Diane Varsi

Actress Diane Varsi, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her first screen appearance as Lana Turner’s troubled daughter in “Peyton Place,” died Nov. 19 at age 54.

Varsi died in Los Angeles of respiratory problems, said her daughter Willo Hausman. She also suffered from Lyme disease, an inflammation of the joints that can affect the heart and nervous system.

Hausman said her mother had moved to L.A. from Northern California just a few months before.

After her debut in “Peyton Place” in 1957, Varsi made three movies in quick succession and then abandoned Hollywood, saying acting was destructive for her. “I don’t see any reason to be made miserable just because other people say I should go on with my career.”

Born in 1937 in San Mateo, Varsi described herself in interviews as a “difficult and temperamental child” who was raised in a series of schools and convents.

By age 21 she had been divorced twice, had a son, Shawn, and had worked at various jobs, including picking apples.

She began her entertainment career as a folk singer and drummer with a Los Angeles band.

Her acting teacher Jeff Corey recommended the tall, leggy actress to Mark Robson, a director who was casting “Peyton Place.”

Robson cast her as Turner’s daughter, Allison MacKenzie, in the melodrama based on the novel by Grace Metalious. It won no Oscars, but gathered nine nominations, including Varsi’s for best supporting actress.

After that, she made “From Hell to Texas,” a chase Western starring Don Murray, and “Ten North Frederick,” where she played Gary Cooper’s daughter.

After “Compulsion” in 1959, she moved to Bennington, Vt., walking out on a contract with 20th Century Fox. About that time, she got married for the third time — to artist Michael Hausman.

By the time the contract expired in 1965, her interest in films had rekindled and she went on to make a series of mostly low-budget pictures, including “Sweet Love Bitter,””Wild in the Streets” and “Killers Three.”

In 1971, she played a sympathetic nurse in the anti-war film “Johnny Got His Gun,” saying it was “the kind of role I’ve always wanted … but it’s been a long wait.”

Her last screen appearance was in “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden,” in 1977.

Despite a reputation as a difficult interview, Varsi managed to cast a spell over Hollywood. Hedda Hopper called her “the most interesting film personality of 1958.” Joe Hyams said she was “the Marlon Brando of actresses.”

In addition to her daughter and son, she is survived by a grandson.

Service is scheduled for 1 p.m. today at Mount Tamalpais Cemetery in San Rafael.

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