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Prolific star Young dies at 87

Emmy, Oscar winner accomplished in comedy, drama

Loretta Young, the Oscar- and Emmy-winning actress who was a steady visitor in American living rooms for a decade with her popular half-hour dramatic series “The Loretta Young Show,” died Saturday of ovarian cancer. She was 87.

Young died in the Los Angeles home of half-sister Georgian Montalban and actor Ricardo Montalban, her spokesman, Joel Brokaw, told Reuters. She had been released from a hospital recently after undergoing abdominal surgery in July, Brokaw said.

Best remembered for her large, liquid eyes, apple cheeks and impeccable fashion sense (her well-coiffed swirling introductions to her TV series were often as memorable as the drama that followed), Young had a thriving career in more than 90 feature films, many of them at 20th Century Fox.

She projected softness and affection lined with a barely concealed core of ambition — “whims of iron,” according to film historian Ronald Bowers. First husband Grant Withers described her as a “steel butterfly.”

Though she never rose to the heights of Bette Davis, Irene Dunne, Myrna Loy or other contemporaries, Young was accomplished in both comedy and drama, learning her craft as she went along.

She was born Gretchen Michaela Young on Jan. 6, 1912, in Salt Lake City. When her parents separated, “Gretch” moved with her mother and siblings to Hollywood and made her screen debut as a screaming child in a silent movie in 1916.

New name for actress

For several years thereafter, until her mother sent them to a convent school, she and her sisters appeared as extras for $3.50 a day in films including Rudolph Valentino’s “The Sheik.” In 1926, she substituted for her sister Polly Ann in a small role in “Naughty But Nice,” starring Colleen Moore. According to Young, Moore suggested she change her name to Loretta because her name sounded “too Dutchy.”

Her soulful eyes landed her a part in Lon Chaney’s epic “Laugh, Clown, Laugh” (1928) as a tightrope walker. She then made a smooth transition to sound films because “my voice matched my face,” she once said.

At first her career was large on quantity but not on quality. In 1930 she made seven movies, and eight the next year. On one of those, an inconsequential programmer called “The Second Story Murder,” Young met actor Grant Withers, who was nine years her senior. Over her mother’s protests, she eloped with him.

A year later she divorced Withers, citing “willful neglect.” (During their marriage she was reteamed with Withers in the prophetic “Too Young to Marry.”)

Warners attempted to pair her with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in such undistinguished vehicles as “I Like Your Nerve.” But, guided by her mother, Young vied to beef up the quality of her roles.

Those opportunities came largely by accident, when Warner Bros. loaned her out on such films as “Platinum Blonde” (1931), directed by Frank Capra and starring Jean Harlow; and three pics in 1933: “Zoo in Budapest,” with Gene Raymond; “Midnight Mary,” directed by William Wellman; and Frank Borzage’s “A Man’s Castle.” During “Castle,” she was romantically linked with co-star Spencer Tracy. But as both were Roman Catholics, she publicly split with Tracy, who returned to his wife.

Makes move to Fox

When producer Darryl Zanuck left Warners to form Twentieth Century Pictures (later 20th Century Fox), Young followed, but without much success. Zanuck paid her $1,700 a week but didn’t exactly nurture her career: She complained about the quality of her roles, and Zanuck told her that she wasn’t ready for meatier assignments. She was put on suspension after she refused to remake the 1920s Janet Gaynor vehicle “Seventh Heaven.”

On loan to MGM in 1935, she made “Call of the Wild” with Clark Gable — to whom she was also romantically linked. She received disastrous reviews for the film, and Young then disappeared from the screen for a year. The Fox press machine issued a statement that she was “ill” and would recuperate in Europe.

She returned to the screen in 1936 in one of the first Technicolor films, “Ramona.” It was the fourth version of the Helen Hunt Jackson novel and regarded as the best, even though critics carped that Young was miscast. (Rita Hayworth, originally assigned the part, was dropped at the last minute.)

After having failed to click with Fairbanks Jr., Young had better luck in several films with Tyrone Power, including “Suez” (1938). In a dispute over her role in “The Story of Alexander Graham Bell” (1939), she refused to renew her Fox contract.

According to Young, Zanuck tried to blackball her from the industry. She was offered no work for six months until agent Myron Selznick threatened to sue Zanuck. Her services were then picked up by Columbia head Harry Cohn at half her normal $150,000 per picture salary. She also fought with Cohn.

During the ’40s, she married ad executive Thomas Lewis, for whom she was appearing on “Lux Radio Theater,” adopted a daughter and bore two sons, Christopher and Peter. During this period, she made many of her best-remembered films, including “Rachel and the Stranger,” “The Accused,” “The Bishop’s Wife” and “Along Came Jones.”

High praise for ‘Daughter’

When Ingrid Bergman turned down the role of the Swedish maid in “The Farmer’s Daughter,” Young pulled down her best notices for the 1947 pic and, to everyone’s amazement, won the Oscar for best actress (against such stiff competition as Joan Crawford, Susan Hayward, Dorothy McGuire and the favorite, Rosalind Russell for “Mourning Becomes Electra.”)

Young received her second nomination as a nun in the heartwarming “Come to the Stable.” But there weren’t many promising film assignments after that, so in 1953, she and husband Lewis developed “The Loretta Young Show,” which NBC ran until 1961 and CBS picked up for an additional two years.

Young had absolute control over all the half-hour segments. And while she only acted in 165 of the 300 shows, she introduced each episode, beautifully dressed, making a swirling entrance through double doors and reading from a book of quotations.

“After the audience has seen me well-groomed, I can wear horrible clothes, ugly makeup or even a false nose during the show, without anyone wondering whether I’ve aged overnight or something,” she told an interviewer.

She won three Emmys for the series.

Young was later sued by her husband for “dishonesty, mismanagement and unfairness.” The suit was settled out of court.

In 1962, with one show running, she attempted a second series, “The New Loretta Young Show,” in which she played a widow with seven children. It lasted only a season.

After 1963, Young retired and devoted herself to Catholic charities, particularly the Los Angeles-based St. Anne’s Foundation, a hospital for unmarried mothers and an adoption agency. She was serious about her devotion to Catholicism, attending Mass every day, and having a “swear box” on the set of her show to penalize anyone who used the Lord’s name in vain. “The way I see it, God has been very, very good to me,” she once said.

In 1968, she was briefly a consultant for Brides Showcase Intl. and turned down roles in such films as “The Innocents” and “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte.” In 1986, after a 23-year absence from the screen, she came out of retirement to appear in the TV holiday special “Christmas Eve” with Trevor Howard and Arthur Hill.

She turned down a role in the NBC miniseries “The Two Mrs. Grenvilles,” which Claudette Colbert eventually played. Then, over a script dispute, she walked out on the TV movie “Dark Mansions” — a role inherited by Joan Fontaine. Her last onscreen performance came in the 1989 TV movie “Lady in the Corner.”

Young’s two older sisters, the lesser-known actresses Sally Blane and Polly Ann Young, both died in 1997. She is survived by her daughter, two sons and three grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements were not completed.

(Reuters contributed to this report.)

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