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Star of 'Spartacus,' 'Guys and Dolls'

LOS ANGELES — Jean Simmons, a radiant British actor who as a teenager appeared opposite Sir Laurence Olivier in Hamlet and emerged a star whose career flourished in the 1950s and 1960s in such films as Guys and Dolls, Elmer Gantry and Spartacus, has died. She was 80.

Ms. Simmons, who won an Emmy Award for her role in the 1980s miniseries The Thorn Birds, died Friday (Jan. 22, 2010) at her home in Santa Monica, said agent Judy Page. She had lung cancer.

"Jean Simmons' jaw-dropping beauty often obscured a formidable acting talent," said Alan K. Rode, a writer and film historian.

Plucked from a dance class by a talent scout at the age of 14, she had already made several movies before gaining attention for her portrayal of the young Estella in Sir David Lean's film adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel Great Expectations.

Considered one of the greatest British movies ever made, it had lasting effect on the actor, who was 17 the year it was released. Until then, moviemaking had mainly been "fun and games," she later said, but she realized it could be a career.

"That's when I thought, 'Oh, yes, I think this is it,' " Ms. Simmons told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1990.

After Olivier cast her as Ophelia in his 1948 film Hamlet, she received the first of two Academy Award nominations. More than 20 years later, she was nominated for her searing portrayal of an alcoholic wife in The Happy Ending.

Olivier urged the young actor to perfect her craft by acting on stage, but she chose a more romantic path — and followed her future husband, dashing British screen idol Stewart Granger, to Hollywood.

Howard Hughes bought her film contract from a British company but nearly strangled her fledgling career. After she became entangled in a contractual lawsuit with him, he prevented her from appearing in many meaningful roles until the suit was settled.

Over a career that spanned more than 60 years, she appeared in about 55 feature films and nearly as many television productions. In the 1950s and 1960s, she made more than 30 movies and displayed her versatility by appearing in costume epics, romances, musicals and dramas.

She co-starred with Sir Richard Burton in The Robe, Gregory Peck in the western The Big Country, Marlon Brando in Desiree, and Brando and Frank Sinatra in Guys and Dolls.

While playing the title character in Desiree, the mistress of Brando's Napoleon, she was so in awe of the actor that "I was sort of forgetting what I was supposed to do," she said in 1990 in the Union-Tribune interview.

When Brando and Ms. Simmons next starred in Guys and Dolls in 1955, they were initially supposed to lip-sync their songs.

During rehearsal, "Samuel Goldwyn came on the set one day and he heard us and said, 'I think it's better you do your own singing. … Maybe you don't sound so good, but at least it's you,' " she recalled in the Union-Tribune interview.

Among her films, she favored 1953's The Actress, which she said she "just loved" for "the "sheer heaven" of working with Spencer Tracy, who became a good friend.

She also enjoyed The Grass Is Greener, which co-starred Cary Grant, "because it was comedy and I usually play these uptight puddings," she said in 1988 in the Toronto Star.

Star of 'Spartacus,' 'Guys and Dolls' 01/23/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 23, 2010 12:18am]
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