Best known for her Academy Award nominated role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and in the holiday classic Holiday Affair (1949).
The Romance of Rosy Ridge
If Winter Comes
Hills of Home
Words and Music
How to Smuggle a Hernia Across the Border
Act of Violence
The Red Danube
The Doctor and the Girl
That Forsyte Woman
Angels in the Outfield
Two Tickets to Broadway
It’s a Big Country
Just This Once
Walking My Baby Back Home
Living It Up
The Black Shield of Falworth
Pete Kelly’s Blues
My Sister Eileen
The Perfect Furlough
Who Was That Lady?
Wives and Lovers
Three on a Couch
An American Dream
The Spy in the Green Hat
Hello Down There
One Is a Lonely Number
Night of the Lepus
The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal
Halloween H20: 20 Years Later
Bad Girls from Valley High
I don’t know what it is I exude. But whatever it is, it’s whatever I am! ~ Janet Leigh
Janet Leigh was born Jeanette Helen Morrison, on July 6, 1927 in Merced, California. The only child of Helen Lita (née Westergaard) and Frederick Robert Morrison. Shortly after Leigh’s birth, the family relocated to Stockton, where she spent her early life. She was brought up in poverty, as her father struggled to support the family with his factory employment, and he took various additional jobs after the Great Depression.
In 1941, when her paternal grandfather became terminally ill, the family relocated to Merced where they moved into her grandparents’ home. She attended Weber Grammar School in Stockton. and later Stockton High School. Leigh excelled in academics and graduated from high school at age sixteen.
In September 1943, she enrolled at the College of the Pacific (now University of the Pacific), where she majored in music and psychology. While in college, she joined the Alpha Theta Tau sorority, and sang with the college’s a cappella choir. In order to help support her family, she spent Christmas and summer vacations working at retail shops and dime stores, as well as working at the college’s information desk during her studies.
In the winter of 1945–6, actress Norma Shearer was vacationing at Sugar Bowl, a ski resort in the Sierra Nevada mountains where Leigh’s parents were working at the time. In the resort lobby, Shearer noticed a photograph of Leigh taken by the ski club photographer over the Christmas holiday, which he had printed and placed in a photo album available for guests to browse. Upon returning to Los Angeles, Shearer showed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) talent agent Lew Wasserman the photograph of the then-eighteen-year-old Leigh (Shearer’s late husband Irving Thalberg had been a senior executive at MGM).
Through her association with MGM, Shearer was able to facilitate screen tests for Leigh with Selena Royle, after which Wasserman negotiated a contract for her, despite her having no acting experience. Leigh dropped out of college that year, and was soon placed under the tutelage of drama coach Lillian Burns.
Leigh made her film debut in the big budget film The Romance of Rosy Ridge in 1947, as the romantic interest of Van Johnson’s character. She got the role when performing Phyllis Thaxter’s long speech in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo for the head of the studio talent department. During the shooting, Leigh’s name was first changed to “Jeanette Reames”, then to “Janet Leigh” and finally back to her birth name “Jeanette Morrison”, because “Janet Leigh” resembled Vivien Leigh too much. However, Johnson did not like the name and it was finally changed back to “Janet Leigh” (pronounced “Lee”). Leigh initially left college for a film career, but enrolled in night school at the University of Southern California in 1947.
Immediately after the film’s release, Leigh was cast opposite Walter Pidgeon and Deborah Kerr in If Winter Comes in the summer of 1947. Furthermore, due to the box office success of The Romance of Rosy Ridge, Leigh and Johnson were teamed up again in a film project called The Life of Monty Stratton in August 1947. The project was eventually shelved and released in 1949 as The Stratton Story, starring James Stewart and June Allyson. Another film that Leigh was set to star in, before being replaced, was Alias a Gentleman, in which she was cast in April 1947. By late 1947, Leigh was occupied with the shooting of the Lassie film Hills of Home (1948), the first film in which she received star billing. In late 1948, Leigh was hailed the “No. 1 glamour girl” of Hollywood, although known for her polite, generous and down-to-earth persona.
Many movies followed, notably the box-office hit Little Women (1949), based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott, and the drama The Red Danube (1950), which earned her critical acclaim. Leigh proved versatile for MGM, starring in films as diverse as the baseball farce Angels in the Outfield in 1951 and the tense western The Naked Spur in 1953. From 1951-53 Leigh and her husband, Tony Curtis, appeared in numerous home movies directed by their friend Jerry Lewis. Leigh credited the experimental and informal nature of these films for allowing her to stretch her acting ability and attempt new roles. In 1953 Leigh and her husband appeared as guests on Martin and Lewis’ Colgate Comedy Hour and then in 1954 she had a supporting role in the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedy Living It Up. Then opposite Robert Wagner in Technicolor adventure film Prince Valiant.
Her initial roles were ingenues based on characters from historical literature, for example in Scaramouche opposite Stewart Granger. In 1955, Leigh played the title role in the musical comedy My Sister Eileen, co-starring Jack Lemmon, Betty Garrett and Dick York. By 1956, she moved to more complex dramatic roles, such as the role of Linda Latham in Safari opposite Victor Mature.
