[ 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.)