Susan Peters: From Warner Brothers to a Wheelchair

Oscar-nominated actress Susan Peters (1921-1952) enjoyed a spell in the sunlight that was all too brief due to a hunting accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down. But she fought fiercely to extend it while she could.

Born Suzanne Carnahan, she spent the first decade of her childhood in Washington State and Oregon, moving to Southern California with her mother after her father died in a car accident. She attended Catholic schools and worked part time to help make ends meet, even while pursuing vigorous activities like swimming, tennis, cycling, an horseback riding (a skill that came in handy later in westerns.)

Peters studied drama with Max Reinhardt and was spotted by scouts in a school production of Philip Barry’s Holiday. Beautiful and talented, she began appearing in Warner Bros. films as an extra at age 19. She rapidly progressed to small supporting parts in such films as Sante Fe Trail (1940) with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland; Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941), and Scattergood Pulls the Strings (1941) with Guy Kibbee. She was fourth billed by The Big Shot (1942) with Humphrey Bogart. Her next film Tish (1942), based on writings of Mary Roberts Rinehart, put her amongst a stellar ensemble that included Marjorie Main, Alene MacMahon, Zasu Pitts, Virginia Grey and Richard Quine, the latter of whom she would marry the following year. This photo of her taking that film’s director S. Sylvan Simon on a little bike spin is a good example of her characteristic vigor:

Random Harvest (1942), directed by Mervyn LeRoy is her most significant performance; she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. There followed several fairly routine wartime programmers, culminating with Keep Your Powder Dry (1945), co-starring her friend Lana Turner and Larraine Day.

But tragedy struck. On New Year’s Day, 1945 she was duck hunting with husband Richard Quine and another couple, and suffered an accident with a shotgun. Attempting to retrieve the weapon, which had been left under some brush, the trigger went off, sending buckshot through her abdomen and damaging her spinal cord. She survived but was now paraplegic, a particularly tough blow for such an active young woman.

Nevertheless she fought gamely. Initially she did a lot of radio acting. She paid morale boosting visits to paraplegic war veterans. Her celebrity friends posed with her for publicity, such as:

Lucille Ball:

Cesar Romero:

Clark Gable:

Like many in her predicament, Peters initially hoped to regain the use of her legs, but given her condition it was futile. She eventually, resolved to continue her screen career on a model along the lines of the similarly stricken Lionel Barrymore, with whom she had appeared in Dr. Gillespie’s New Assistant (1942). Here is an ironic photo from that innocent earlier period:

Admirably, she rejected several projects suggested to her by her studio, MGM, which would have cast her as a tragic, pathetic figure. This led to her parting ways with the studio. Her next (and final) film, at relatively low budget Columbia, was The Sign of the Ram (1948), in which she played a totally unsympathetic monster. The movie didn’t get good reviews. Later that year, she and Quine divorced. Whether due to cruelty on his part, or generosity on hers, can only be a subject of speculation.

Lesser mortals might have been down and out by this point, but Peters leapt into the breach again by plunging into theatre. In 1949 she starred as Laura in a touring version of The Glass Menagerie, which had been tweaked by Tennessee Williams just for her. The following year she played the invalid poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning in a production of The Barretts of Wimpole Street. 

In 1951 Peters undertook her last project, Miss Susan, an NBC TV series in which she played a wheelchair-bound lawyer. It was the first tv series to showcase a disabled star. Unfortunately her health began to fail at that point and the show was cancelled. It was only at this stage that despondency overcame her. Her body already failing, she refused food and drink, hastening the end. She was only 31 when she died on October, 1952.

For more on the history of show business see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,