Dana Wynter, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” heroine, dies at 79

May 9, 2011

Dana Wynter, a lissome beauty who won an enduring place in film history as the imperiled heroine of the low-budget science-fiction movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” died May 5 of congestive heart failure at a hospital in Ojai, Calif. She was 79.

Ms. Wynter had minor stage and film experience in England before her coolly elegant good looks won her the attention of Hollywood talent scouts. “Body Snatchers,” a 1956 thriller about alien pods that take over human bodies, was one of her first leading roles.

“Body Snatchers” was met with a shrug at the time of its release but has since become highly regarded. Its plot, about the soul-killing pod people, was later viewed as a clever parable about mindless conformity and the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s. In 1994, the Library of Congress elected to preserve the movie in the National Film Registry.

Adding to the film’s reputation was taut direction by Don Siegel, who generated suspense without violence or special effects — a rarity for the genre. The script was literate, and its talented cast included Kevin McCarthy, who died in September, and Carolyn Jones.

In later years, Ms. Wynter expressed surprise that the film not only was greeted with acclaim but also became the subject of scholarly work.

“One man was writing his thesis on ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ for his degree,” she once told an interviewer. “He measured — he measured! — the distance from one corner to the other in the town where we shot. . . . I thought to myself, ‘These people are out of their minds!’ ”

Dagmar Winter was born June 8, 1931, in Berlin. She grew up in England and Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, where her father was a surgeon.

As Dagmar Wynter, she had a succession of small roles in British films before leaving for Hollywood in 1953. She landed her first leading role, as Richard Egan’s former Southern flame, in “The View from Pompey’s Head” (1955), based on a best-selling novel by Hamilton Basso. Writing in the New York Times, critic Bosley Crowther rated her “pretty but that’s all.”

After “Body Snatchers,” Ms. Wynter played undemanding and largely decorative roles in dramas such as “D-Day the Sixth of June” (1956) with Robert Taylor; “Something of Value” (1957), about the Mau Mau uprisings in Kenya and co-starring Rock Hudson and Sidney Poitier; and “Shake Hands With the Devil” (1959), about the Irish Republican Army in the 1920s and featuring James Cagney.

She portrayed a naval officer’s efficient assistant in “Sink the Bismarck!” (1960), set during World War II and starring Kenneth More, and appeared in the all-star detective mystery “The List of Adrian Messenger” (1963), directed by John Huston.

After her film career trailed off, Ms. Wynter appeared on television for many years. She starred with Robert Lansing in the ABC spy thriller “The Man Who Never Was” in the late 1960s and acted in series including “Wagon Train,” “The Love Boat,” “Magnum, P.I.” and “Cannon.”

Her marriage to Greg Bautzer, a high-profile Hollywood lawyer, ended in divorce. Survivors include a son, Mark Bautzer.

Although Ms. Wynter appeared with some of the most powerful leading men in Hollywood, she was most often asked about “Body Snatchers.” In 2001, she put to rest a widely reported rumor that director Siegel had broken into her house during filming and put a large pod under her bed to frighten her.

She said the mischievous Siegel left the pod on her doorstep one night on the way to visit a girlfriend who lived nearby. Ms. Wynter encountered it — “I nearly broke my neck!” — while leaving her cottage early the next morning.

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
Most Read Local