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'Psycho' Slashing Star Janet Leigh Dies at Age 77

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 5, 2004; Page B06

Janet Leigh, the actress best known for being hacked to death in a motel room shower in Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 classic thriller "Psycho," died Oct. 3 at her Beverly Hills home. She was 77 and had vasculitis, an inflammation of the blood vessels.

Miss Leigh, a stunning blonde who appeared in more than 60 movies, made her screen debut in 1947 as the mountain girl in Roy Rowland's "The Romance of Rosy Ridge," opposite Van Johnson. She began to attract notice for her role as Meg March, the eldest of the four daughters in the 1949 film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel, "Little Women." The movie also starred Margaret O'Brien, June Allyson and Elizabeth Taylor.

Janet Leigh won a Golden Globe for her role in "Psycho," directed in 1960 by Alfred Hitchcock.

Under contract to MGM, she appeared in numerous films throughout the 1950s, including "The Doctor and the Girl" (1950), "Scaramouche" (1952), "Houdini" (1953), the musical "My Sister Eileen" (1955), "The Vikings" (1958) and Orson Welles's film noir classic "Touch of Evil" (1958).

In the low-budget "Psycho," the most popular movie Hitchcock made, Miss Leigh's character, the bored secretary and amateur embezzler Marion Crane, met her demise at the hands of cross-dressing madman Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins. Shot in more than 70 takes of two and three seconds each over a seven-day period, the unforgettable scene never shows Miss Leigh being stabbed; the gruesome sounds were actually a knife plunging into a melon. The blood was actually chocolate sauce, which photographed better.

In her 1995 book, "Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller," Miss Leigh said she hadn't been able to take a shower since the movie. "It never dawned on me how truly vulnerable we are," she wrote.

Miss Leigh, who became something of a cult figure thanks to that one unsettling scene, was not alone in feeling defenseless. In "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho," author Stephen Rebello noted that "no one could have predicted how powerfully 'Psycho' tapped into the American subconscious."

Shot in stark black and white, brilliantly edited and using Bernard Hermann's screeching, pulsating musical score to great effect, Hitchcock's masterpiece set the standard for the modern horror suspense film. Even today, as one critic put it, " 'Psycho' pushes many of our primal buttons."

Miss Leigh received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress and a Golden Globe award for her role.

Janet Leigh was born Jeanette Helen Morrison in Merced, Calif., the only child of a young married couple. Her father changed jobs frequently during the Depression, so she grew up in several California towns.

In 1946, her mother and father were working at a California ski lodge where Norma Shearer, a film star of the 1920s and 1930s, was vacationing. Shearer happened to see a picture of the young woman at the front desk and arranged for her to be signed by the MCA talent agency.

The talent agent Lew Wasserman negotiated a $50-a-week MGM contract for her, although her only acting experience consisted of an appearance in a college play. She became Janet Leigh for her first movie. It wasn't long before she was one of Hollywood's busiest actresses, appearing in six movies in 1949 alone.

She was married twice before coming to Hollywood. Her first marriage, to John K. Carlyle in 1942, when she was 14, was annulled; the second, to Stanley Reames, from 1946 to 1948, ended in divorce.

She married actor Tony Curtis in 1951. "Hollywood's Perfect Young Couple" frequently appeared on the covers of fan magazines and in Hollywood gossip columns throughout the decade and also co-starred in several movies. They divorced in 1962.

Miss Leigh continued working throughout the 1960s and 1970s, appearing opposite Frank Sinatra in "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962), with Dick Van Dyke in "Bye Bye Birdie" (1963) and as Paul Newman's ex-wife in "Harper" (1966).

She appeared in several made-for-TV movies during the 1970s and with daughter Jamie Lee Curtis in the 1980 horror film "The Fog." Her last film was "A Fate Totally Worse Than Death" in 2000. Her autobiography, "There Really Was a Hollywood," was published in 1984.

Her husband, Robert Brandt, whom she married in 1962, and daughters, Jamie Lee Curtis and Kelly Curtis, were with her when she died in her sleep.

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