Rhonda Fleming, actress of Hollywood’s Golden Age, dies at 97

Sarah Carty
·Lifestyle Editor
·4-min read

Reporting by AP

Actress Rhonda Fleming, the fiery redhead who appeared in some of the top movies of the 1940s and 1950s, has died at the age of 97.

The star died on Wednesday in Santa Monica, California, her assistant Carla Sapon told The Associated Press.

Rhonda Fleming arrives at the 2003 Society of Singers ELLA Awards
Rhonda Fleming has passed away at the age of 97. Photo: Getty Images

Rhonda was one of the most glamorous actresses of her time and starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court with Bing Crosby as well as over 40 more films throughout her expansive career.

She also possessed a fine singing voice, and later in her career sang onstage in Las Vegas and in a touring act.

In the big-studio era, many new personalities were publicized as having been discovered in quirky ways: Kim Novak while riding a bicycle past an agent’s office, Lana Turner spotted in a malt shop.

In Rhonda’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.

Rhonda Fleming, US actress, wearing a white sheer outfit, with white feathers in her hair, in a studio portrait, circa 1955.
Rhonda was one of the most glamorous actresses of her time and starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court with Bing Crosby as well as over 40 more films throughout her expansive career. Photo: Getty Images

Legend or not, at 19 Louis was awarded a six-month 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.”

Spellbound led to another suspense film, The Spiral Staircase, in which she was strangled by the villain, George Brent.

With Selznick concentrating on the career of his wife, Jennifer Jones, he lost interest in his contract players, and Rhonda left the studio to freelance.

Her next films: Abilene Town, a Randolph Scott Western; Out of the Past, a film noir with Robert Mitchum; and Adventure Island, a tropics thriller starring Rory Calhoun.

She won a role in A Connecticut Yankee, a Crosby musical based on the Mark Twain story, after Deanna Durbin dropped out to retire to France.

Crosby was so impressed that he recommended her to Bob Hope, with whom she starred in The Great Lover.

Actress Rhonda Fleming pose at a party in Los Angeles, California.
She also possessed a fine singing voice, and later in her career sang onstage in Las Vegas and in a touring act. Photo: Getty Images

After her film career cooled off, Rhonda 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.

While still in her teens, Rhonda married her high school sweetheart, Thomas Lane. A son, Kent, was born in 1941.

When Lane returned from Army service, Rhonda had become a star, and the marriage ended in 1947.

Three other marriages also ended in divorce, to Beverly Hills surgeon Lewis Morrill (1952-1958); actor Lang Jeffries (1960-1962); and producer-director Hall Bartlett (1966-1972).

In 1977, she married mogul Ted Mann, who built the Mann Theater chain, and the marriage lasted until his death in 2001.

For many years, they lived in matching 4,300-square-foot condominiums, one on top of the other in a Century City high-rise.

After her sister, Beverly Engel, died of cancer in 1991, Rhonda and her husband established the Rhonda Fleming Mann Resource Center for Women with Cancer at the UCLA Medical Center.

A couple of years after Mann died, Rhonda married for a sixth time, to Derol W. Carlson, who died in 2017.

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The late Associated Press correspondent Bob Thomas compiled material for this story.

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