British-born actress Jean Simmons, who came to America via her role in Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” and was a leading actress in the ’50s and early ’60s, died Friday at her home in Santa Monica after battling lung cancer. She was 80.
Renowned for her beauty as much as her acting skills, Simmons fit into the spectrum of foreign-born actresses like Vivien Leigh and Audrey Hepburn, altough she never enjoyed their international success. Nonetheless, she did score in major films including “Elmer Gantry,” “Spartacus” and “Guys and Dolls.”
Simmons did some stage work and the occasional film appearance in later years, returning in character roles in the mid-1990s in films including “How to Make an American Quilt.”
She was born Jean Merilyn Simmons on Jan. 31, 1929, in London. Unlike most British actresses, she did not have theatrical training, making her first screen appearance in 1942 in “Give Us the Moon.”
Small roles in “Caesar and Cleopatra,” “The Way to the Stars” and “Mr. Emmanuel” followed. Then she played the young Estella in David Lean’s “Great Expectations,” which led to a part in “Black Narcissus.”
But it was her role as Ophelia in Olivier’s Oscar-winning 1948 film “Hamlet” that made her an international star and brought her a first Oscar nomination. In 1964 she was set to make her Broadway debut in “Big Fish, Little Fish,” which closed before it got to the Great White Way. She toured for two years in Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” and appeared in TV movies including “The Thorn Birds,” “Valley of the Dolls” and “A Small Killing.” Simmons worked until very recently. She did voice work for the English-language version of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle” and starred in helmer David Rocksavage’s 2009 mother-and-son drama “Shadows in the Sun.”
She is survived by her daughters Tracy, from her marriage to thesp Stewart Granger, and Kate, from her marriage to writer-director Richard Brooks.