Coleen Gray was born in 1922 Nebraska, a true farmer's daughter. Her parents, Danish Lutherans, were as cold as the Midwestern winters and Gray, born Doris Jensen, felt unloved. The feelings she carried around as a young girl developed into a strong inferiority complex she would keep for many years. She came alive when she became involved in drama in school. Earning roles in school plays made her realize that she was not so shy and withdrawn when she could step into the life of a character. She wouldn't be the first or last actor to say that. Studying acting in college, she obtained a BA degree, and was involved with the choir. She said she was uncomfortable with solos, preferring to blend into the background.
After some traveling around America, she landed in Los Angeles and decided to stay. She took up dramatic training, deciding once and for all to get serious about becoming a movie actress. One day she went with a friend to 20th Century Fox and was discovered on the lot and given a contract. Actually she was given what's called a test contract. That involves some good training but no salary. It occurred when a studio had so-so confidence in a newbie. Soon, however, she proved herself and they put her under a regular contract.
She was loaned out to director Howard Hawks in 1946 for his superior western, Red River. She had a very brief scene at the opening of the story as John Wayne's wagon train sweetheart (who will soon be killed). The film would be involved in all sorts of problems and not be released until 1948.
Her next film would be the one in which the public got a first glimpse of her... 1947s Kiss of Death starring one of Fox's biggest stars, Victor Mature, and in his film debut, Richard Widmark. A popular film noir, it is most famous for Widmark's character pushing a wheel-chair bound Mildred Dunnock down a flight of tenement stairs.
She would not particularly enjoy a brief marriage to writer-stunt man, Rod Amateau, who would actually take that fall for Dunnock.
Because of Kiss of Death and a few future noirs, Gray rightly deserves her place in the pantheon of film noir queens. But the unusual thing about her inclusion is that she was nearly always the good girl... the bad girl part went to someone else. (Film noirs almost always had a bad girl and it was usually played by the leading actress.) I always wanted the parts Audrey Totter got, she mused, but it was not to be. Her specialty became playing the loyal wife or girlfriend who helps keep her man stay on the straight and narrow, although her success often didn't come until in the final reel.
As a child, Gray said she used to pour over movie magazines to see photographs of her two favorite actors, Loretta Young and Tyrone Power. Since that duo made five films together, she eagerly awaited one after another. She could scarcely believe that her next assignment, also in 1947, would star Power. The noir film was called Nightmare Alley, and although it would be many years before I would see it, it was a film that completely captured my attention. Never mind that it is fairly depressing, focusing on the lives of carnival workers. In one of his most unusual and best roles at Fox, Power was a ne'er-do-well schemer on the circuit looking for a ticket to the easy life.
There were three good women's roles in Nightmare Alley. One was a fellow carny with a questionable reputation, played by Joan Blondell (I never cared for her in leading roles), and one of unquestionably low standards, played with relish by Helen Walker. And Power's good wife was played by whom?
Gray ran into problems with Fox's new casting director, Ben Lyon, and it may be that he helped sabotage her career. She had been on loanout for an A western and done two excellent film noirs and her career should have been on top of the world. So what do the suits do... they reteam her with Mature in her first B western, Fury at Furnace Creek (what a title!) and then a horse upstages her in another B western, Sand (1949). Not good. Fox unceremoniously dumped her.
The 1950s began with a too-cutesy William Holden comedy, Father Is a Bachelor, and one of Bing Crosby's least successful musicals, Riding High, although Gray did do her own singing alongside the master. She got to be the bad girl in the film noir, The Sleeping City, with Richard Conte, but it turns out with a good cause because she's trying to get help for her ailing sister. In Lucky Nick Cain, she had the unenviable task of being George Raft's leading lady. I am sure I saw her opposite Stephen McNally in Apache Drums on a double bill with Fury at Furnace Creek.
Gray could get testy with coworkers now and then but she never really had the fortitude to carry things out to a conclusion of her making. Usually her opponent won as did her inferiority complex. She was a good actress, deserving of better roles, but she could never bring herself to get in the ring and fight for her career.
She began a romance with John Payne around the time they starting filming the first of their three films together, 1952s Kansas City Confidential, directed by Phil Karlson, a master in the genre. It was the first of several movies the director would make with Payne. Gray played the law-school daughter of a former cop who engineers a bank robbery by framing an innocent man (Payne). Payne and Gray fall for one another onscreen, too, which complicates the whole process. It was one of the best roles she ever had.
|Gray with John Payne and Jan Sterling|
The following year the two were reteamed for The Vanquished, a decent enough western, but Jan Sterling got the more colorful white-trash role but Gray played the woman Payne left behind while she never lost faith in him. She could have played these parts in her sleep. In 1954 she was in another wagon train yarn, Arrow in the Dust, with Sterling Hayden, whose career in B westerns is legendary.
She went blonde and became a villainess in the routine 1955 western, Tennessee's Partner. Payne and Ronald Reagan were not as colorful in the title roles while the juicy parts went to Gray and Rhonda Fleming. It was a smaller part for her but one of my favorites of her movie roles.
She returned to noir in 1956 when she reteamed with Hayden in The Killing, one of the earliest films of director Stanley Kubrick and right at the top of the greatest bank robbery films. It put a spark back in Hayden's career and featured exquisite character performances by the great Marie Windsor and Elisha Cook Jr. Gray, though perfectly fine, was in her standard role as the supportive partner of the man going down the wrong path. It would be her last good film... a mere 10 years after she started.
I cannot bring myself to discuss The Vampire, The Leech Woman or The Phantom Planet. Please, please don't ask me to. (Wink.) She went on to guest-star on just about every popular TV show there was. Most people are more likely to remember her from television than movies.
She gave up the limelight completely shortly after marrying her third husband, a bible scholar. Together they became quite active with a non-profit organization called Prison Fellowship, which aided churches in ministering to prisoners and their families and victims. She and her husband, who died three years ago, were together over 30 years.
When I started out I wanted to be a sex goddess, she said. But I guess I was the wholesome type. She certainly was the wholesome type but frankly I thought she was an equally good bad girl and she had fierce displays of temper in some films. But she was shy, always a little insecure and got pigeon-holed and that was that.
The lovely Coleen (one L, just to be a little different) died of natural causes this past Monday at her home in Bel Air. She was 92.
The 40s most beautiful star