Remembering Anne Francis (1930-2011)

Francis died Sunday, Jan. 2, of pancreatic cancer at a rest home in Santa Barbara, Calif. She was 80.

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See androids fighting Brad and Janet /
Anne Francis stars in
Forbidden Planet /
Uh-uh-uh-uh, oh-oh —
At the late night, double feature, picture show.
— “Science Fiction Double Feature,” a song from Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show

The poster artwork for Forbidden Planet — MGM’s 1956 reworking of Shakespeare’s The Tempest into a science-fiction parable of ego vs. id — showed a fearsome cyborg holding a sleeping blond in a diaphanous gown that highlighted her gaudy curves. The blond was Anne Francis, the machine was Robby the Robot, and the poster had nothing to do with the movie: Robby was a gentleman scholar among automatons, a protector of Francis’s character Altaira, not a menace to her. But that image may be the one that sprang to the minds of moviegoers this week, when the actress’s death was announced. Francis died Sunday, Jan. 2, of pancreatic cancer at a rest home in Santa Barbara, Calif. She was 80.

A lifelong trouper in radio, TV, theater and films, Francis is best known for a flurry of mid-’50s MGM features, for a couple of indelible episodes of The Twilight Zone and for her one-season TV sleuth series Honey West in 1965-66. In her admirers’ memories, she conjures up a description that her co-star William Lundigan enunciated in their 1951 comedy Elopement: “Tall, blond, willowy, sort of ripples when she walks… She’s got those Minnie Mouse eyes, turns ’em on you like a pair of headlights. Her voice is soft and husky — kind of makes you feel as though your back is being scratched.” (See NewsFeed’s tribute to Anne Francis.)

It happens that Lundigan is talking about another woman, but the attributes fit Francis, who was only 20 during the Elopement shoot. She was tall (5ft.-8in.), a seemingly natural blond, with large, lasering blue eyes and an expressive alto voice. Francis also had a forehead so high and smooth that she could have been one of the Metalunans from another ’50s space epic, This Island Earth. The actress’s signature feature — a mole just to the right of her lips — was so distinctive, it was written into the Elopement script. “What’s that?” asks her groom-to-be Lundigan. “It’s a mole,” she replies. “I was born with it. Don’t you like it?” He smiles and whispers, “I like everything you were born with.”

She was born Sept. 16, 1930, with that mole and a work ethic that never quit. The daughter of Philip Marvak, a businessman, and his wife Edith, Anne was a photographer’s model by her fifth birthday. (Pictures from the breadth of her career can be seen on, the website she maintained until shortly before her death.) She was on television when it was just a gadget, appearing in CBS-TV’s first color tests before World War II. At 10 or 11 she was on Broadway with Gertrude Lawrence in Lady in the Dark and spent her teens in countless radio soaps, including Portia Faces Life and When a Girl Marries, where her child’s voice matured into its permanent, woman timbre. In 1948, when she was 17, she got bit roles in the MGM musical Summer Holiday and David O. Selznick’s Portrait of Jennie. She was back in New York, working on TV’s proto-thriller series Suspense in 1949, when Hollywood casting directors noticed that this reliable young actress was also a knockout.

There’s no doubting Francis’s worthiness as a pinup. Yet what came across, in her two-decade movie and TV prime, was not sultry ostentation but a preternatural poise and a questioning intelligence. Her beauty cloaked her brains without obscuring them. In one sense, she was a blend of Hollywood’s two most popular female types in the ’50s: the bombshell blonds Monroe and Mansfield — an adolescent’s notion of squeaky-voiced sexuality — and smart, slim vixens like Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly. You’d think someone would have seen Francis as the golden mean between these extremes, yet the studios that employed her (Fox from 1951 to 1954, then MGM for the next three years) had trouble deciding what to do with her.

Their frequent solution: cast her as a gorgeous bookworm, whose closest relationships are with father figures. That prim, stern comedy star Clifton Webb played her doting dad in two films: Elopement, with Francis as a prodigy of architectural design, and Dreamboat (1952), where her character is a literary scholar in horn-rimmed glasses and a trim gabardine suit; she’s writing her college thesis on the contention that Homer was not the sole author of The Iliad and The Odyssey because “No one man could write so much trash.” In Forbidden Planet she is the science-loving daughter of the planet’s only adult human, Walter Pidgeon; and in The Rack she is Pidgeon’s daughter-in-law, trying to help young Paul Newman through a wartime charge of aiding the enemy. In these roles, her hair was always pulled back, in an implicit dare for any man to let it down and unleash the beast. That was the goal of Francis’s young male co-stars: the thawing of an ice goddess.

The women Francis played usually saw men as curious subjects for further research. She treats her first kiss with Jeffrey Hunter in Dreamboat as an alien-earthling encounter, peculiar but pleasing. In her best-known role as Altaira, isolated on the Forbidden Planet after catastrophes have wiped out her mother and the rest of the colony, has grown up with only her father and a deer and a tiger she treats a pets. When she spots her first male humans — astronauts from Earth — she says, “I so terribly wanted to meet a young man, and now three of them at once!” When she invites spaceship commander Leslie Nielsen to join her for a swim in the pool, he notes regretfully that he didn’t bring his bathing suit. “What’s a bathing suit?,” she asks. Teetering toward camp, the movie is played seriously by the whole cast. And no one had a tougher challenge than Francis, since she’s wearing either various forms of a 23rd-century cheerleader tunic, or nothing.

