Icon Of The Month: Janet Leigh

That’s right, this month the amazing Janet Leigh, is my icon of the month.

The only child of Helen Lita (née Westergaard) and Frederick Robert Morrison, Leigh was born Jeanette Helen Morrison on July 6, 1927 in Merced, California, where she also grew up. Her maternal grandparents were immigrants from Denmark, and she also had Scots-Irish and German ancestry. Leigh attended grammar school and high school in Stockton, California, skipping several grades and graduating at age 15.

In winter 1945, she was discovered by actress Norma Shearer, whose late husband Irving Thalberg had been a senior executive at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Shearer showed talent agent Lew Wasserman a photograph she had seen of Leigh while vacationing at Sugar Bowl, the ski resort where the girl’s parents worked. Shearer later recalled 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.” Leigh left the College of the Pacific, where she was studying Music and Psychology, after Wasserman secured a contract with MGM, despite having no acting experience. She was placed under the tutelage of drama coach Lillian Burns.

Prior to beginning her movie 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,” December 24, 1946. Leigh made her film debut in the big budget film “The Romance of Rosy Ridge” in 1947, as the romantic interest of 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”  because “Janet Leigh” resembled Vivien Leigh too much. However, Johnson did not like the name and it was finally changed back to “Janet Leigh”. Leigh initially left college for a film career, but enrolled in night school at the University of Southern California in 1947. Immediately after the film’s release, Leigh was cast opposite Walter Pidgeon and Deborah Kerr in “If Winter Comes” in the summer of 1947. Furthermore, due to the box office success of “The Romance of Rosy Ridge”, Leigh and Johnson were teamed up again in a film project called “The Life of Monty Stratton” in August 1947.

The project was eventually shelved and released in 1949 as “The Stratton Story”, starring James Stewart and June Allyson. Another film that Leigh was set to star in, before being replaced, was “Alias A Gentleman”, in which she was cast in April 1947. By late 1947, Leigh was occupied with the shooting of the ‘Lassie’ film “Hills Of Home” (1948), the first film in which she received star billing. In late 1948, Leigh was hailed the “No. 1 glamour girl” of Hollywood, although known for her polite, generous and down-to-earth persona.

Many movies followed, notably the box-office hit “Little Women” (1949), based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott. She proved versatile, starring in films as diverse as the baseball farce “Angels in the Outfield” in 1951 and the tense western “The Naked Spur” in 1953. The following year, she had a supporting role in the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedy “Living It Up”. In 1955, Leigh played the title role in the musical comedy “My Sister Eileen”, co-starring Jack Lemmon, Betty Garrett and Dick York. Her initial roles were ingenues based on characters from historical literature, for example in “Scaramouche” opposite Stewart Granger. By 1956, she moved to more complex roles, such as the role of ‘Linda Latham’ in “Safari” opposite Victor Mature.

She co-starred with then-husband Tony Curtis in five films, “Houdini” (1953), “The Black Shield of Falworth” (1954), “The Vikings” (1958), “The Perfect Furlough” (1958) and “Who Was That Lady?” (1960). They also had cameos together in a sixth film, “Pepe” (1960). In 1958, Leigh starred as ‘Susan Vargas’ in the Orson Welles film noir classic “Touch of Evil” (1958) with Charlton Heston, a film with numerous similarities to Alfred Hitchcock’s later film “Psycho”, which was produced two years after “Touch of Evil”.

Her most famous role was as the morally ambiguous ‘Marion Crane’, co-starring with John Gavin and Anthony Perkins, in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960), featuring its iconic shower murder scene. The fact that the star died early in the movie violated narrative conventions of the time. She received a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance. Leigh was so traumatized by the shower scene that she went to great lengths to avoid showers for the rest of her life.

Leigh had starring roles in many other films, including the stark drama “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962) with Frank Sinatra, and the musical comedy “Bye Bye Birdie” (1963) based on the hit Broadway show. Following those two films, the recently divorced/remarried Leigh took a break from her acting career and turned down several roles, including the role of ‘Simone Clouseau’ in “The Pink Panther”, because she didn’t want to go off on location and away from her family. In 1966, she portrayed Paul Newman’s estranged wife in the private-detective story “Harper” and re-teamed with Jerry Lewis for the comedy “Three on a Couch”.

Leigh worked frequently in television from the late 1960s onward. Her initial television appearances were on anthology programs such as “Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre” and “The Red Skelton Hour”, and later, “Tales of the Unexpected”. 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  with Stuart Whitman as well as the drama “One Is a Lonely Number” with Trish Van Devere. In 1975, she played a retired 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), the “Murder, She Wrote” episode “Doom with a View” (1987), as ‘Barbara LeMay’ in an episode of “The Twilight Zone” (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”. In 1973, she appeared in the episode “Beginner’s Luck” of the romantic anthology series “Love Story”. Leigh appeared in two horror films with her daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, playing a major role in “The Fog” (1980), and making a brief cameo appearance in “Halloween H20: 20 Years Later” (1998). Her final film was “Bad Girls from Valley High” (2005).

Leigh is also the author of 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.

At age 15, Leigh eloped with 18-year-old John Kenneth Carlisle in Reno, Nevada, on August 1, 1942. The marriage was annulled four months later, on December 28, 1942. She married Stanley Reames October 5, 1945 at the age of 18 and they were divorced on September 7, 1949.
On June 4, 1951, Leigh married actor Tony Curtis. They had two children, Kelly Lee (1956) and Jamie Lee (1958), who both subsequently became actresses. Curtis had divorce papers served to Leigh on the set of “The Manchurian Candidate”. On September 15, 1962, shortly after it was finalized, Leigh married stockbroker Robert Brandt in Las Vegas. They remained married for 42 years until her death in 2004.

She served on the board of directors of the Motion Picture and Television Foundation, a medical-services provider for actors. Leigh was awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, on May 14, 2004. 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 died at her home in Los Angeles on October 3, 2004, at age 77, from vasculitis. Her body was cremated, and its ashes were interred at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.

(When asked if it was true that she doesn’t take showers) It’s actually, honestly true. And not because of the shooting of it. It was the seeing of it. It never dawned on me how truly vulnerable we are. But that’s what Hitch did. A shower. A bird. All these things that are absolutely ordinary, he made extraordinary. – Janet Leigh

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