Jean Simmons, star of ‘Spartacus,’ ‘Guys and Dolls,’ dies

  • Sat Jan 23rd, 2010 10:38pm
  • News

Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Jean Simmons, a radiant British actress who as a teenager appeared opposite Sir Laurence Olivier in “Hamlet” and emerged a star whose career flourished in the 1950s and 1960s in such films as “Guys and Dolls, “Elmer Gantry” and “Spartacus,” has died. She was 80.

Simmons, who won an Emmy Award for her role in the 1980s miniseries “The Thorn Birds,” died Friday evening at her home in Santa Monica, said Judy Page, her agent. She had lung cancer.

“Jean Simmons’ jaw-dropping beauty often obscured a formidable acting talent,” said Alan Rode, a writer and film historian.

Plucked from a dance class by a talent scout at the age of 14, she had already made several movies before gaining attention for her portrayal of the young Estella in Sir David Lean’s film adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel “Great Expectations.”

Considered one of the greatest British movies ever made, it had lasting effect on the actress, who was 17 the year it was released. Until then, moviemaking had mainly been “fun and games,” she later said, but she realized it could be a career.

“That’s when I thought, ‘Oh, yes, I think this is it,’ “ Simmons said in 1990.

After Olivier cast her as Ophelia in his 1948 film “Hamlet,” she received the first of two Academy Award nominations. More than 20 years later, she was nominated for her searing portrayal of an alcoholic wife in “The Happy Ending.”

Olivier urged the young actress to perfect her craft by acting on stage, but she chose a more romantic path — and followed her future husband, dashing British screen idol Stewart Granger, to Hollywood.

Over a career that spanned more than 60 years, she appeared in about 55 feature films and nearly as many television productions. In the 1950s and 1960s, she made more than 30 movies and displayed her versatility by appearing in costume epics, romances, musicals and dramas.