Actor who was often cast as the understanding girlfriend or steadfast wife in film noirs of the 1940s and 50s such as Kiss of Death and The Killing
Wednesday 5 August 2015
The 2001 book Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir contained interviews with six female stars of the genre who were at their peak in the 1940s and 50s. One surprising inclusion was Coleen Gray, who has died aged 92. Surprising because she was seldom cast as a femme fatale in the classic film noirs in which she appeared.
In fact, Gray, with her pretty features, slightly pointed nose and wide eyes, was often the only ethical or innocent element in the dark, doom-laden crime dramas. In Kiss of Death (1947), she is the understanding girlfriend of an ex-con (Victor Mature), helping him to make a new life. In Nightmare Alley (1947), she is the steadfast wife and partner of Stan (Tyrone Power) in a carnival mind-reading act, whose big scene comes when she warns him not to “go against God”.
As the head nurse in the hospital in The Sleeping City (1950), she gains sympathy despite her involvement in illegal drugs and murder, and in Kansas City Confidential (1952), she is a corrupt cop’s law-student daughter, who brings romance into the life of a man (John Payne) unjustly accused of a robbery. Most famously, however, in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), she’s the faithful girlfriend of a criminal (Sterling Hayden), who waited five years for him to be released from prison, and who gets drawn reluctantly into a heist.
Gray was born Doris Jensen in Staplehurst, Nebraska, of strict Lutheran Danish parents, and moved with her family to a farm in Minnesota as a child. Later, she studied drama at Hamline University in Minnesota, graduating with a bachelor of arts degree, before moving to California. While appearing at a theatre in Los Angeles, she was discovered by a talent scout for 20th Century-Fox, who signed her to a seven-year deal at $150 a week in 1944. She then changed her name to Coleen Gray, sometimes billed as Colleen.
Gray’s first screen role, a short but significant one, was in Red River, shot in 1946, but only released by United Artists in 1948 after she had already become known for Kiss of Death and Nightmare Alley at Fox. In the lyrical Howard Hawks western, Gray imbues her one scene, in which John Wayne bids her farewell before heading west, with great force and tenderness. “I want to go with you,” she says. “I’m strong. I can stand anything you can.” “It’s too much for a woman,” he replies. “Too much for a woman? Put your arms around me, Tom. Hold me. Feel me in your arms. Do I feel weak, Tom? I don’t, do I?” Gray is memorably last seen isolated in long shot as the wagon train pulls out.
Gray was almost as effective in leading roles in several lesser westerns, mostly as a good but spunky girl keeping the hero on the right path, among them Mature in Fury at Furnace Creek (1948), Stephen McNally in Apache Drums (1951) and Hayden in Arrow in the Dust (1954). An exception was Tennessee’s Partner (1955) in which she’s a gold digger who tries to trap a cowboy (Ronald Reagan) into marriage for his money.
Among her rare comedies was Riding High (1950), Frank Capra’s remake of his own Broadway Bill (1934) in which she co-starred with Bing Crosby. Although neither matched the stars of the original (Myrna Loy and Warner Baxter), Crosby as a racehorse owner and Gray as the vivacious sister of his snobbish fiancee made a likeable team, and got to share a couple of lively musical numbers.
Parallel to her film career, Gray was a regular on television, particularly as a guest star on western series such as Maverick, Have Gun – Will Travel, Rawhide, The Virginian and Bonanza. Her work on television became more and more dominant through the 60s and 70s after the movies tailed off.
But before her virtual retirement from features, Gray took the title role in The Leech Woman (1960), a more nuanced proto-feminist film than the cheesy title suggests. Gray, as a neglected aging wife of a scientist, goes to darkest Africa where she discovers an elixir of youth, which entails killing men for their hormones. In the process, she gets her revenge on her despicable husband, who loved her only as long as she was young and beautiful. She continues to live off the lives of men in order to retain her beauty, before shrivelling and turning into dust. In transforming herself from a despairing frumpish alcoholic to a predatory young woman, Gray is superb.
