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Home Classic Movies Coleen Gray: From Stanley Kubrick to ‘The Leech Woman,’ School Prayer Amendment Fight

Coleen Gray: From Stanley Kubrick to ‘The Leech Woman,’ School Prayer Amendment Fight

26 minutes read

Coleen Gray actress film noir good girl
Coleen Gray: Actress and film noir good girl went from Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Killing’ to ‘The Leech Woman.’

Coleen Gray: Actress in early Stanley Kubrick film noir, destroyer of men in cult horror ‘classic’

Ramon Novarro Beyond Paradise

Actress Coleen Gray, best known as the leading lady in Stanley Kubrick’s film noir The Killing and – as far as B horror movie aficionados are concerned – for playing the title role in The Leech Woman, died at age 92 in Aug. 2015. This two-part article, which focuses on Gray’s film career, is a revised and expanded version of the original post published at the time of her death.

Born Doris Bernice Jensen on Oct. 23, 1922, in Staplehurst, Nebraska, at a young age she moved with her parents, strict Lutheran Danish farmers, to Minnesota. After getting a degree from St. Paul’s Hamline University, she relocated to Southern California to be with her then fiancé, an army private.

At first, she eked out a living as a waitress at a La Jolla hotel and later on as a secretary in the Los Angeles area. During that time, she joined the theater group of a former Max Reinhardt assistant, where she was spotted by talent agent Jack Pomeroy. (Yvonne De Carlo was another discovery.) Not long afterward she was tested at 20th Century Fox, landing a contract for $125 a week.[1]

Coleen Gray movies: Early bits

As found on the IMDb (I was unable to find confirmation), Coleen Gray’s first time in front of the camera was as a bit player in Walter Lang’s musical State Fair (1945), toplining Jeanne Crain, Dana Andrews, Dick Haymes, and Vivian Blaine.

Next in line was another bit in H. Bruce Humberstone’s Three Little Girls in Blue (1946) and a minor role in the Betty Grable star vehicle The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1947). It’s unclear just how “minor” the role was, or even whether or not Gray really took part in the film: according to various online sources, her scenes were deleted from the final release print; The Independent obit, however, states that Gray “relinquished” the role after discovering that she was pregnant.

Coleen Gray Red River John Wayne Western classic led to few important roles
Coleen Gray in ‘Red River,’ with John Wayne: Howard Hawks Western classic led to few important roles.

Howard Hawks makes a phone call: ‘Red River’

Despite resentment among studio executives because Jack Pomeroy bypassed them to offer his client’s services to an outside company, Coleen Gray got her first break in a small but important role far away from the Fox lot.

At her urging,[2] Howard Hawks personally contacted Darryl F. Zanuck so he could have her play John Wayne’s sweetheart in the classic – and costly (a reported $4.1 million) – Western Red River, shot mostly on location in Arizona during 1946/1947, and released in Sept. 1948.

Billed as Colleen Gray in this independently financed United Artists release, she is the girl left behind at the beginning of the story; Wayne’s character, Tom Dunson, deems the vast expanses of the Old West “too much for a woman.” In a girlish voice, Gray’s perfectly coiffed and made-up pioneer woman tries to convince him otherwise (“the sun only shines half of the time, Tom; the other half is night”), but to no avail.

Also featuring newcomers Montgomery Clift and Joanne Dru (a last-minute replacement for Hawks discovery Margaret Sheridan), Red River turned out to be a major box office hit – though it seems unlikely the now revered Western got even close to recovering its budget.

Coleen Gray Kiss of Death Victor Mature Good girl story narrator
Coleen Gray in ‘Kiss of Death,’ with Victor Mature: Good girl story narrator.

Christmas in New York: ‘Kiss of Death’

“Memorizing a script is a snap compared to carrying around a couple of dozen assorted orders in your head,” the former waitress was quoted as saying at the time.[3] Coleen Gray’s memory-enhancing waitressing skills were put to good use when she landed her most prominent role to date, which marked the beginning of her association with the crime movie genre – at times, a.k.a. film noir.

