Merced Sun Star

 October 5, 2004

Merced native, star actress Janet Leigh dies at age 77

Back in 1942, Lorraine Murphy, then Lorraine Costa, was stunned by the natural beauty of Jeanette Morrison, a freshman at Merced High School. They met in the back of the school auditorium, and Murphy said now, 62 years later, she can remember every detail about the girl who would later become actress Janet Leigh.

"I remember asking someone 'Who is that gorgeous girl?' " Murphy said Monday. "It's funny the things you remember. She had that natural golden-blonde hair, and she was wearing a tan cashmere sweater.

Murphy said she had been thinking about Leigh over the weekend -- Murphy is a member of the Merced Theatre Foundation -- and wanted to contact Merced's most famous hometown girl to see if she'd make an appearance at the cinema's reopening.  But she returned from vacation Monday to learn that Leigh, 77, had died over the weekend.

The actress husband, Robert Brandt, and her daughters, actresses Jamie Lee Curtis and Kelly Curtis, were at their mother's side when she died Sunday at her Beverly Hills home, said Heidi Schaeffer, a spokeswoman for Jamie Lee Curtis.

"She died peacefully at home," Schaeffer said Monday. Leigh had suffered from vasculitis, an inflammation of the blood vessels, for the past year.

Born Jeanette Helen Morrison in Merced on July 6, 1927, she was studying music and psychology at College of the Pacific in Stockton when fate fit for a Hollywood script intervened. Retired star Norma Shearer saw her photograph at a ski resort and recommended the teenager to talent agent Lew Wasserman, who negotiated a contract at MGM for $50 a week.

Dubbed Janet Leigh, she starred in 1947 at 19 in her first movie, "The Romance of Rosy Ridge" opposite Van Johnson. Her salary rose to $150 a week. She became one of the busiest stars at MGM, appearing in six movies in 1949.

Here in Merced, people like Murphy and Bunny Busby -- then Bunny Robinson -- saw Leigh's movies.

"Even though she changed her name, when we found out, it was the big buzz in Merced," Murphy said. "Of course, the one that sticks in every one's mind is 'Psycho.' "

But they still remembered Jeanette. "She was in my English class," Busby said. "We became fairly friendly."

She described Leigh as quiet, "very sweet," with a lovely singing voice. She performed with the school's choir. Busby knew Leigh well enough to have hung onto a photo of her, and to be interviewed for an A&E biography on the actress.

But Busby's scenes hit the cutting-room floor.  "It was interesting just to be interviewed," she said.  Busby also recalled how, when Leigh was a young teen -- 14 or 15 -- she eloped with Merced High football player Kenny Carlyle.

"When they got back from Reno, both sets of parents were there to greet them, and it wasn't long after that the Morrison family moved out of town," Busby said. "They had the marriage annulled immediately."

Leigh was married three more times: to Stanley Reames, from 1946-1948, divorced; and famously to actor Tony Curtis in 1951. They wed when their careers were peaking. Both their studios, MGM and Universal, expressed concerns that their immense popularity with teenagers would be hindered if they were married.

But aided by a splurge of fan magazine publicity, their appeal rose. They appeared in four films together, including "Houdini" and "The Vikings." The "ideal couple" divorced in 1963. In her 1984 autobiography, "There Really Was a Hollywood," she refrained from criticizing Curtis.

"Tony and I had a wonderful time together; it was an exciting, glamorous period in Hollywood," she said. "A lot of great things happened, most of all, two beautiful children (Kelly and Jamie Lee)."  Leigh's 1964 marriage to businessman Brandt lasted the rest of her life.

As Murphy said, Leigh was probably best known for her surprising role in "Psycho" -- unusual because although she was billed as the star, her character was slashed to death in the famous shower scene in the first 20 minutes of the film.

The role earned her an Oscar nomination as best supporting actress. Hitchcock compiled the shower sequence in 70-odd takes of two and three seconds each, for which Leigh spent seven days in the shower. Rumors circulated that she was nude, but she wore a flesh-colored moleskin bathing suit. Although tame by today's standards, the scene's brutality was shocking for the time.

Leigh wrote in her 1995 book "Psycho: Behind the Scenes in the Classic Thriller" that the filming was easy until the last 20 seconds, when she had to express total horror as her character was being slashed to death.

She often said she wasn't able to take a shower after the movie. "It's not a hype, not something I thought would be good for publicity," she insisted. "Honest to gosh, it's true."

Leigh enjoyed a long and distinguished career, appearing in such films as the 1962 political thriller "The Manchurian Candidate" and in Orson Welles' 1958 film noir classic "Touch of Evil," as well as with many of Hollywood's biggest names.

Leigh appeared with Jamie Lee Curtis in the 1980 thriller "The Fog" and in 1998, again with her daughter, in "Halloween H20: 20 Years Later."

No matter how many film appearances Leigh made, what some of her schoolmates from Merced High remember are her looks.

"The way I've always described her is that her complexion was like peaches and cream. It was just beautiful. She was a beautiful girl," Busby said.

"Her beauty was unsurpassed, as far as I was concerned," Murphy said. "Hollywood should have left her alone. I always thought Hollywood ruined her by making her over.