In these busy years she played opposite some of Old and New Hollywood’s top leading men: Newman, Dick Powell in Susan Slept Here (as a vamp who morphs into a spider-woman during the film’s comic ballet sequence), Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Bad Rock (as the only woman in a threatening town) and Glenn Ford in The Blackboard Jungle (as Ford’s ailing, pregnant, jealous wife). She appeared with Ford again in the 1957 Navy comedy Don’t Go Near the Water, with Earl Holliman stealing her from wolf-man Jeff Richards, just as Nielsen had from Warren Stevens in Forbidden Planet. That comedy, which demoted her to second female lead, ended her MGM contract and, oddly, cued a three-year absence from major film and TV work when Francis was still in her 20s — and at the presumed peak of her appeal.

Movies were increasingly a man’s preserve; women who wanted meaty roles often went into TV drama, where the pay was less and the shooting schedules brisk but the rewards of fully imagined and realized characters greater. In his first season of The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling gave her one such juicy part in the episode “The After Hours.” She played Marsha White, a young woman shopping in a department store for a gift, a golden thimble, for her mother. But an elevator operator takes her to the store’s ninth floor, deserted except for an insulting sales girl and, in the showcases, just one object: her thimble. Locked in overnight, she comes to realize her strange destiny. A gloss on the Philip K. Dick theme of the android who dreams he’s human, “The After Hours” focuses every scene on Francis, monitoring her face for clues, as bafflement escalates into rage and then settles into acceptance. It’s a splendid use of Francis’s persona: at once friendly and doll-like, human and otherworldly.

In 1960 she took the starring role in Girl in the Night, an indie-style drama about a lonely call girl misused by her madam (Kay Medford). Francis thought this was her best film work, and the film is remembered warmly but fuzzily; it is not available on DVD. She did lots more TV, including her second Twilight Zone: the ultra-weird “Jess-Belle,” Earl Hamner, Jr.’s folk-horror tale about a mountain girl so desperate for another woman’s man that she makes a pact with a witch and turns into a leopard. That was 1963, and two years later Francis got a shot at starring in her own TV action drama, Honey West.

The first hour-long series named for its female character, Honey West was based on Skip and Gloria Fickling’s pulp-novel series about a woman who took over her late father’s detective business. Mixing clichés from private-eye and international espionage stories, then flipping the gender, Honey was a Bond babe — Jane Bond — put in charge of the franchise, and comfortable with the power it gave her. She bested bad men with her karate skills, navigated hairpin turns on high-speed chases in her top-down sports car and, just as important, displayed the business-running executive skills only men of the era were supposed to possess. Honey had a hunky male assistant, Sam Bolt (John Ericson), but he was there mainly as eye candy for the women in the audience. The men had Francis’ efficient allure, her newly fluffy blond hair and, of course, her facial mole, which was featured so prominently in the opening-credit sequence you’d think it was the co-star.

Aaron Spelling, the show’s executive producer, was no militant feminist; 11 years later he would multiply Honey by three, give this trio the sort of patriarchal boss Honey never needed, and call it Charlie’s Angels. As the overseer of Honey West, Spelling made sure sensuality took precedence over suspense. A smarty-pants sex object, Honey wore earrings she could toss like darts to emit tear gas. She often sported tights that looked as if they’d been borrowed from Diana Rigg in The Avengers. Once she went undercover in a showgirl outfit with tiger stripes, which was appropriate for this feral beauty, since her character also kept a pet ocelot named Bruce (a cousin to Francis’s tiger playmate in Forbidden Planet and to the leopard she morphed into on (The Twilight Zone). All this animal attraction should have kept the show running for years, but it was canceled after one 30-episode season.

Truth to tell, that was about it for the iconic phase of Anne Francis’s celebrity. She was 35 when Honey West went south, and the actress who entered show business as a child would keep working for another 35 years. In the 1968 musical Funny Girl she was billed a generous fourth but virtually invisible, except when Barbra Streisand disses her at the start of the first act’s climactic (and climatic) number “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” Thereafter, Francis had no big roles in big movies, instead becoming one of those aging performers of medium wattage who stay employed by joining the perennial bus-and-truck company of TV series guest stars. Webb, as her stuffy father in Dreamboat, had sneered at television as a phenomenon that “encourages people who dwell under the same roof to ignore each other completely.” But for Francis it was a meal ticket that she cashed in for 60 years, from those early color tests in 1940 until her retirement in 2000.

In her post-Honey decades, Francis guested on a few comedy series — The Drew Carey Show and, as Bea Arthur’s college roommate, on The Golden Girls — but concentrated on the hour-long dramas. She graced The Fugitive, Mission: Impossible, Gunsmoke, Columbo, Kung Fu, Barnaby Jones, Police Woman, Dallas (in a recurring role), Jake and the Fat Man, Murder, She Wrote and such Spelling confections as S.W.A.T., The Love Boat, Vega$, Fantasy Island (four times) and, it’s only fair, Charlie’s Angels. All in all, in the second half of her career, she racked up credits in more than 100 films and TV shows. Could that be a record for most series as a guest star? Hard to say, but the gal kept gamely at her craft.

She married twice, both times for three years: at 21 to director Bamlett Price, Jr., and at 29 to Dr. Robert Abeloff; they had a daughter, Jane. After the dissolution of her second marriage in 1964, Francis was on her own. In 1970, she became the first single woman in California to be allowed to adopt a child — a girl named Maggie. Francis wrote a self-help book in 1982 and lent her support to many charities, including Direct Relief, which sends medical supplies to victims of civil unrest, and Angel View, for the physically challenged. She promoted these causes on, which currently carries this message from 2009: “Dear Friends, Due to health issues, I’m unable to process my fan mail in a timely manner…. For those of you who’ve previously sent me fan mail and autograph requests, I’ll try to process them when I am able to do so.”

Even though she had retired 10 years earlier, survived lung cancer in 2004, and was ailing from the pancreatic cancer that finally felled her, the brainy, beautiful blond from the Forbidden Planet never stopped working, never ceased doing what she did best: being Anne Francis.

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