Barbara Rush, prolific actress known for ’50s melodramas, dies at 97

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Barbara Rush, an elegant, hazel-eyed actress who worked with Rock Hudson, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Paul Newman, appearing in mid-century melodramas like “Magnificent Obsession” as well as the prime time soap opera “Peyton Place,” died March 31 at a memory care centre in Westlake Village, Calif. She was 97.

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She had dementia, said her daughter, Claudia Cowan, a senior correspondent for Fox News.

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Beginning with ingenue roles in the early 1950s, when she was signed by Paramount Pictures in the twilight of the Hollywood studio system, Rush acted on-screen for almost seven decades, appearing in more than 100 movies and television shows. “I’m one of those kinds of people who will perform the minute you open the refrigerator door and the light goes on,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1997.

She had acted onstage before entering movies, notably in a pair of Atomic Age science-fiction films. She travelled to an alien planet as the daughter of an astronomer in “When Worlds Collide” (1951) and investigated the crash of a mysterious spaceship in “It Came From Outer Space” (1953), a 3D spectacular co-starring Richard Carlson as her fiance.

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The second film featured eerie desert vistas, a story by author Ray Bradbury and a few “out-there” moments, as film writer Danny Miller once put it in an interview with Rush. “Oh,” she replied gamely, “you mean like when my character is kidnapped and an alien turns into me, but instead of my regular clothes I’m suddenly wearing this strapless black chiffon evening gown with a flowing scarf?”

“I guess the studio just wanted to get me in that dress,” she said.

Rush went on to work alongside up-and-coming actors including Tony Curtis, as his sister in the costume drama “The Black Shield of Falworth” (1954), and Hudson, playing the screen idol’s love interest in “Captain Lightfoot” (1955) and “Taza, Son of Cochise” (1954), a western in which she and her co-star donned dark makeup to play Native Americans.

Many of her early films were forgettable, as she readily acknowledged. “I can safely say that every movie role I was ever offered that had any real quality went to someone else,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1984.

Still, she was featured in at least two movies that have been reclaimed by critics after being ignored or dismissed upon their release. She played Jane Wyman’s stepdaughter in the Douglas Sirk melodrama “Magnificent Obsession” (1954), which reunited her with Hudson, and was the wife of James Mason’s schoolteacher character in Nicholas Ray’s “Bigger Than Life” (1956), an Eisenhower-era examination of mental health, consumerism and prescription-drug abuse.

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Rush later played Martin’s love interest in the Second World War epic “The Young Lions” (1958), with Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift; starred opposite Newman in “The Young Philadelphians” (1959), as the socialite girlfriend he loses and eventually wins; and appeared in two Sinatra films, the comedy “Come Blow Your Horn” (1963) and the Rat Pack musical “Robin and the 7 Hoods” (1964), as a mob boss’s vengeful daughter.

The film offered her a chance to demonstrate her range beyond roles as glamorous suburban women – as did another villainous part, as the almost comically diabolical Nora Clavicle, a feminist activist who plots to blow up Gotham City and collect the insurance money on the TV show “Batman.”

By the late 1960s, Rush had increasingly turned to television for acting jobs, making guest appearances as a Washington newspaper correspondent in the NBC drama “Saints and Sinners” and starring on the last two seasons of “Peyton Place” as a divorced woman who falls in love with Ed Nelson’s surgeon character.

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She later lamented “this terrible Sahara Desert between 40 and 60, when you went from ingenue to old lady” – a period in which “you either didn’t work or you pretended you were 20.”

Still, she continued to find plenty of roles, performing in touring productions of the Broadway plays “Forty Carats” and “Same Time, Next Year” and on TV shows including the ABC soap opera “All My Children,” in which she starred in the early 1990s as a Napa Valley vineyard owner.

At age 80, she was still taking featured parts, playing the mother of Stephen Collins on the WB family drama “7th Heaven.”

The second of three children, Barbara Sydney Rush was born in Denver on Jan. 4, 1927, and grew up in Santa Barbara, Calif. Her father was a lawyer who died of a heart attack when Rush was 17. Her mother was a homemaker who became a nurse to help support the family.

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After graduating from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1948, Rush got a scholarship to the Pasadena Playhouse, where she acted onstage and was spotted by a talent scout with Paramount. “I was never really that ambitious – that was sort of a problem I had,” she recalled. “I was just so happy that any studio was interested in me at all.”

She made her movie debut in 1950 in “The Goldbergs” (also known as “Molly”), a spinoff of the hit radio and television series created by Gertrude Berg. That same year, she married actor Jeffrey Hunter, who later starred with John Wayne in “The Searchers” and played Jesus in “King of Kings.” They had a son, Christopher, and divorced in 1955, in part because they were both in demand and spent long periods of time apart.

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Four years later, Rush married Hollywood publicity executive Warren Cowan. They had a daughter, Claudia, and divorced in 1969. Her third marriage, to sculptor Jim Gruzalski, also ended in divorce, as did a short-lived fourth marriage that reunited her with Cowan.

In her 90s, Rush had a three-year romance with Bernard Monetta, a retired optometrist she met at the Mill Valley Film Festival in California. He died in 2022.

Survivors include her two children and four grandchildren.

Rush’s film credits included roles in the western “Hombre” (1967), as the snobbish wife of a government agent (Fredric March), and “Can’t Stop the Music” (1980), a fictionalized account of the disco group the Village People, in which she played the mother of a New York lawyer (Bruce Jenner, now Caitlyn Jenner) who helps the group get started.

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Onstage, she was perhaps best known for starring in the one-person play “A Woman of Independent Means,” based on a hit novel by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey. Told through that her character, a Texas heiress, writes over the course of her lifetime, the play was hailed by critics in Los Angeles but bombed during a brief 1984 run on Broadway, where it opened to scathing reviews.

Rush believed that the show fared poorly because it had been overproduced, with additions made to what had once been a spare, minimalist set. She continued to perform the play for years, touring with it around the country and starring in productions on cruise ships.

“It’s made me find my specialness,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1984, describing her affection for the show. She added that “all of these latent skills of mine are finally being used. I may have that mundane ‘prettiness,’ but also a certain intelligence and no neurosis. How many parts are written for this kind of person?”

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