Best remembered for the sequence in which psychopath (and eventual Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee) Richard Widmark throws wheelchair-bound Mildred Dunnock down a flight of steps, Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death featured Gray in her first official “leading lady” part. Somewhat ironically, she was cast after Hathaway saw her supporting actors being tested for the lead in the studio’s upcoming Nightmare Alley – whereas the male hopefuls didn’t get their coveted role, which went to Fox superstar Tyrone Power. (More on Nightmare Alley further below.)

Shot on location from a screenplay by Ben Hecht (The Front Page) and Charles Lederer (Ride the Pink Horse, also with Hecht), Kiss of Death stars Victor Mature as an ex-con attempting – and failing – to rebuild his life in a society that isn’t too keen on giving second chances to those at the bottom of the ladder. Gray is both Mature’s romantic interest, the young woman from the past who struggles to keep him on the straight and narrow, and the film’s narrator: “Christmas Eve in New York. A happy time for some people. The lucky ones. …”

Whether or not because Henry Hathaway ultimately chose to focus on his male actors, she is poorly directed in what amounts to a lackluster supporting character that required a more experienced actress to make it noteworthy. Fox executives, however, clearly felt otherwise.

Coleen Gray Nightmare Alley Tyrone Power Going against God
Coleen Gray in ‘Nightmare Alley,’ with Tyrone Power: Going against God.

Going against God in ‘Nightmare Alley’

In a La Ronde-ish turn of events,[4] Coleen Gray playing opposite actors vying for the lead in Nightmare Alley led to her getting cast in Kiss of Death. Once the rushes were in, Kiss of Death led to her getting cast in Nightmare Alley, starring Gray’s old “crush” Tyrone Power under the direction of veteran Edmund Goulding (Grand Hotel, The Old Maid).

“I was born to play Molly, the loyal wife,” Gray told Goulding biographer Matthew Kennedy. “I told our boss Darryl Zanuck this, and he said, ‘If we can get a top star for the male lead, we can afford to float an unknown for Molly.”

With Power in (initially, against Zanuck’s wishes), so was Gray despite some unpleasant contract negotiations. She told Kennedy that Fox offered her Nightmare Alley as long as “I would sign a seven-year contract at the same salary. I thought this was wrong and refused. They hired me anyway – it was just a power play.”

There would also be plenty of power play on the screen. In this unusual addition to both Goulding’s and Power’s oeuvre, the sunny Alexander’s Ragtime Band and The Mark of Zorro star plays the unscrupulously ambitious carnival worker Stan Carlisle. As Stan’s wife, Gray is one of the three women in his life; the other two, about as corrupt as he is, are medium Joan Blondell and faux psychiatrist Helen Walker.

Motivational cabbages

An expert actor’s director,[5] Edmund Goulding provided guidance to the relatively inexperienced Gray, at the time not even 25. “There was one long, very critical scene where Ty’s character persuades me to go along with this deception, and I say, ‘You’re going against God!’” After shooting the first take, Goulding took Gray aside and told her to “think of cabbages.”

Eventually, she managed to concentrate on the suggested vegetables. The director, for his part, was finally pleased with her performance. “This was his way of telling me I was doing too much in the scene, and correcting it.”

The trick worked for Variety, whose reviewer remarked that she “is sympathetic and convincing as [Stan’s] steadfast wife and partner in his act.” The New York Times, however, remained skeptical of motivational vegetables, complaining that “Coleen Gray, while appealing as the innocent sideshow girl Stan is forced into marrying, betrays lack of experience and dramatic expression in her one pivotal scene with Mr. Power when she is trying to make him realize that his travesty of Divine power will end disastrously.”

Below: Nightmare Alley trailer with Tyrone Power, Coleen Gray, Joan Blondell and Helen Walker.

Downbeat box office flop

The tawdry, downbeat Nightmare Alley marked a radical change of pace for the spotlessly clean Power – one well received by critics, but mostly ignored by moviegoers. As Kennedy explains in Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory, Zanuck’s “reservations about the movie resulted in limited marketing and the most perfunctory of distribution plans. [The previous year’s Goulding-Power collaboration] The Razor’s Edge received too much build-up, Nightmare Alley too little.”