Gray’s third husband, the biblical scholar Joseph “Fritz” Zeiser, died in 2012. She is survived by a daughter, Susan, from her first marriage, to the producer/director Rod Amateau, which ended in divorce; and a son, Bruce, from her second, to William Clymer Bidlack, an aviation executive, who died in 1978.
• Coleen Gray (Doris Jensen), actor, born 23 October 1922; died 3 August 2015
Film noir actress Coleen Gray, who generally played the “good girl” in hard-boiled films such as “The Killing,” “Nightmare Alley” and “Kansas City Confidential” before segueing into a prolific television career, died Monday at her home in Bel-Air. She was 92.
The death was from natural causes, said family friend David Schecter.
Gray appeared in a variety of films in the 1940s and 1950s, including the Howard Hawks classic western “Red River” opposite John Wayne and Frank Capra’s “Riding High” with Bing Crosby.
But it was in the noir genre that she made her mark, though she didn’t get the memorable femme fatale parts that went to such actresses as Audrey Totter and Lizabeth Scott. Gray was more likely to be cast as the woman who struggled in vain to keep the man she loved from going down a dark path.
“When I started out, I wanted to be a sex goddess,” Gray said in a 1999 Los Angeles magazine interview. “But I guess I was the wholesome type.”
That was never more true than in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” (1956), a gritty heist film in which she played the fiancee of Sterling Hayden, an ex-con planning a big-time race track robbery. She dreads that it will go wrong (and it does, spectacularly) but can’t leave him.
“I’m no good for anybody else,” Gray tells him. “I’m not pretty and I’m not very smart, so please don’t leave me alone anymore.”
Co-star Marie Windsor played a scheming gold-digger to whom Hayden says, “You got a great big dollar sign there where most women have a heart.”
Gray looked upon the Windsor role with envy. “I was the good girl,” she told the New York Times in 1999. “It was frustrating! And Marie had the big fat juicy part.”
But Gray’s typecasting was somewhat a reflection of who she was in real life.
“As an actress, I was never secure,” Gray said in a videotaped interview for the Film Noir Foundation. “I studied so hard so I wouldn’t mess up on a line, flub my lines. To flub lines, to me, was an acute disgrace.
“To do anything wrong, to make a wrong move or do anything other than what I was instructed to do.... I had a fear of screwing up.”
She was born Doris Bernice Jensen on Oct. 23, 1922 in Staplehurst, Neb. She moved with her family to Hutchinson, Minn., where, in seventh grade, the teacher asked students what they wanted to be when they grew up.
“Most of the girls wanted to be a housewife, a nurse, a teacher or a secretary,” Gray said in a 2007 Santa Fe New Mexican interview. “When it came to my turn, I said, ‘I want to be a movie star.’ And they all laughed. Oh, did they laugh!”
After earning a bachelor of arts degree from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., Gray took a bus to La Jolla, where her then-fiance was stationed. Eventually moving to Los Angeles, she worked a variety of jobs and joined a theater group headed by Carl Heins Roth, who had been an assistant to famed director Max Reinhardt in Vienna. An agent spotted her in a play at the theater and took her to Fox studios, where she was eventually placed under contract.
She changed her name to Coleen, with an unusual spelling to help it stand out, and Gray in tribute to Betty Grable.
As her noir roles waned in the 1950s, Gray did a handful of science fiction and horror movies, including the “The Leech Woman” (1960) in which she definitely played the bad girl. In the cheapie film, which has become a cult favorite, Gray’s character kills men to extract fluid from them that she needs to stay young.
“I think we shot that thing in five days,” Gray said in an interview for the book “Confessions of a Scream Queen.”
“It was so corny, but we all had such fun with it.”
By then she was working in television. Gray appeared in early live TV dramas, and went on to guest spots on “Maverick,” “Rawhide,” “77 Sunset Strip,” “Perry Mason” and many others.
She was married three times. Gray and her third husband, Joseph “Fritz” Zeiser, were involved in a prison ministry organization founded in the 1970s by Charles Colson. Zeiser died in 2012.
Gray is survived by her son Bruce Bidlack; daughter Susan Amateau; stepsons Rick and Steve Zeiser; 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.