist lieutenant in Paris.
Leigh was a lifelong Democrat and appeared alongside Curtis at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in support of John F. Kennedy. She also served on the board of directors of the Motion Picture and Television Foundation, a medical-services provider for actors. Leigh and Curtis next co-starred in the Columbia Pictures farce Who Was That Lady? (released in early 1960), in which Leigh portrayed a wife who catches her professor husband (Curtis) cheating on her, triggering a series of mishaps.
Also in 1960, Leigh was cast in her most iconic role, as the morally conflicted murder victim Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, co-starring with John Gavin and Anthony Perkins, and released by Universal. Leigh was reportedly so traumatized by filming her character's shower murder scene that she went to great lengths to avoid showers for the rest of her life. Released in June 1960, Psycho was a major critical and commercial success. For her performance, Leigh received a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Leigh's role in Psycho became career-defining and she later commented: "I've been in a great many films, but I suppose if an actor can be remembered for one role then they're very fortunate. And in that sense I'm fortunate." Her character's death early in the film has been noted as historically relevant by film scholars as it violated narrative conventions of the time, while her murder scene itself is considered among both critics and film scholars to be one of the most iconic scenes in film history.
Leigh and Curtis both had cameos in Columbia's all-star Pepe (1960), marking their last film together. In 1962, while Leigh was filming the thriller The Manchurian Candidate, Curtis filed for divorce. The divorce was finalized in Juarez, Mexico on September 14, 1962; the following day, Leigh married stockbroker Robert Brandt (1927–2009) in a private ceremony in Las Vegas, Nevada. Leigh would later comment that their divorce was the result of "outside problems", which included the death of Curtis's father. Next, Leigh appeared in the musical comedy Bye Bye Birdie (1963), based on the hit Broadway show. She was also in the comedy Wives and Lovers (1963) for director Hal Wallis at Paramount.
Leigh took a three-year break from her acting career, turning down several roles, including the role of Simone Clouseau in The Pink Panther, because she did not want to go on location and be separated from her young daughters. She returned to film in 1966, appearing in multiple films: first, the western Kid Rodelo (1966), followed by the private detective story Harper (1966), in which she played Paul Newman's estranged wife opposite Lauren Bacall. She next portrayed a psychiatrist opposite Jerry Lewis in the comedy Three on a Couch, followed by a lead role in An American Dream, based on the Norman Mailer novel of the same name; the latter film received critical backlash.
1970–2005: Other endeavors and final years
Leigh's initial television appearances were on anthology programs such as Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre and The Red Skelton Hour. She also starred in several made-for-TV films, most notably the off-length (135 minutes instead of the usual 100) The House on Greenapple Road, which premiered on ABC in January 1970 to high ratings. In 1972, Leigh starred in the science fiction film Night of the Lepus with Stuart Whitman, as well as the drama One Is a Lonely Number with Trish Van Devere. In 1975, she played an ex-Hollywood song and dance star opposite Peter Falk and John Payne in the Columbo episode Forgotten Lady. The episode utilizes footage of Leigh from the film Walking My Baby Back Home (1953). Her many guest appearances on television series include The Man from U.N.C.L.E. two-part episode, "The Concrete Overcoat Affair", in which she played a sadistic Thrush agent named Miss Dyketon, a highly provocative role for mainstream television at the time. The two-part episode was released in Europe as a feature film entitled The Spy in the Green Hat (1967). She also appeared in the title role in The Virginian episode "Jenny" (1970). In 1973, she appeared in the episode "Beginner's Luck" of the romantic anthology series Love Story.
Leigh made her stage debut opposite Jack Cassidy in the original Broadway production of Murder Among Friends, which opened at the Biltmore Theatre on December 28, 1975. The play ran for seventeen performances, closing on January 10, 1976. The play received varied reviews, with some critics who attended preview performances disliking the show. In 1979, Leigh appeared in a supporting role in Boardwalk opposite Ruth Gordon and Lee Strasberg, and received critical praise, with Vincent Canby of The New York Times lauding it as her "best role in years". In addition to her work as an actress, Leigh also authored four books. Her first, the memoir There Really Was a Hollywood (1984), became a New York Times bestseller. In 1995, she published the non-fiction book Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller. In 1996, she published her first novel, House of Destiny, which explored the lives of two friends who forged an empire that would change the course of Hollywood's history. The book's success spawned a follow-up novel, The Dream Factory (2002), which was set in Hollywood during the height of the studio system.
