Best known as Sister Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls (1955) and as Varinia in Spartacus (1960)
Give Us the Moon
Kiss the Bride Goodbye
Meet Sexton Blake
The Way to the Stars
Caesar and Cleopatra
The Woman in the Hall
The Blue Lagoon
Adam and Evelyne
So Long at the Fair
Cage of Gold
The Clouded Yellow
Androcles and the Lion
Affair with a Stranger
She Couldn’t Say No
A Bullet Is Waiting
Footsteps in the Fog
This Could Be the Night
Until They Sail
Home Before Dark
This Earth Is Mine
All the Way Home
Life at the Top
Divorce American Style
Rough Night in Jericho
The Happy Ending
Say Hello to Yesterday
How to Make an American Quilt
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
Jean Simmons: Rose of England
Howl’s Moving Castle
Thru the Moebius Strip
Shadows in the Sun
Every actress has to face the facts there are younger, more beautiful girls right behind you. Once you’ve gone beyond the vanity of the business, you’ll take on the tough roles. ~ Jean Simmons
Jean Merilyn Simmons, was born January 31, 1929 in Lower Holloway, London, to Charles Simmons, a bronze medalist in gymnastics at the 1912 Summer Olympics and his wife, Winifred (née Loveland) Simmons. Jean was the youngest of four children, with siblings Lorna, Harold and Edna. She began acting at the age of 14. During the Second World War, the Simmons family was evacuated to Winscombe, Somerset. Her father, a physical education teacher, taught briefly at Sidcot School, and some time during this period, Simmons followed her eldest sister onto the village stage and sang songs such as “Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow Wow”. At this point her ambition was to be an acrobatic dancer. On her return to London Jean enrolled at the Aida Foster School of Dance. Simmons was spotted by the director Val Guest, who cast her in the Margaret Lockwood vehicle Give Us the Moon.
Small roles in several other films followed, including the high-profile Caesar and Cleopatra, produced by Gabriel Pascal. Pascal saw potential in Simmons, and in 1945, he signed her to a seven-year contract. Prior to moving to Hollywood, she played the young Estella in David Lean’s version of Great Expectations (1946) and Ophelia in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948), for which she received her first Oscar nomination.
The experience of working on Great Expectations caused her to pursue an acting career more seriously.
Playing Ophelia to Olivier’s Hamlet made her a star while still in her teens, although she was already well known for her work in other British films, including her first starring role in the film adaptation of Uncle Silas, and Black Narcissus (both 1947). Olivier offered her the chance to work and study at the Bristol Old Vic, advising her to play anything they threw at her to get experience; she was under contract to the Rank Organization, who vetoed the idea. In 1949, Simmons starred with Stewart Granger in Adam and Evelyne. In 1950, she was voted the fourth-most popular star in Britain. In 1951, Rank sold her contract to Howard Hughes, who then owned the RKO Pictures.
In 1950, she married Stewart Granger, with whom she appeared in several films, and the transition to an American career began. Hughes was eager to start a sexual relationship with Simmons, but Granger put a stop to his advances.
She made four films for Hughes, including Angel Face, directed by Otto Preminger. Smarting over his rebuff, Hughes instructed Preminger to treat Simmons as roughly as possible, leading the director to demand that co-star Robert Mitchum repeatedly slap the actress harder and harder, until Mitchum turned and punched Preminger, asking if that was how he wanted it. To further punish Simmons and Granger, Hughes refused to lend her to director William Wyler who wanted her for his film Roman Holiday, thereby depriving her of the career-making role that made a star of Audrey Hepburn. A court case freed her from the contract with Hughes in 1952.
In 1953, she starred alongside Spencer Tracy in The Actress, a film that was one of her personal favorites. Among the many films in which she appeared during this period were The Robe (1953), Young Bess (1953), Désirée (1954), The Egyptian (1954), Guys and Dolls (1955), The Big Country (1958), Elmer Gantry (1960), (directed by her second husband, Richard Brooks), Spartacus (1960), All the Way Home (1963), and The Happy Ending (1969), for which she received her second Oscar nomination.
By the 1970s, Simmons turned her focus to stage and television acting. She toured the United States in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, then took the show to London, and thus originated the role of Desirée Armfeldt in the West End. Performing in the show for three years, she said she never tired of Sondheim’s music
She portrayed Fiona “Fee” Cleary, the Cleary family matriarch, in the 1983 miniseries The Thorn Birds; she won an Emmy Award for her role. In 1985-86, she appeared in North and South, again playing the role of the family matriarch as Clarissa Main. In 1988, she starred in The Dawning with Anthony Hopkins and Hugh Grant, and in 1989, she appeared in a remake of Great Expectations, in which she played the role of Miss Havisham, Estella’s adoptive mother.
She made a late career appearance in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Drumhead” (1991) as a retired Starfleet admiral and hardened legal investigator who conducts a witch hunt. In 1991, she appeared as matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard and her ancestor Naomi Collins in the short-lived revival of the 1960s daytime series Dark Shadows, in roles originally played by Joan Bennett. From 1994 until 1998, Simmons narrated the A&E documentary television series, Mysteries of the Bible. In 2004, Simmons voiced the lead role of Sophie in the English dub of Howl’s Moving Castle.
Simmons was married and divorced twice. She married Stewart Granger in Tucson, Arizona, on December 20, 1950. In 1956, Granger and she became U.S. citizens; in the same year, their daughter, Tracy Granger, was born. Named after Spencer Tracy. The couple divorced in 1960.
On November 1, 1960, Simmons married director Richard Brooks; their daughter, Kate Brooks, was born a year later in 1961. Named after Katharine Hepburn. Simmons and Brooks divorced in 1980.
Simmons moved to the East Coast of the US in the late 1970s, briefly owning a home in New Milford, Connecticut. Later, she returned to California, settling in Santa Monica, where she lived until her death.
She died from lung cancer at her home on January 22, 2010, nine days before her 81st birthday, surrounded by her family.