Following Nightmare Alley, Tyrone Power went back to light comedies and costume dramas. Still a minor contract player, Coleen Gray was relegated to two equally minor Fox Westerns: Fury at Furnace Creek (1948), opposite Victor Mature, and Sand (1949), opposite Mark Stevens and Rory Calhoun.

From ‘Riding High’ to the lower depths

In 1950, things seemed to be looking up a bit.

On loan out to Paramount, Gray was featured as 47-year-old Bing Crosby’s youthful romantic interest in Frank Capra’s Riding High, a musical remake of his own (superior) Broadway Bill,[6], in which she did her own singing.

At Columbia, she replaced a recalcitrant Gail Russell as William Holden’s leading lady in Abby Berlin and Norman Foster’s romantic comedy Father Is a Bachelor.

Yet neither film helped to advance Gray’s career. At that juncture, 20th Century Fox dropped her.

‘Hard work laced with disappointments’

“When I got my contract at 20th I was in seventh heaven,” Coleen Gray is supposed to have declared to The Boston Sunday Post in Nov. 1947.[7] “But I found out that a movie career is mostly hard work laced with disappointments.”

Perhaps one reason Fox never showcased her to advantage was that in the late ’40s the studio already had Jeanne Crain (Apartment for Peggy) as its girl next door, Anne Baxter (All About Eve) as its all-around talent, Gene Tierney as its film noir heroine (Whirlpool), and Betty Grable (Wabash Avenue) and June Haver (Look for the Silver Lining) as its musical stars.

There had been talk of a Seventh Heaven remake to star Gray and Victor Mature in the old Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell (1927) roles, but that project never came to fruition – possibly because a previous remake (1937) starring Simone Simon and James Stewart had flopped.

Gray was also to have supported Gene Tierney (later replaced by Anne Baxter) and fellow Fox contract player Linda Darnell in John M. Stahl’s The Walls of Jericho (1948), but the part went instead to Colleen Townsend, who enjoyed a very minor and very brief career at the studio.

Coleen Gray Riding High Bing Crosby Frances Gifford Last Important leading lady role
Coleen Gray in ‘Riding High,’ with Bing Crosby and Frances Gifford: Last important leading lady role.

Coleen Gray article notes

[1] Coleen Gray was married three times. Her first husband was future film and TV writer, director, and producer Rod Amateau. The couple were married from 1945–1949, or roughly about the same the time Gray was working at 20th Century Fox.

In fact, Amateau wrote (and possibly directed) the test – from Green Grows the Lilacs (later musicalized as Oklahoma) – that landed Gray her Fox contract. He was also the one who introduced her to William Lindsay Gresham’s novel Nightmare Alley.

Amateau’s big-screen credits mostly consist of B fare such as Pussycat Pussycat I Love You (1970) and Son of Hitler (1978), while among his extensive – and more successful – small-screen efforts are the Ann Sothern sitcom Private Secretary; The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show; The Patty Duke Show; and Gilligan’s Island. He died at age 80 in 2003.

Meeting with Darryl F. Zanuck

[2] “I had a meeting with Darryl Zanuck, and I was a little nervous; he had a reputation for being a womanizer,” Gray, referring to her chance to be featured in Red River, would tell the New York Times in 1999. “The first thing I did was walk in and say: ‘How do you do, Mr. Zanuck. You know we’re both from Nebraska. I’m from Staplehurst.’ [Zanuck was from Wahoo.] He was very nice. I was almost disappointed.”

At that meeting, Zanuck told Gray that Howard Hawks should call him to ask for her services.

[3] “As an actress, I was never secure,” Coleen Gray asserted in a videotaped interview for the Film Noir Foundation. “I studied so hard so I wouldn’t mess up on a line, flub my lines. To flub lines, to me, was an acute disgrace.

“To do anything wrong, to make a wrong move or do anything other than what I was instructed to do. … I had a fear of screwing up.

Gray’s Film Noir Foundation quote can be found in the Los Angeles Times.

Fox’s ‘tapestry of life’

[4] “The tapestry of life at 20th Century Fox,” Coleen Gray would tell the Film Noir Foundation, “had multi-threads.”

