Phillis Kirk: Woman in “Wax”

Phyllis Kirk (1927-2006) entered my consciousness because she’s the leading lady in one of my favorite movies House of Wax (1953), and I wondered what else she had done, although (as happens more often than not) I had seen her in many other things without taking particular note of her. She was also the female lead in Jerry Lewis’s The Sad Sack (1957), and the westerns Thunder Over the Plains (1953) with Randolph Scott and Johnny Concho (1956) with Frank Sinatra, and she played the Myrna Loy character (Nora Charles) in the TV version of The Thin Man. Her peak screen career coincided almost precisely with the decade of the 1950s.

Bryan Foy had cast Kirk in House of Wax not only for her striking beauty (strong cheekbones, large luminous eyes) but for her palpable intelligence. (Perhaps no coincidence, as her given last name was Kirkegaard). That quality also would be perfect for Nora Charles, as well. But such a trait can be a drawback in Hollywood, where having a reputation for possessing a mind of your own could be considered detrimental. The New Jersey native had studied with Sanford Meisner, and made her Broadway debut in the Theater Guild’s 1949 production of Philip Barry’s My Name is Aquilon (1949). A road tour of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter brought her west.

Kirk’s first movie was the now forgotten melodrama Our Very Own (1950) with Ann Blyth and Farley Granger. Prior to being elevated to lead status with House of Wax, most of Kirk’s roles were small, and the pictures undistinguished. Throughout the ’50s she also did tons of live television drama, and sketches on The Red Buttons Show. One of the more interesting films in her small roster was the 1956 remake of the marooned-in-the-jungle drama Back from Eternity, a remake of Five Came Back which had her fourth-billed in an ensemble that also included Robert Ryan, Anita Ekberg, Rod Steiger, Gene Barry, Fred Clark, Beulah Bondi, and Jesse White.

Around 1960 acting roles dried up for Kirk, although she remained in the public eye through the mid ’60s as a panelist on game shows, and as the host of a short lived morning talk show called The Young Set (1965). Around that time, she got involved in Civil Rights causes. Her last screen credit was a 1970 episode of The F.B.I. In 1967 she married tv producer Warren Bush, whose credits include such things as Jacques Cousteau specials, a mini-series about Abraham Lincoln, and the 1977 right-to-die drama In The Matter of Kathleen Quinlan. Kirk continued to work as a publicist for CBS throughout the ’70s and ’80s, into the early ’90s.

I can think of nothing more ironic than her not being represented in the Hollywood Wax Museum.