Monday, November 07, 2005

SHEREE NORTH 1933 - 2005


[ Sigh ] Goddamn it, I loved Sheree North. It seemed like she was everywhere I turned when I was growing up and learning the faces and names of character actors on the popular TV shows of the time– Gunsmoke, The Big Valley, The Virginian, The Iron Horse, Cannon, Kojak and just about every other series, it seemed, at one time or another. And though I encountered her far less frequently when I went to the movies, her lovely, blowsy, dazed quality graced several of the action films I favored as well, like Michael Winner’s Lawman (in which she starred with Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan and Lee J. Cobb) and Breakout, the terrific Charles Bronson vehicle also featuring Robert Duvall and Randy Quaid. But Don Siegel, I think, loved her most in the movies– she had juicy, if not gigantic, roles in Madigan, The Shootist, Telefon, and my favorite, Charley Varrick, and I always got the feeling she was someone who could hold her own against a force like Siegel’s, and that he appreciated that in her. She was also one I always wished would get the chance, as she aged, to re-emerge and shine as a fine character actress in parts that were more worthy of her. Sheree North, who had been healthy, died Friday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of complications from surgery, according to her daughter, Dawn Bessire. She was 72.

Born Dawn Bethel in Los Angeles on Jan. 17, 1933, she danced as a youngster with USO shows during World War II and made her film debut in 1951 in Excuse My Dust starring Red Skelton. She was quickly groomed as a studio glamour girl who could substitute for the more famous but increasingly unreliable Marilyn Monroe and was frequently seen commenting in documentaries produced about Monroe. In fact, the persistent rumor about Hollywood in the early ‘50s was that 20th Century Fox had hired her only as a threat to their troublesome superstar. Eventually she did indeed replace Monroe in the ironically titled 1955 musical How to Be Very, Very Popular, which she stole right out from underneath the leggy Betty Grable.

One might have guessed that, thanks to the success of Popular, North might have had quite a career in the long shadow of the Monroe legend. But unlike other studio-styled blonds such as Jayne Mansfield or Mamie Van Doren, North actively (and naturally) tried to change her bombshell image, allowing herself to age gracefully, work without makeup and segue into older character parts. As a result, she worked steadily, enjoying a half-century career on stage, television and in film, without ever ascending to superstar status herself or, if one is inclined to view her career from this perspective, ever bringing upon herself the kind of scrutiny and spotlight-driven frenzy that derailed many an actor’s career and life before and since, including, of course, Monroe herself. Even so, she never quite shook the initial image as a beauty, which she blamed on studio-generated press coverage in the 1950s.

"Even today," she told the Los Angeles Times in 1983, lamenting that she had been rejected for several dramatic roles because of her looks, "there's still the same reaction when producers hear my name. They remember me as the blond who was to have taken over from Marilyn Monroe."

I didn’t know her, but Sheree North always seemed like someone I’d want to know, a real person in a tinsel world that seemed to get phonier each day that I got older and wiser. She operated on a wisened, wearied frequency herself, one that never darkened the spirit that seemed to come through her in even the tiniest of roles. She did fine, emotionally rich work in the movies, but she never stooped to the television medium for which she was most well-known. Nor did that medium insist on throwing a cathode-ray tarp over the qualities that continued to feed her natural attractiveness, even as she herself refused to actively promote them. What valuable lessons the anorexic, generic starlets that populate Hollywood like little hottie clones might have to learn from the life and career of Sheree North, if only they can be bothered to take a breath, loosen the metaphorical corsets that a media-driven life in America retightens every day, and simply find out who she was. Who was she? Simply, she was one of the genuine ones, a fresh, unique talent that, despite her career beginnings at Fox, seemed like no other. R.I.P., Ms. North, and thanks.

(Portions of the piece originally appeared this afternoon on Rodger Jacobs' 8763 Wonderland site. Sincere thanks again, Rodger, for being the bearer of sad news, and for the permission to refashion the comments I left today on your article.)

14 comments:

8763 Wonderland said...

Beautiful comments, Dennis. You make a strong argument that North eventually chose the art of acting and performing over the banal star making machinery of Hollywood.

All supposition, I know, but if true then hooray for her.

blaaagh said...

