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Jeanne Crain, done with acting, returns to first love

Jeanne Crain might have made art a career had it not been for the amateur theatricals in which she appeared as a teen-ager.

Those theatricals were in Southern California, where she was born, and where talent scouts abound. And there was something about Jeanne Crain that made more than one of them think she might have a future in the acting business.

Add to that her early work as a model and her participation in beauty contests, and she soon found herself being tested for film work. So even though art was a consuming interest, she found herself signing her first Hollywood contract at age 17. Two years later, she made her film debut in Home in Indiana.

But it was the following year, 1945, that really thrust her into the big time. With appearances in State Fair and Leave Her to Heaven she joined the elite of Hollywood's stardom. By 1946, when she was only 21 years old, the volume of her fan mail at 20th Century-Fox was second only to Betty Grable's.

It was the beginning of a career that would last for nearly 30 years, at which time she chose to end it. And along with the films, she had a second career of wife and mother. Crain and her husband, Paul Brinkman, whom she married in 1945, have seven children.

For that reason, she was not always available for casting, and in one case she lost a role that she would have liked to have played. "I always wanted to work with Laurence Olivier," she says, "and in 1952 William Wyler wanted me to be in Carrie with Olivier. But I was pregnant at the time and couldn't do it."

As for favorites among her films, Crain says there isn't one, although she is especially fond of Pinky, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award in 1949.

She likes her other films for various reasons. "For example, sometimes I might have had a sadistic director, but the camaraderie among the cast was great and the film turned out well anyway. Those are the kinds of things you remember."

Her last film was Skyjacked, which was made in 1972. But she has done some television and dinner theater work since then, including a St. Petersburg appearance at the Country Dinner Playhouse in 1973.

As for films today, Crain considers some very good, especially those that are able to broach subjects that were forbidden while she was acting. But she says the best of the films made in the 1930s and '40s hold up well. "I do most of my movie watching on television," she says, "and I especially like the American Movie Classics channel."

Speaking of television from a performer's viewpoint, Crain says she preferred working in that medium when plays were done live. But she confesses to having been terrified the first time she appeared on Playhouse 90.

"I was ready to consider suicide," she says, "but the experience was exhilarating. But in filmed television today, everything is done in such a hurry. It's like they can't afford the cost. And you don't know what you're doing or why you're doing it until you see it. Yet, amazingly, some good things come out of it. It's just hard to figure out how."

The only downside about acting in the theater, in Crain's view, is "having to get geared up for work about the time most people are beginning to relax after a day's work. But she says nothing can compare to the instant reaction the actor gets from the audience. "And each audience is different," she says.

Although making films allowed her to keep more normal hours, the workday began early, she recalls. "And it was difficult to do romantic scenes in an evening gown early in the morning," she says.

Today, at 66, Jeanne Crain considers herself "totally retired," but even so she still has fan mail to deal with. "It piles up high," she says, "and a lot of is from Europe. Sometimes I think some who write believe the films they are seeing are current, and that I'm at the same point in my life that I was in the film."

Even with her fan mail duties, Crain says she is able to devote much more time to that love of long ago _ painting and drawing. She paints with oils and especially likes to do portraits. She has done portraits of all seven of her children _ and her half-dozen grandchildren _ "although not systematically."

She also is a voracious reader. "I'm like Somerset Maugham," she says. "I do serious reading and reading for entertainment." Among her favorite authors are Graham Greene and John Le Carre.

Besides allowing her to read and paint, retirement has allowed Crain's husband to fulfill one of his dreams _ raising cattle. Besides their home in Los Angeles, they have a large ranch near Santa Barbara where they are raising cattle, and, she says, "he is living his dream."