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The Guardian (16/Sep/1999) - Obituary: Ruth Roman

(c) The Guardian (16/Sep/1999)

Ruth Roman

Hollywood actress who displayed a degree of vulnerability under a worldly exterior

There were certain female Hollywood stars under contract to studios in the 50s who were an essential part of the movie landscape, appearing in two or three conveyor belt films every year but never getting the chance to work with top directors. The voluptuous, raven-haired Ruth Roman, who has died aged 75, may have provided the necessary "romantic interest" in many competent action films, including a number of westerns, but she also got the chance to work with first-class directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Mann, King Vidor and Nicholas Ray.

Ruth Roman was born in Boston to a show business couple of Russian-Polish descent. She started acting in community plays at the age of nine and won a scholarship to a local drama school. After graduating, she tried her luck on Broadway, but wound up posing for crime magazine stills at $5 an hour. With some savings, and a borrowed train fare, she arrived in Hollywood in 1942 and played bit parts in a number of films, including Stage Door Canteen (1943), Since You Went Away (1944) and Gilda (1946). She was also the lead in a serial, The Jungle Queen (1945).

Roman finally got a decent part: the title role in the lively western Belle Starr's Daughter (1948), in which she arrives in a rough town to avenge her mother's murder. It was the sort of strong-willed character she played best.

However, her real breakthrough came when producer Stanley Kramer cast her as Kirk Douglas's demure wife in Mark Robson's Champion (1949). Roman, glowing with warmth, beauty and youth, was the most sympathetic character in the film.

When she auditioned for the part she saw herself in the role of the floozy, and accordingly wore a tight-fitting black dress and heavy make-up when she swung into Kramer's office. "Actually, I thought of you for the wife," said Kramer. "Somehow, sexy as you are, your intrinsic respectability shone through."

Yet Roman proved that she could repress her "intrinsic respectability" by playing a murderess whose crime is witnessed by a young boy in The Window (1949). A Warner Bros contract followed, and the studio immediately cast her in three 1950 westerns, as women waiting for Randolph Scott (Colt '45), Gary Cooper (Dallas) and Dane Clark (Barricade) to return to her from the trail.

In the classic Alfred Hitchcock film Strangers on a Train (1951), as the wealthy daughter of a US senator and Farley Granger's lover, she is the incentive for Granger arranging for someone to kill his wife. Because she had been foisted on Hitchcock, who gave her little help, she was happier working with King Vidor on Lightning Strikes Twice (1951). Her last two pictures for Warners had her playing opposite Errol Flynn in Mara Maru (1952) and Gary Cooper again in Blowing Wild (1953), trying to hold her own against scene-stealing Barbara Stanwyck.

Once freelance, she appeared as Mrs Macbeth in Joe Macbeth (1955), a curious made-in-Britain updating of the Bard to 1930s New York gangsterdom, and in the same year was a saloon owner with a yen for James Stewart in Anthony Mann's The Far Country. In Jacques Tourneur's Great Day In The Morning, she was a saloon singer in love with Robert Stack. In both these superior westerns, Roman revealed a vulnerability under her worldly exterior. But in 1956 Roman had the most exciting role of her life; she and her three year old son were returning from Italy aboard the luxury liner Andrea Doria when it was struck by another ship and sunk.

She became separated from her son; they ended up in different lifeboats, and she and her child were finally among the 760 survivors of the disaster in which 50 people drowned.

In the late 1950s, Roman gradually scaled down her work. After playing the bone of contention between army officers Curt Jurgens and Richard Burton in Nicholas Ray's Bitter Victory (1958), she started to appear more often in television shows such as Naked City, Route 66, The Defenders and Dr Kildare, and later in the 1975 mini-series The Long Hot Summer.

In the 70s, as was the fate of many an ageing sex symbol, Roman made a few schlock movies such as Deathdream, in which she played a mother who longs for her son, killed in Vietnam, to return. He does, as a bloodthirsty walking corpse. In The Baby, she was a wonderfully over-the-top deranged mother who dresses her teenage son in napkins and keeps him in a crib.

Ruth Roman, who disliked the trappings of stardom - she claimed that her only extravagance was a collection of 35 pairs of Indian moccasins - was married and divorced twice, and is survived by her son Richard Roman Hall.

Ruth Roman, actress, born December 23, 1923; died September 9, 1999