Rhonda Fleming: Redhead of the West

Rhonda Fleming (1923-2020) was a going concern when I was a kid in the ’70s, when you could see the mature beauty on such TV shows as McMillan and Wife, Police Woman, Kung Fu, Ellery Queen, and The Love Boat, as well as talk shows like Mike Douglas and Merv. A younger person was apt to confuse her Olympic Ice Skater Peggy Fleming, but older people new her well as a major movie star of the 1950s, whose red-headed appeal was not unlike that of Maureen O’Hara or Virginia Mayo.

Born in Los Angeles with the given name Marilyn Louis, Fleming was third generation show biz. Her maternal grandfather John C. Graham was an actor/manager in Utah; her mother Effie Graham was a model and chorus girl whose one Broadway credit was the show Dancing Around (1914-15), which starred Al Jolson, Kitty Doner, and Clifton Webb. Fleming began working in films as an extra around age 20. Her career got a massive boost when Alfred Hitchcock cast her in a featured role as a nymphomaniac in Spellbound (1945). This led naturally to the Hitchcockesque Gothic thriller The Spiral Staircase the following year and the noir classics like Out of the Past (1947), Cry Danger (1951) and While the City Sleeps (1956).

Musical, comedy, and variety fans no doubt know Fleming from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949) with Bing Crosby, the Bob Hope films The Great Lover (1949) and Alias Jesse James (1959), the bio-pic Little Egypt (1951), The Buster Keaton Story (1957), Irwin Allen’s The Big Circus (1959), and Jerry Lewis’s The Patsy (1964). She also did TV variety like The Colgate Comedy Hour with Abbott and Costello, and The Red Skelton Show. In the 1950s and ’60 she performed a live act in Las Vegas.

Much like the aforementioned O’Hara and Mayo, Fleming was also very much associated with westerns, including movies like Abilene Town (1946), The Redhead and the Cowboy (1951), Pony Express (1953), Bullwhip (1958), and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), and tv shows like Wagon Train and The Virginian. Another interesting thread in Fleming’s body of work is ancient world costume epics like Serpent of the Nile (1953) in which she played Cleopatra, Queen of Babylon (1955) and The Revolt of the Slaves (1960). Her last feature film appearance was a cameo in the Get Smart/Don Adams comedy The Nude Bomb (1980).

A member of Hollywood’s conservative colony, Fleming was married six times, and spent nearly four decades in retirement.

To learn more about show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.