Coleen Gray, Who Played Film Noir Naïfs, Dies at 92


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Coleen Gray with Tyrone Power in “Nightmare Alley” (1947). Her character refused to cooperate in her husband’s deceptions.

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20th Century Fox

Coleen Gray, an actress who dreamed of playing femmes fatales but was repeatedly cast as innocents in noir films like Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing,” died on Monday at her home in the Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles. She was 92.

David Schecter, a friend, confirmed her death.

With wavy hair and luminous skin, Ms. Gray had the looks to play one of film noir’s leading ladies in the 1940s and ’50s. But her girl-next-door demeanor effectively typecast her as the love interest in crime movies and cowboy pictures.

“I was always Goody Two-Shoes,” Ms. Gray was quoted as saying in “Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir,” by Eddie Muller. “The juicier parts, it was determined, were not for me.”

Ms. Gray made the most of her niche, however, appearing with some of the biggest stars of the time. Her first major part was as the love interest of a parolee, played by Victor Mature, in Henry Hathaway’s “Kiss of Death” (1947), which she also narrated. The film was the movie debut of Richard Widmark, who played the murderer.

Ms. Gray played a wife who refused to take part in a grift with her husband, a carnival con man played by Tyrone Power, in “Nightmare Alley” (1947). She also appeared in westerns, notably as the sweetheart of John Wayne’s cattle-rancher character in Howard Hawks’s “Red River” (released in 1948).

In “The Killing” (1956), Ms. Gray was the love interest of Sterling Hayden’s criminal, who is bent on robbing a racetrack before settling down with her. But she would much rather have played the scheming wife who double-crossed her husband, she told The New York Times in 1999, and not getting the part — Marie Windsor did — “was frustrating.”

Doris Bernice Jensen was born on Oct. 23, 1922, in Staplehurst, Neb. She grew up in Hutchinson, Minn., and received a bachelor’s degree in English and music from Hamline University in St. Paul in 1943.

She moved to Hollywood and worked as a waitress before signing a seven-year contract with 20th Century Fox and adopting the screen name Coleen Gray.

She married the screenwriter Rodney Amateau in 1945. That marriage ended in divorce, as did her second, to William C. Bidlack.

In 1950 Ms. Gray starred alongside Bing Crosby in Frank Capra’s comedy “Riding High” and, in 1954, Mr. Hayden again in the western “Arrow in the Dust.” She played a nurse involved in a drug ring opposite Richard Conte in “The Sleeping City” (1950), much of which was filmed at Bellevue Hospital in New York

Her film career waned later in the 1950s, and she began appearing in B movies like “The Leech Woman” (1960), in which she played a monstrous woman who uses fluid from men’s brains to ward off aging. She also appeared regularly on television shows like “77 Sunset Strip,” “Mister Ed” and “The Virginian.”

In recent years Ms. Gray, an advocate for conservative Christian causes, worked with her third husband, Joseph Zeiser, in a prison ministry founded by Charles Colson, an aide to President Richard M. Nixon who had spent time behind bars in connection with the Watergate scandal.

Mr. Zeiser, who was known as Fritz, died in 2012. Ms. Gray is survived by a daughter , Susan Amateau, from her first marriage; a son, Bruce Bidlack, from her second marriage; two stepsons, Rick and Steve Zeiser; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

When Mr. Muller, the author of “Dark City Dames,” interviewed Ms. Gray at her home, he mentioned he had recently seen her playing a disreputable schemer on a rerun of “Perry Mason.” She lit up.

“Did you believe me as a nasty person?” Ms. Gray asked. “I’m so happy.”



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