Thursday, January 6, 2011

Remembering Anne Francis

No doubt about it Anne Francis sported the sexiest mole in Hollywood history.
And I should know --I sat across a luncheon table from the orchidaceous actress at Toronto's Four Season's hotel in 1982 as she enjoyed a break from filming the TV movie Mazes And Monsters.
Francis's death this week from cancer went undererported in most newspapers. A terrifically talented actress, she deserved much more appreciation of her dramatic talents.
The star of this TV opus was a very young and callow guy by the name of Tom Hanks. Other young punks included Wendy Crewson, Chris Makepeace and Tom Johnson.
The parents were played by the likes of Francis, Susan Strasberg, Louise Sorel, Lloyd Bochner.
But Francis also possessed a sense of humor.
"Of course I've been in Toronto before!" she beamed. "Didn't you catch me in The Littlest Hobo which I made here about twp years back?'
Up close Francis was a real dazzler. She was 53ish when we met but completely wrinkle free. One critic hailed her as "one tall, cool drink of water" but she was much more than a splash or two.
"Been at this game for ever so long," she laughed. As a girl of 11 she played in the original 1941 Broadway production of Lady In The Dark opposite the great Gertrude Lawrence.
"Started out as a model at age 6. I already knew who I was going to be. But it was years and years later before Hollywood called."
Darryl F. Zanuck of Twentieth Century-Fox spotted her as a sexy delinquent in the 1950 B flick So Young So Bad.
"And he put me into Lydia Bailey (1951) and Elopment (1952) opposite Clifton Webb whom I worshipped. One of the greats."
"A year after I left Fox he demanded Zanuck rehire me as his daughter in the 1952 comedy film Dreamboat. He and Ginger Rogers played two old silent stars whose flickers are resurrected on TV's Late Show and they become famous all over again."
But it was at MGM that Francis found herself. "I was opposite Spence Tracy in Bad Day At Black Rock, then came Blackboard Jungle (1955) with Glenn Ford, then Forbidden Planet (1956) opposite my favorite leading man, Robbie the Robot."
But Francis says she got typecast as a glamourous blonde. "I wanted to direct and the MGM brass howled in laughter."
Anne never became a super duper star --Debbie Reynolds who wasn't as pretty or as talented dramatically zoomed past her in audience appeal and Anne had to settle for TV work.
Take a look at her work in a chilling 1959 episode of Twilight Zone titled "The After Hours" --cast as a Marsha White, trapped on the 9th floor of an eight-storey department store until she realizes she is really a mannequin who comes alive for one brief night. Creepy and sexy, Francis is terrific.
And she showed her muscles as TV's Honey West (1965) where she added karate chops to her usual glamour formula --the series has recently been released on DVD.
Francis then concentrated on TV movies and made a slew of them: The Rebels (1979), Beggarman, Thief (1979), O'Malley (1980), Detour To Terror (1980) as and also had stints on such hits as Dallas and Charlie's Angels.
Her last batch of films found her as leading lady to Don Knotts (The Love God) and Jerry Lewis (Hook, Line And Sinker).
Cast opposite Barbra Streisand in 1968's Funny Girl she so dominated her scenes Streisand had her part slashed down to a cameo in retaliation.
Producer Steven J. Cannell told me he was heartbroken having to fire Francis from the cast of Riptide (1984) but NBC demanded more action and less characterization.
But Francis soldiered on guesting on everything from Drew Carey to Nash Bridges to her last, a 2004's appearance on Without A Trace.
Diagnosed with lung cancer in 2007, she bravely fought back, had an operation to remove a lung and finally died of pancreatic cancer.
The day we met she gave me an autographed copy of her 1982 memoir Voices From Home which outlined her deeply felt metaphysical beliefs. "Dear Jim: What wonderful fun meeting you. Go well!" she wrote with a flourish.
Anne Francis combined beauty and a love for life --a rare and winning combination.

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