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'Psycho' actress Janet Leigh dies at 77

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter   |   Oct. 4, 2004 at 3:12 PM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 4 (UPI) -- Janet Leigh, who gained her greatest fame as the victim of the shocking shower murder scene at the Bates Motel in Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 thriller "Psycho," has died at her home in Beverly Hills. She was 77.

Leigh died Sunday after suffering for the past year from vasculitis, an inflammation of the circulatory system.

Leigh was already a major Hollywood star when she played Marion Crane, a woman who embezzles money from a bank and is killed by the psychotic motel operator Norman Bates, played by the late Anthony Perkins. But it was that role that gave her a lasting place in the consciousness of movie fans around the world -- and earned her an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress.

She broke into Hollywood in 1947 and had starred in such classics as "Angels in the Outfield," "The Vikings" and "Touch of Evil" before Hitchcock cast her in "Psycho." She went on to star in such hits as "The Manchurian Candidate," "Bye Bye Birdie" and "Wives and Lovers."

Kathleen Sharp, the author of the 2003 best-seller "Mr. & Mrs. Hollywood: Edie and Lew Wasserman and Their Entertainment Empire," said Leigh epitomized the young Hollywood starlet of the 1950s.

"She realized that being part of the Hollywood system meant that you had to play this role of the elegant, gracious up-and-coming talent who was more than happy to promote the films for the studio and do whatever it took, not just to promote your career, but to support the whole system," said Sharp.

Leigh's marriage to actor Tony Curtis made them one of Hollywood's most glamorous couples. Sharp said the couple was part of "the Hollywood royal court" -- close friends and confidantes of the Wassermans and other powerful Hollywood players.

"They threw fundraisers for John F. Kennedy," said Sharp. "They opened their house to other progressive causes."

Leigh told an interviewer that she had been asked to serve as U.S. ambassador to Finland, but she turned down the honor because she did not want to be away from home for the minimum term of one year.

Born Jeanette Helen Morrison in Merced, Calif., on July 6, 1927, Leigh was discovered when Hollywood star Norma Shearer saw her photograph sitting on a counter at a ski lodge and arranged with Wasserman for Leigh to have a screen test.

"They were looking for a naive young country girl," Leigh said in a 1996 interview, "and I was sure naive and young."

The screen test led almost immediately to her first starring role, opposite Van Johnson in the 1947 romantic comedy "The Romance of Rosy Ridge."

Leigh went on to star with some of Hollywood's greatest names -- including John Wayne, James Stewart, Charlton Heston, Jack Lemmon and Paul Newman. She also worked with some of the great film directors of all time -- including Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Mervyn LeRoy and Blake Edwards.

She was versatile, largely owing to the fact that she came to Hollywood at a time when the old studio system was still in place, and actors were generally expected to learn to dance and sing as well as act.

"(Hollywood) was still a place where you could be discovered and work under contract," said Sharp. "There wasn't so much pressure to be a superstar right away. They needed talented people who could sing, dance, act and do everything. She rolled up her sleeves and she worked."

Leigh wrote an autobiography in 1984, "There Really Was a Hollywood." In 1995 she wrote a show-business-themed novel, "House of Destiny." She followed that up with "Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller."

In that book, Leigh said that after seeing the shower scene in "Psycho," she was terrified to take a shower.

Leigh married businessman Robert Brandt in 1964. He was at her side when she died, along with her daughters, Jamie Lee Curtis and Kelly Curtis.

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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