As an aside, one of these threads had Nebraska’s Doris Jensen getting the Hollywood surname Gray as a nod to top Fox star Betty Grable. The one-elled “Coleen” was a way for Gray (or her studio) to make her artistic moniker look unusual.

And finally, in Barbet Schroeder’s 1995 Kiss of Death remake, Gray’s character is – more or less – played by Helen Hunt as David Caruso’s wife. Nicolas Cage has the old Richard Widmark role.

Edmund Goulding’s Oscar-nominated actors

[5] Gloria Swanson (The Trespasser), Nancy Carroll (The Devil’s Holiday), Fay Bainter (White Banners), Bette Davis (Dark Victory), Joan Fontaine (The Constant Nymph), Clifton Webb (The Razor’s Edge), and Edmund Gwenn (Mister 880) were all nominated for Academy Awards, while Mary Astor (The Great Lie) and Anne Baxter (The Razor’s Edge) took home Oscars, for their work in films directed by Edmund Goulding.

[6] A 1934 release, Broadway Bill featured Warner Baxter, Myrna Loy, Walter Connolly, and Helen Vinson.

Regarding Riding High, Gray would tell Confessions of a Scream Queen author Matt Beckoff: “Working with Frank Capra was such a privilege. After we wrapped, I went into mourning. I cried for a week. The picture was the happiest period for me.”

[7] The original online source for Coleen Gray’s Boston Sunday Post quote seems to be Wikipedia. I was unable to verify its authenticity.

Coleen Gray The Sleeping City Richard Conte 'a total failure'
Coleen Gray in ‘The Sleeping City’ with Richard Conte: ‘I was a total failure.’

Coleen Gray after Fox: B Westerns and films noirs

Regarding the demise of her Fox career (the year after her divorce from Rod Amateau), Coleen Gray would recall for Confessions of a Scream Queen author Matt Beckoff:

I thought that was the end of the world and that I was a total failure. I was a mass of insecurity and depended on agents. … Whether it was an ‘A’ picture or a ‘B’ picture didn’t bother me. It could be a Western movie, a sci-fi film. A job was a job. You did the best with the script that you had.

Fox had dropped Gray at a time of dramatic upheavals in the American film industry: fast-dwindling box office receipts as a result of competition from television, government-imposed divestiture of the film exhibition side, anti-Red hysteria and blacklists, the beginning of the end of long-term studio contracts, fewer good roles for women.[1]

Unsurprisingly, with a couple of exceptions, what followed for Gray consisted of now largely forgotten B productions, chiefly in the Western and crime genres. Most of her roles of the ’50s could just as easily have been played by Phyllis Thaxter or Phyllis Kirk or any of a number of minor leading ladies of the era.

A couple of notable Coleen Gray Westerns were:

  • Edward Ludwig’s The Vanquished (1953), which is actually more like a “Southeastern.” Set in the post-Civil War American South, the film features Gray as former Confederate soldier (and former Fox star) John Payne’s faithful – and fearless – girlfriend, who doesn’t hesitate to attack tough villainess Jan Sterling with a pair of scissors.
  • Sam Newfield’s Frontier Gambler (1956), noteworthy as a reboot of Fox’s film noir Laura: a saloon owner presumed dead (Gray, in the old Gene Tierney role) becomes the obsession of a deputy marshal (John Bromfield, in the old Dana Andrews role) investigating the matter.

Among Coleen Gray’s crime dramas / films noirs – in a couple of which she actually got to play Bad (or at least Bad-ish) Girls – were:

