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Jean Simmons 1929-2010

PUBLISHED: 14:11 24 January 2010 | UPDATED: 07:40 02 July 2010

Jean Simmons with Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls.

Jean Simmons with Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls.

Jean Simmons, who has died aged 80, was plucked from a dance troupe at the age of 14 for her first film role and went on to become an Oscar nominated Hollywood star. In one of her last ever interviews she talks about her life and her final film, set in Norfolk.

Jean Simmons with leading man Kirk Douglas in Spartacus.

Actress Jean Simmons, who has died aged 80, was plucked from a dance troupe at the age of 14 for her first film role and went on to become an Oscar nominated Hollywood star. In one of the last ever interviews, she talks about her life, movies and her final film, set in Norfolk.

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Hollywood starlets didn't come more enduring than Jean Simmons, a leading lady who enjoyed more than 60 years in the celluloid spotlight.

And her legend was even more remarkable when you consider her humble beginnings sleeping under a table in her London home to escape falling bombs during the Second World War.

The actress, who has died aged 80, seemed destined for stardom from the moment she was plucked at 14 from a dance troupe to make her first film.

She quickly rose to become one of the biggest stars of British and American cinema, playing Ophelia in Laurence Olivier's Hamlet and the memorable role of Kanchi in the Archers' Black Narcissus. She starred opposite Marlon Brando in Guys And Dolls, Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry and Kirk Douglas in Spartacus. Nominated for two Oscars, she was one of the most memorable names and faces on the planet.

Though hugely talented - she won an Emmy Award for her role in the 1980s mini series The Thorn Birds - by the late-1980s her star had waned and she was battling problems with alcohol.

She returned briefly to the screen in How To Make An American Quilt in the mid-1990s, but since then had filled in her time doing voiceovers for computer games until she emerged from semi-retirement in 2008 to star in the Norfolk-set drama Shadows In The Sun.

In what would be her final film role, the archetypal English Rose played Hannah, a widow living in a large house on the isolated North Norfolk coast in the 1960s.

A young bearded loner called Joe (played by Jamie Dornan) brings her marijuana which she smokes to ease the pain of an unspecified illness and also - as one suspects from the twinkle in Simmons' eye - for the fun of it. She and the much younger Joe seem to live in quiet contentment until Hannah's son Robert (played by James Wilby) arrives with his own children Kate (Ophelia Lovibond) and Sam (Toby Marlow).

The family drama, directed by David Rocksavage, the Marquess of Cholmondeley, owner of Houghton Hall, near Fakenham, marked her return to home soil for the first time in years.

“I used to visit England a lot more,” said the actress who described herself as “semi-retired” spending her days playing internet scrabble from her home in Santa Monica.

“I'm not good on flying. I've flown so much in my life so maybe I better call it quits. I did go to visit where I was born in Crouch Hill a few years ago with my daughter. It was kind of fun just wandering around but a strange feeling thinking 'My God, I don't know this place at all'.”

Spending most of her formative years in Cricklewood, north London, it was a stint at stage school which propelled her into a career spanning six decades and cemented her in the cinema hall of fame.

She moved to America in the 1950s but it still took a nudge for her to be truly tempted into the glitz and glamour of Hollywood - and resiliently holding on to her English accent.

“I just treated acting like a little bit of fun and didn't take it that seriously, thinking I would just get married and have children,” she said.

“But it was when I was working with David Lean [in Great Expectations] that I finally caught the bug and thought actually this would be nice.”

“Travelling is one of the fortunate things of my career and I have met some truly wonderful people along the way.”

These wonderful people include Laurence Olivier - or “Larry” as she affectionately recalled him, who in turn once described her as a “ravishing 18-year-old” when they starred together in Hamlet.

Her roll call of leading men goes on to include silver screen icons Kirk Douglas, Marlon Brando and Spencer Tracy - “he was such a good friend and just a delight”.

One of her two daughters, Tracy, who now works as a movie editor, was even named after the film star.

It is recalling her time on set with Kirk Douglas in the recently re-released Spartacus, which she described as a “great story that always holds up against the test of time”, that a cheeky side to her emerges.

“I remember a long, long day of filming and it took forever to get Kirk Douglas up on his cross,” she said. “We played a terrible joke on him when as he was safely installed the assistant director called lunch and left him up there. He could have had the lot of us fired but he was very good about it. You have to have a sense of humour in this industry.”

Almost 50 years later she retained her leading lady status with Shadows In The Sun, which features Norfolk's marshes, sand dunes, and wide empty beaches with filming taking place at Walsingham, Holkham and Brancaster.

“She's an elderly lady who's not terribly well but gutsy with a great sense of humour - very fun to play,” she said of her role. “It was wonderful being up in Norfolk and probably one of the healthiest shoots I've been on.”

The way she described shooting the film in Norfolk sounded akin to visiting a rural spa. "Oh, it's the most beautiful place and so healthy, with the country air and the sea air," she enthused.

She enjoyed it so much that she even stopped smoking. "We were all health nuts, drinking green tea all the time. I haven't worked for such a long time. It brought a joy back to my life that I thought I had lost. It did me personally the world of good."

So how did she feel about the supposed lack of good parts for older women that had so limited her roles in the past two decades?

“I think there are good parts for women but it's whether you want to do them or not.”

She added: “In many ways, the industry has changed a lot over the years. It's not so much acting it's more like being somebody that you're playing.

“It was much broader in the old days and slowly, gradually you could see the difference in style. It's quite interesting, especially when you see the old pictures, the old black and white films, which I watch with great nostalgia.”

Shadows In The Sun saw the actress invited to attend a screening of the film by the Wymondham-based Regal Experience group, at the personal invitation of its chairman Michael Armstrong, who travelled to Hollywood to meet her.

“She was charming and so kind to us and even got her daughter [Tracy Granger, from her first marriage to film idol, Stewart Granger] to take photographs of us with film posters we had taken along, which she also signed. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and one we will never forget,” he recalls.

The group, which arranges screenings of classic films at the old Regal Cinema in Wymondham, had already written to Miss Simmons when they heard she would be filming in Norfolk.

She was unable to meet them in Norfolk but sent an invitation for the group to visit her at her Santa Monica home.

Mr Armstrong today said the group had been very upset by the news of her death. “It is like losing a member of the family and she took such a keen interest in our aim of keeping alive screenings of the classic films,” he said.

Regal Experience are now organising a special one-off screening of Shadows in the Sun at the Regal cinema on March 28. The film's director , has agreed to attend and talk about the making of the film.

t For more information about the special Wymondham screening or the group's programme can contact Mr Armstrong on 01953 603246.

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