Actress Jean Peters, a farm girl who won a screen test in the 1940s and went on to star in films opposite Marlon Brando and Tyrone Power but gave up stardom to marry billionaire recluse Howard Hughes, died Oct. 13, two days before her 74th birthday, in La Jolla, Calif.

One of Hollywood’s most popular leading ladies during the late 1940s and early ’50s, Peters starred opposite such stars as Richard Widmark, Burt Lancaster and Spencer Tracy, as well as Power and Brando.

Born Elizabeth Jean Peters, the pretty green-eyed brunette landed a trip to Hollywood in 1946 for winning the Miss Ohio State popularity contest. She made her screen debut the following year starring as Power’s sultry lover in the swashbuckler “Captain from Castile” but gave up acting in 1955, at the height of her career, when she secretly married Hughes, who had met her when she was still a teenager and he was 20 years older.

Her other film credits include “It Happens Every Spring” (1949) with Ray Milland, “Viva Zapata!” (1952) with Brando, “Niagara” (1953) with Marilyn Monroe, “Pickup on South Street” (1953) with Widmark, “Three Coins in the Fountain” (1954) with Dorothy McGuire, “Apache” (1954) with Lancaster and “Broken Lance” (1954) with Tracy.

Her final film turned out to be the 1955 drama “A Man Called Peter,” which earned the actress critical acclaim.

One story is that Fox executives initially were little impressed with Peters, and she returned to Ohio, only to be called back because Hughes, then a major investor in the studio, saw the footage and was taken with her. In any case, the studio ultimately signed her to a contract.

According to the biography “Howard Hughes: The Untold Story,” the vaunted filmmaker, aviator and billionaire industrialist met Peters in 1946 at a party in Newport Beach, Calif. Hughes invited the stunning 19-year-old starlet and her date, war hero Audie Murphy, to fly with him and several other guests to Santa Catalina Island aboard his private plane.

By some accounts, Hughes and Peters immediately embarked on an unpublicized romance and were rumored to have been engaged before splitting in the mid-’50s, then they rekindled their relationship after Peters’ brief first marriage to Texas oilman Stuart Cramer.

In any event, Peters and Hughes ultimately tied the knot in a secret 1957 ceremony in Tonapah, Nev.

As Hughes’ spouse, Peters abandoned her movie career and largely faded from public life while her eccentric husband drifted into seclusion. The couple reportedly spent much of their married life apart, and were finally divorced in 1971. Hughes died in 1976.

Peters steadfastly declined to talk about her relationship with Hughes.

After nearly 20 years, Peters returned to acting in the 1973 public television production of Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio” and made a rare network TV appearance in the 1976 NBC miniseries, “Arthur Hailey’s The Moneychangers.”

Her last acting role was in the 1981 CBS movie “Peter and Paul,” produced by her third husband, Stanley Hough, a 20th Century Fox executive she married in 1971.

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