  • George Sherman’s The Sleeping City (1950) as a nurse enmeshed in the illegal drug trade. Richard Conte was her leading man in this crime drama partly shot at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital.
  • Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential (1952), with John Payne as an ex-con falsely accused of staging a heist. In recent years, this B crime drama has gained cult status in some circles; at the time of its release, the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther was unimpressed: “An uncommon lot of face slapping, stomach punching and kicking in the groin, the standard manifestations of the virulence of mobsters and criminals on the screen, is the only perceptible distinction of the new Edward Small[-produced] crime film, Kansas City Confidential ….”
  • Reginald Le Borg’s Models Inc. (1952), mixing haute couture and racketeering, with Gray cast as a blackmailer and Howard Duff as an ex-con. The New York Times review ended with the following: “’We’re no good,’ Mr. Duff realistically admits to Miss Gray at one point, a sentiment that seems to be a pretty fair approximation of the whole business.”
  • Joseph M. Newman’s British-made Lucky Nick Cain / I’ll Get You for This (1952), starring George Raft – by then reduced to B movie fare – as the titular character: an American gambler in Italy, on the lam after being framed for a murder he didn’t commit. Gray is his companion, while in a curious bit of casting, Bicycle Thieves’ Enzo Staiola plays an orphaned shoeshine boy.
  • Sidney Salkow’s Las Vegas Shakedown (1955), interweaving disparate storylines set in the booming Nevada town – then in the throes of becoming the tacky, gaudy, deadly casino capital of the world. Also in the all-B-star cast: Dennis O’Keefe, Thomas Gomez, Mary Beth Hughes, Elizabeth Patterson, Charles Winninger, Dorothy Patrick, James Millican, and King Kong‘s Robert Armstrong.

Another B heist thriller featuring Coleen Gray was Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956).

Below: The Killing trailer with Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, and Marie Windsor.

Insecure leading lady: ‘The Killing’

Produced independently for a reported $320,000, The Killing, based on a novel by Lionel White, is notable as one of the early features of the director of 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange.

Sterling Hayden – with whom Gray had previously worked in the 1954 Western Arrow in the Dust – stars as the leader of a gang planning a lucrative racetrack robbery, a role akin to the one he had played in John Huston’s similarly themed (and bigger-budgeted) The Asphalt Jungle (1950).

“I was always Goody Two-Shoes,” Gray, decades later, would complain in Eddie Muller’s Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir. “The juicier parts, it was determined, were not for me.” Indeed, Bad Girl Marie Windsor (The Narrow Margin) landed the showier role of Elisha Cook Jr.’s scheming wife in The Killing, while Gray had to make do as Fay, the antihero’s pointer to the righteous path and a latter version of the Jean Hagen character in The Asphalt Jungle.

Against her will, Fay ultimately becomes entangled in the heist. “You know I’ll go along with anything you say,” she tells Hayden’s Johnny Clay. “I’m no good for anybody else. I’m not pretty and I’m not smart, so please don’t leave me alone.”

About working with Stanley Kubrick, Gray would recall in William Hare’s L.A. Noir: Nine Dark Visions of the City of Angels:

He was this small man wearing army fatigues and clodhopper shoes, and had bushy hair and was very quiet. I kept waiting for him to direct and nothing happened. ‘When’s he going to tell me what to do?’ He never did, which made me insecure. … Maybe the fact that I felt insecure was fine for the part – the girl was insecure.

Admired by Orson Welles and a cult classic in recent decades – “arguably Stanley Kubrick’s most perfectly conceived and executed film,” in the words of the Chicago Reader‘s Jonathan Rosenbaum – The Killing was hardly a major critical or commercial hit at the time of its release. In other words, Coleen Gray’s film career would remain mired in B moviedom.

Coleen Gray The Leech Woman So bad it's something else cult movie classic
Coleen Gray in ‘The Leech Woman’: So bad it’s something else cult movie classic.

‘Goody Two-Shoes’ no more: ‘The Leech Woman’

“When I started out,” Coleen Gray was quoted as saying in a 1999 Los Angeles Magazine article by Eddie Muller, “I wanted to be a sex goddess, but I guess I was the wholesome type.” Not so at all in The Leech Woman (1960), one of a couple of low-budget horror flicks in which she was seen at that time.[2]

Directed by Universal veteran Edward Dein (screenwriting credits include Calling Dr. Death and Jungle Woman), The Leech Woman stars Gray, at the time approaching 40, as June Talbot, the neglected, alcoholic wife – and unwitting test tube – of endocrinologist Phillip Terry, who travels to darkest Africa in search of the elixir of youth. Things work out beautifully, even if not quite the way the soon-to-be-bumped-off scientist had planned.