Leigh subsequently appeared opposite her daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, in John Carpenter's supernatural horror film The Fog (1980), in which a phantom schooner unleashes ghosts on a small coastal community. Leigh would appear opposite her daughter once again in Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998), playing the secretary of Laurie Strode. On television, Leigh acted in the Murder, She Wrote episode "Doom with a View" (1987), as Barbara LeMay in an episode of The Twilight Zone ("Rendezvous in a dark place", 1989) and the Touched by an Angel episode "Charade" (1997). She guest-starred twice as different characters on both Fantasy Island and The Love Boat, as well as Tales of the Unexpected. Leigh continued to grant interviews and appear at red carpet events through the early 2000s. Her final film credit was in the teen film Bad Girls from Valley High (2005), opposite Christopher Lloyd.
After a tenure at Stockton College (now San Joaquin Delta College), Leigh enrolled at the College of the Pacific (now University of the Pacific) in September 1943, where she majored in music and psychology. While in college, she joined the Alpha Theta Tau sorority, and also sang with the college's a cappella choir. In order to help support her family, she spent Christmas and summer vacations working at retail shops and dime stores, as well as working at the college's information desk during her studies. While a university student, Leigh met Stanley Reames, a U.S. Navy sailor who was enrolled at a nearby V-12 Program. Leigh and Reames married on October 6, 1945, when she was eighteen; their marriage, however, was also short-lived, and they divorced less than three years later.
Though Leigh initially left college to pursue her film career, she re-enrolled in night classes at the University of Southern California in early 1947.
On June 4, 1951, Leigh married actor Tony Curtis in a private ceremony in Greenwich, Connecticut. Their romance and marriage was a frequent topic in gossip columns and film tabloids. From 1951 to 1954 Leigh and Curtis appeared in numerous home movies directed by their friend Jerry Lewis. Leigh credited the experimental and informal nature of these films for allowing her to stretch her acting ability and attempt new roles. On November 22, 1958, Leigh gave birth to her second daughter with Curtis, Jamie Lee. Curtis and Leigh divorced in 1962. She married businessman Robert Brandt later that year.
Leigh's crypt in Westwood
Leigh died at her home in Beverly Hills on October 3, 2004, at age 77, after a protracted battle with vasculitis. Her death surprised many, as she had not disclosed her illness to the public. She was survived by her daughters, Kelly and Jamie and her husband of 42 years, Robert Brandt. Leigh was cremated and her ashes were entombed at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in the Westwood Village neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Janet Leigh posing in a publicity photo for Psycho
Janet Leigh (right) with actors John Gavin
(center) and Vera Miles
(left) in a publicity photo for Psycho
Awards and honors
Awards and nominations
Leigh was awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, on May 14, 2004, where she had attended college. At the time, Leigh's health was compromised by vasculitis, and she delivered a speech at the ceremony from a wheelchair. On October 13, 2006, Jamie Lee Curtis and Kelly Curtis unveiled a bronze plaque of their mother to honor her early life in Stockton. The memorial is located in the downtown Stockton plaza adjacent to the City Center Cinemas, since renamed "Janet Leigh Plaza".
Leigh was honored posthumously by University of the Pacific with the naming of the "Janet Leigh Theatre" on the Stockton campus on June 25, 2010. The plaque at the theatre reads as follows:
Pacific's Janet Leigh Theatre - Made possible by a generous gift from the Robert Brandt and Janet Leigh Brandt Estate. The Janet Leigh Theatre was created to bind the experiences and friendships that Janet Leigh valued while a student at Pacific. This memorial is a tribute to her life and career in the Stockton region as well as her magnificent contributions to the Hollywood film industry as an actress, wife, mother and humanitarian. Dedicated Friday, June 25, 2010.
- ^ For dramatic reasons, an article "Janet Leigh's Own Story—″I Was a Child Bride at 14!″", in the December 1960 issue of Motion Picture Magazine, wrongly stated the marriage occurred in 1941, while she was only fourteen years old.
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