Leigh’s performance in the Harry Houdini biopic Houdini (1953) marked the first of five films in which she co-starred opposite her then-husband, Tony Curtis. She would subsequently appear opposite Curtis in The Black Shield of Falworth (1954), The Vikings (1958), The Perfect Furlough (1958) and Who Was That Lady? (1960). They also had cameos together in a sixth film, Pepe (1960).
In 1958, Leigh starred as Susan Vargas in the Orson Welles film noir classic Touch of Evil (1958) with Charlton Heston, a film with numerous similarities to Alfred Hitchcock’s later film Psycho, which was produced two years after Touch of Evil; in it, she plays a tormented newlywed in a Mexican border town.
In 1960, Leigh was cast in her most well-known role as the morally-ambiguous murder victim Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), co-starring with John Gavin and Anthony Perkins. Leigh was reportedly so traumatized by filming her character’s shower murder scene that she went to great lengths to avoid showers for the rest of her life. For her performance, she received a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Leigh’s role in Psycho became career-defining. Her character’s death early in the film has been noted as historically relevant by film scholars as it violated narrative conventions of the time, while her murder scene itself is considered among both critics and film scholars to be one of the most iconic scenes in film history.
In the following decade, Leigh had starring roles in many other films, including the stark drama The Manchurian Candidate (1962) with Frank Sinatra, and the musical comedy Bye Bye Birdie (1963) based on the hit Broadway show. Following those two films, the recently divorced/remarried Leigh took a break from her acting career and turned down several roles, including the role of Simone Clouseau in The Pink Panther, because she did not want to go off on location and away from her family.
In 1966, she portrayed Paul Newman’s estranged wife in the private-detective story Harper opposite Lauren Bacall and appeared with Jerry Lewis for the comedy Three on a Couch. She also appeared in a lead role in An American Dream (1966), based on the Norman Mailer novel of the same name; the film received critical backlash, with a review in The New York Times deeming it the worst film of the year. Leigh worked frequently in television from the late 1960s onward. Her initial television appearances were on anthology programs such as Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre and The Red Skelton Hour, and later, Tales of the Unexpected. She also starred in several made-for-TV films, most notably the off-length (135 minutes instead of the usual 100) The House on Greenapple Road, which premiered on ABC in January 1970 to high ratings.
In 1972, Leigh starred in the science fiction film Night of the Lepus with Stuart Whitman as well as the drama One Is a Lonely Number with Trish Van Devere. In 1975, she played a retired Hollywood song and dance star opposite Peter Falk and John Payne in the Columbo episode Forgotten Lady. The episode utilizes footage of Leigh from the film Walking My Baby Back Home (1953).
Leigh made her stage debut opposite Jack Cassidy in the original Broadway production of Murder Among Friends, which opened at the Biltmore Theatre on December 28, 1975. The play ran for seventeen performances, closing on January 10, 1976. The play received varied reviews, with some critics from preview screenings disliking the show. In 1979, Leigh appeared in a supporting role in Boardwalk opposite Ruth Gordon and Lee Strasberg and received critical praise.
Leigh subsequently appeared opposite her daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, in John Carpenter’s supernatural horror film The Fog (1980), in which a phantom schooner unleashes ghosts on a small coastal community. Leigh would appear opposite her daughter once again in Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998), playing the secretary of Laurie Strode. Her final film credit was in the teen film Bad Girls from Valley High (2005), opposite Christopher Lloyd.
In addition to her work as an actress, Leigh also authored four books. Her first, the memoir There Really Was a Hollywood (1984), became a New York Times bestseller. In 1995, she published the non-fiction book Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller. In 1996, she published her first novel, House of Destiny, which explored the lives of two friends who forged an empire that would change the course of Hollywood’s history. The book’s success spawned a follow-up novel, The Dream Factory (2002), which was set in Hollywood during the height of the studio system.
During her final year of high school at age fifteen, Leigh married eighteen-year-old John Kenneth Carlisle in Reno, Nevada, on August 1, 1942. The marriage was annulled four months later on December 28, 1942. While a student at the College of the Pacific, Leigh met Stanley Reames, a U.S. Navy sailor who was enrolled at a nearby V-12 Program. Leigh and Reames married on October 5, 1945 when she was eighteen; their marriage, however, was also short-lived, and they divorced two years later on September 7, 1949.
On June 4, 1951, Leigh married actor Tony Curtis in a private ceremony in Greenwich, Connecticut. The couple had two children, Kelly (b. 1956) and Jamie Lee (b. 1958), who both subsequently became actresses. Leigh and Curtis’ marriage was widely publicized in the media, and a frequent topic in gossip columns and film tabloids. In 1962, Curtis had divorce papers served to Leigh on the set of The Manchurian Candidate. Leigh would later comment that their divorce was the result of “outside problems”, which included the death of Curtis’ father.
On September 15, 1962, shortly after her divorce from Curtis was finalized, Leigh married stockbroker Robert Brandt (1927-2009) in a private ceremony in Las Vegas, Nevada. She remained married to Brandt for 42 years until her death in 2004.
Leigh died at her home in Los Angeles on October 3, 2004, at age 77, after a protracted battle with vasculitis. Her body was cremated, and its ashes interred at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Brentwood, Los Angeles.
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