June – seemingly made up to look like Eleanor Parker in The Naked Jungle (post-serum African scenes) and The Seventh Sin (U.S. scenes) – discovers that she can once again look young and radiant without the need for creams, lotions, or surgical blades. All it takes is a cocktail containing fluids from the pineal glands of freshly made male corpses.

“The stupidity of it all was so overwhelming that it was really tough to get serious,” Gray would tell Matt Beckoff, while discussing a death-by-quicksand bit.

No matter. The tiny-budgeted The Leech Woman, with Coleen Gray as a precursor to Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger and Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn in Death Becomes Her, provided the Kiss of Death and Nightmare Alley actress with what could well be the best showcase of her career.[3]

According to Gray herself, after dismissing the film as “ridiculous,” film critic Pauline Kael remarked that “Coleen Gray acts with utter sincerity.”

Below: Coleen Gray, Patsy Ruth Miller, and Dallas Hill in Mother.

Christian propaganda feature is The End

For all purposes, Coleen Gray quit movies following the release of The Phantom Planet (1961). From then on, she would make only a handful of minor big-screen appearances:

  • Lesley Selander’s Town Tamer (1965), one of several A.C. Lyles-produced B Westerns starring performers who had seen better days. In this particular instance, besides Gray (whose name was found down the cast list) there were old-timers Dana Andrews, Terry Moore, Lon Chaney Jr., Pat O’Brien, Richard Arlen, and a dozen others.
  • The recently deceased John Guillermin’s mystery drama P.J. (1968). Gray, once again down the cast list, supported George Peppard in the title role, Gayle Hunnicutt, Raymond Burr, and Brock Peters.
  • Dick Ross’ The Late Liz (1971), starring Gray’s fellow Fox veteran Anne Baxter and Steve Forrest; the former as a wealthy alcoholic who kicks the bottle after becoming a Christian convert.
  • Brian Pinette’s Mother (1978), reportedly shot in five days for less than $2,000, and featuring Gray as the middle-aged daughter of an elderly, apparently senile woman (Lon Chaney’s 1923 The Hunchback of Notre Dame leading lady Patsy Ruth Miller). On his YouTube channel, Pinette explains that “Miss Miller came out of retirement to do me this favor as the script was written for her and Coleen.”
  • James F. Collier’s little-seen father-son-God adventure-drama Cry from the Mountain (1985). This Billy Graham Ministry-backed slice of Christian propaganda turned out to be Gray’s final movie.

Coleen Gray busy on TV, ‘The Moon Is Blue’ on stage

On television, from 1950 to 1986 Coleen Gray was featured in more than 60 shows and movies, among them Rawhide, Bonanza, Ironside, The Sixth Sense, and the soap opera Days of Our Lives.

One of her last small-screen roles was in The Best Place to Be (1979), co-produced by big-screen veteran Ross Hunter (Imitation of Life, Strangers in My Arms). Directed by former Hunter collaborator David Miller (Midnight Lace, Back Street), this family comedy-drama featured a whole array of old-timers, including Oscar winner Donna Reed (From Here to Eternity), Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Betty White, Leon Ames, Kiss of Death victim Mildred Dunnock, and future Titanic actress Gloria Stuart.

Also of note, in the early 1950s Gray toured in a stage production of the – for the time risqué – comedy The Moon Is Blue, under the direction of Otto Preminger. Barbara Bel Geddes had originated the role on Broadway; eventual Best Actress Academy Award nominee Maggie McNamara starred in the 1953 blockbuster, also directed by Preminger.

Below: Coleen Gray remembers “Going against God!” in Nightmare Alley.

School prayer fight

A devout Christian off-screen, in 1964 a “glamorously dressed and made up” Coleen Gray, alongside fellow actors and “Project Prayer” advocates Victor Jory (A Midsummer’s Night Dream) and Susan Seaforth (Days of Our Lives), testified before a U.S. House Judiciary committee, arguing for a constitutional amendment that would overturn the Supreme Court’s 8-1 decision banning compulsory prayer in public schools.[4]

Their stance put the Hollywood trio at odds with the American Civil Liberties Union and the more liberal-minded members of the clergy, such as Rev. Edward O. Miller of New York City’s St. George’s Episcopal Church, who argued against the amendment.