A big sigh from me, too, and a fond goodbye to a lovely lady--and I was lucky enough to know her a little. In 1983-84, when I was another young pup who'd moved to L.A. and was working the day shift and often the night shift at a little bookstore/news stand on Wilshire in Santa Monica, Sheree North was a regular customer. She'd come in and say hello in her mellow way and browse, usually buy some books and magazines, and she'd always make conversation with me and my other regulars. She had a calm, soothing quality about her, and she listened to you when you answered her questions about how you were doing, etc. She never wore any makeup, and I figured she was around my mom's age (about right), but I was impressed as I got to know her with how attractive she was, moreso as I got to know her: her face was relaxed, her expression thoughtful. She was totally unadorned, her hair was casually combed, but her skin, her eyes, her face were all beautiful. Always seemed like she'd come from a walk on the beach. She struck me as someone who was very interested in other people, and in day-to-day life, obviously important qualities in an actor.

She was also a great champion of an old white-haired Scottish guy named Alex who came into my store every day--a salty character with few remaining teeth but a great wit and a passion for books--and she wanted to find him work in whatever TV project she was currently working on. As I remember, she did. I remember Alex shaking his head and smiling as she said goodbye and left the store on more than one occasion, telling me, "That's a real lady. A real actress!"

Once I worked up my courage to ask her about a movie I'd seen on TV which seemed to capture a dark side of the suburban '50s lifestyle I'd been born into the tail end of: "No Down Payment." She thought for a moment, then asked me what it was about. Surprised, I said Tony Randall had played her husband, he had a drinking problem, it was about several couples who bought houses in a new development and their various problems...Joanne Woodward, etc...she thought some more, then said "I have no memory of that one!". That still puzzles me, though of course you never hear about this Martin Ritt movie anymore, and I've never seen it since--but she was really memorable in it.

I didn't realize she'd been in all the movies you mentioned, Dennis--time for a Sheree North retrospective! I'd like to see her at work again.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Wow, and I'd forgotten that you'd actually met her. Thanks for relating that story, and for the evocative description of her as seen not from a movie or TV screen, but up close, in the real world. Let's rent Charley Varrick on the same night sometime soon, coordinate the start time, hoist a glass to Sheree North, then call each other afterward and talk. I think I wanna hear you tell that story about her this time.

blaaagh said...

Yeah! Sounds good, let's set the date. Great piece on her, by the way--thanks for writing it.

8763wonderland: your blog is really interesting, too; I may have to get hooked on another one now!

8763 Wonderland said...

Blaaagh, may I run your wonderful tale about Sheree over at Wonderland?

blaaagh said...

8763 wonderland: sure you can--I'm flattered! Dennis was kind enough to alert me to your request here. Reading it now, I'd suggest taking out the phrase "moreso as I got to know her" in the first paragraph (or adding "better" after it, whichever you prefer). Or run it as is, either way's OK with me. I'm really glad you liked it--I wrote it off the cuff, just having read the sad news here, and with sleepy eyes and a heavy heart.
The better not to edit myself, I guess. --B.

8763 Wonderland said...

Thanks, B. I just put it in the Sheree North update.

The Mysterious A.d.r.i.a.n. B.e.t.a.m.a.x. said...

I've seen basically none of her films and have no idea who she is!

The only one I've seen is Excuse My Dust, which is pretty poor (another Roy Rowland gem), and I'll be darned if I can remember her from it.

I probably shouldn't have posted that. It was entirely nonconstructive.

- The Mysterious A.d.r.i.a.n. B.e.t.a.m.a.x. (from U.N.C.L.E.)

Dennis Cozzalio said...

M.A.B.: I will lend you my Charley Varrick this weekend, but only if you promise to watch it. I'm surprised you haven't seen The Shootist. Anyway, she's worth seeking out and getting to know. Maybe we'll get lucky and see a DVD of How to Be Very, Very Popular coming soon too.

blaaagh said...

You've been very good lately, M.A.B., so I figure you can get away with a few nonconstructive comments. Personally, I've gotten interested in seeing "No Down Payment" again; as I remember, it was one of those widescreen black-and-white movies from the late '50s (1957) that look really good. It's kind of a soap opera, but I remember the acting and the atmosphere being really good. It doesn't seem to be on video at all, though.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Blaagh (and everyone): This from a post on IMDb regarding No Down Payment:

"Fox Movie Channel showed it today (Nov. 8) and the next scheduled showing is December 15 at 2:00 p.m"

I'll check the FMC schedule and make sure this is right. Do you get FMC?

blaaagh said...

Wow! No, alas, I don't get Fox Movie Channel...but maybe I'll hunt down someone who has and beg them to record it for me, or let me stay overnight and watch it.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Hmmm... I think I know someone who might be able to help...

blaaagh said...

Bless you, my son. I already owe you a thousand favors--not to mention thanks--and now I guess it'll be a thousand and one.