It would be difficult for filmgoers now to appreciate the impact that Technicolor had on audiences during and after the second world war, and how certain film stars, especially female ones, seemed to be made for colour. Among the redheads who benefited from their visually striking presence were Rhonda Fleming, who has died aged 97, Maureen O’Hara and Arlene Dahl.
However, Fleming’s best films were in monochrome. These included Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), in which she had a small role as one of psychiatrist Ingrid Bergman’s patients – she said she had to look up nymphomaniac to understand the role – and two terrific films noirs: Out of the Past (1947) and Cry Danger (1951), in both of which she played two-timing women. Fleming was paired with Dahl as good and bad sisters respectively in Slightly Scarlet (1956) and, although it was in colour, the cinematographer John Alton played it down cunningly by stressing shadows to give it a noir look.
Rhonda Fleming was a stage name: she was born Marilyn Louis in Los Angeles, the younger of two daughters of Harold Cheverton Louis, an insurance salesman, and his wife, Effie Graham, an actor and model. She grew up in Hollywood, and while attending Beverly Hills high school was spotted by the talent agent Henry Willson, who went on to discover Rock Hudson.
She went straight into films, at first as an extra. Her first substantial supporting parts came in her early 20s in Spellbound and in Robert Siodmak’s Hitchcockian thriller The Spiral Staircase (1946). In Abilene Town (1946), marshal Randolph Scott is torn between Fleming, the grocer’s daughter, and saloon singer Ann Dvorak, predictably settling respectably for the former.
After playing the voluptuous and dangerous lover of hoodlum Kirk Douglas in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, Paramount claimed her, and did not allow her to be much more than decorative. Two aristocratic roles came in 1949: the English heroine with whom Bing Crosby falls in love in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a musical after the novel by Mark Twain – she was a fine singer – and a duchess who fascinates scoutmaster Bob Hope in The Great Lover.
The studio also co-starred Fleming with Ronald Reagan and John Payne in a number of minor action pictures. She was given better material when loaned out to other studios: RKO for Cry Danger in which she is a match for ex-con Dick Powell seeking revenge. When told to expect an extra guest for dinner, she replies: “OK, I’ll put more water in the soup.”
At Columbia, in The Golden Hawk (1952), she had fun as a pirate called Rouge, actually a rich woman pirating in order to recover a stolen fortune, and as Cleopatra to Raymond Burr’s Antony in Serpent of the Nile (1953). For Fox, she appeared in 3D in Inferno (1953), as millionaire Robert Ryan’s faithless wife.
Back at Paramount, Fleming became part of the decor again, opposite Charlton Heston as Buffalo Bill in Pony Express (1953) and Jeff Chandler, who rescues her from a harem in Yankee Pasha (1954). The exception was Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), in which she played the long-suffering girlfriend of Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster).
In the Western spoof Alias Jesse James (1959), Fleming was the singer at The Dirty Dog Saloon who gets entangled (literally) with Hope, as a bumbling insurance agent out West trying to protect her boyfriend, gunman James. Her favourite supporting role came as stepsister to the vulnerable Jean Simmons in the thriller Home Before Dark (1958).
As the 1960s dawned, Fleming was more often to be seen on television, with some stage work: in 1973 she had a Broadway run in Clare Boothe Luce’s comedy The Women. Her final TV appearance came in a half-hour drama, Waiting for the Wind (1990), as the religious wife of a farmer, Robert Mitchum (whom she had played alongside in Out of the Past), confronting terminal illness. Her last full movie was The Nude Bomb (1980), as an international fashion designer alongside Don Adams’s spoof spook Maxwell Smart.
Her last film before her move into TV had been the Italian epic The Revolt of the Slaves (1960), and that year she married her co-star in it, Lang Jeffries. He was her third husband, after Thomas Lane, an interior decorator, with whom she had a son, Kent, from 1940 to 1948; and Lew Morrill, a physician, from 1952 to 1958. Her marriage to the producer-director Hall Bartlett in 1965 lasted for seven years until, like the previous three, it ended in divorce. Fleming’s fifth husband, from 1978, was Ted Mann, the owner of the Mann Theatres cinema chain.
With him, in 1991 she established the Rhonda Fleming Mann Clinic for Comprehensive Care at the UCLA medical centre, and they also supported the construction of the Fleming Mann Resource Centre for Women With Cancer, in memory of her sister, Beverly.
“When my sister had ovarian cancer several years ago, it was trauma time,” Fleming recalled. “She got good medical care, but doctors often don’t have time to treat the whole person ... I promised her that others would have the kind of support she didn’t have.”
Two years after Mann’s death in 2001, Fleming married Darol Carlson; he died in 2017. She is survived by her son and two granddaughters.
• Rhonda Fleming, actor, born 10 August 1923; died 14 October 2020
• Ronald Bergan died earlier this year