Watergate and prison ministry

Later in life, Gray and her third husband, biblical scholar Joseph Zeiser, worked together in the Prison Fellowship ministry – whose mission is “redeeming prisoners through Christ.”[5]

The ministry was founded by U.S. President Richard Nixon’s Special Counsel Charles Colson, a convicted felon as a result of the Watergate debacle.[6]

Joseph Zeiser died in 2012. As announced by author David Schecter, three years later Coleen Gray died of “natural causes” on Aug. 3 at her home in Bel Air, in the Los Angeles Westside.

Coleen Gray article notes

[1] Among the numerous Hollywood actresses, all bigger names than Coleen Gray, whose film stardom came to an end in the early-to-mid-’50s were:

Irene Dunne. Jean Arthur. Claudette Colbert. Paulette Goddard. Veronica Lake. Loretta Young. Betty Grable. June Haver. Betty Hutton. Ann Sothern. Hedy Lamarr. Greer Garson. Esther Williams. Gail Russell. Ginger Rogers. Gene Tierney. Linda Darnell. Teresa Wright. Jane Greer. Lizabeth Scott. Jennifer Jones. Dorothy Lamour. Lucille Ball. Marlene Dietrich. Ruth Roman. Ellen Drew.

Some of the above had better luck on the small screen.

[2] Coleen Gray’s other low-budget horror flick was Paul Landres’ The Vampire (1957), a variation on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with former Katharine Hepburn leading man John Beal (The Little Minister) in the title role.

After referring to Beal as “a highly intelligent person,” Gray told Matt Beckoff that she had recently watched The Vampire and “felt so bad for John’s character. He didn’t mean to be a monster. It was tragic.”

Around the time The Vampire and The Leech Woman came out, Gray was also seen in a couple of B sci-fiers:

  • George Waggner’s Destination 60,000 (1957), starring veteran Preston Foster (The Last Days of Pompeii), Pat Conway, and Jeff Donnell.
  • William Marshall’s The Phantom Planet (1961), with Dean Fredericks, Anthony Dexter, and veteran Francis X. Bushman (Messala in the 1925 Ben-Hur).

[3] In 1959, Susan Cabot starred in The Wasp Woman, the tale of a cosmetics entrepreneur who uses queen wasps to develop a youth formula – as to be expected, with deadly results. Roger Corman directed.

Honorary member of the National Federation of Republican Women

[4] “I’m not a religious woman; I am a Christian. I am a sinner saved by grace,” Coleen Gray says in Confessions of a Scream Queen.

Also worth noting, according to several websites – their original source seems to be a 2013 self-published Web article – Gray was an honorary member of the National Federation of Republican Women, along with fellow veteran Hollywood actresses Cyd Charisse, Rhonda Fleming, and Laraine Day.

[5] Coleen Gray’s second husband (1953–his death in 1978) was aviation executive William Bidlack.

[6] The recently deceased Dean Jones (The Love Bug), who became an ardent Christian in the mid-’70s, played Charles Colson in Irving Rapper’s 1978 movie Born Again.

All unsourced Coleen Gray quotes regarding Nightmare Alley are from Matthew Kennedy’s Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory.

Image of Tyrone Power and Coleen Gray in Nightmare Alley and trailer: 20th Century Fox.

Image of Victor Mature and Coleen Gray in Kiss of Death: 20th Century Fox.

Image of John Wayne and Coleen Gray in Red River: United Artists, via Doctor Macro.

Image of Frances Gifford, Bing Crosby, and Coleen Gray in Riding High: Paramount Pictures.

The Killing trailer: United Artists.

Image of Richard Conte and Coleen Gray in The Sleeping City: Universal Pictures.

Coleen Gray The Leech Woman image: Universal Pictures, via

Coleen Gray remembering Nightmare Alley via the Film Noir Foundation.

The Leech Woman trailer: Universal Pictures.

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1 comment

Claudia DeLongueville -

You were wonderful Coleen. The Killing and Nightmare Alley belong to my favorite films.


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