Anne Jeffreys, a musical theater performer who became an enduring presence on TV, starring as "the ghostess with the mostest" on the 1950s sitcom "Topper" and decades later as a glamorous grande dame on the soap opera "General Hospital" and its spinoff "Port Charles," died Sept. 27 at her home in Los Angeles. She was 94.
A son, Jeffreys Sterling, confirmed the death but did not cite an immediate cause.
A lively Southern blonde, Ms. Jeffreys sang with opera companies in New York and worked as a Powers model before film scouts spotted her in a Hollywood musical revue. She appeared in low-budget westerns, thrillers and jungle pictures, and had a small role in “I Married an Angel” (1942), which marked the final screen pairing of the popular operetta team of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.
Ms. Jeffreys went on to vamp Frank Sinatra in a phone booth in the musical "Step Lively" (1944) and had leading roles opposite Lawrence Tierney in "Dillinger" (1945) — as the moll fatale known as the "lady in red" — and as the romantic foil to Pat O'Brien in the comedy "Riff-Raff" (1947). More often she was relegated to B pictures, including "Zombies on Broadway" (1945) with Bela Lugosi and eight pictures with the perennial western sidekick George "Gabby" Hayes.
Hayes "was nothing like his character," she recalled to the publication Films of the Golden Age. "He traveled in a limo, often wore a tux and was quite handsome. I used to see him out in clubs in New York City. For those films, he would put on the old clothes, take out his teeth and walk differently. But he was really a swinger."
Ms. Jeffreys also had the recurring role of the decorative Tess Trueheart in the "Dick Tracy" film series, based on the cartoon and starring Morgan Conway as the square-jawed detective.
"I was in 36 pictures, most of them at the RKO studios," Ms. Jeffreys told the Toronto Star in 1993. "They decided I could do any type of role, and I often ended up getting the kind of parts Joan Fontaine didn't want. I never got in a very good picture with a good director."
To rejuvenate her dwindling prospects, Ms. Jeffreys renewed her stage career with appearances in Puccini’s “Tosca” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1946 and on Broadway in stagings of Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes’s “Street Scene” (1947) and Sigmund Romberg and Rowland Leigh’s “My Romance” (1948).
In 1950, she replaced Patricia Morison in Cole Porter's hit musical comedy "Kiss Me, Kate," one of the most popular stage musicals of all time. The play, which won the Tony Award for best musical, was about battling ex-spouses — he's vain, she's tempestuous — who unite for a revival of Shakespeare's comedy "The Taming of the Shrew." Alfred Drake was the male star, and Ms. Jeffreys performed some of the show's best-known songs, including such standards as "So in Love," "Wunderbar" and "I Hate Men."
Not long after, Ms. Jeffreys teamed with her husband, the debonair actor Robert Sterling, in a hit nightclub act. In 1953, they became household names as stars of CBS's "Topper," based on the Thorne Smith novels and the 1937 film comedy starring Cary Grant and Constance Bennett.
Ms. Jeffreys and Sterling played George and Marion Kerby, mischievous millionaires who die in an avalanche while skiing and return as ghosts to haunt their home and its new occupant, a strait-laced banker named Cosmo Topper (Leo G. Carroll). The show’s special effects were at the root of much of its humor, including sequences where the Kerbys walked through walls, vanished from scenes and moved objects around a room while in ghost form.
New York Times TV critic Jack Gould found the show a one-joke stunt, but he praised the two playful leads for portraying the Kerbys “very eagerly.” The series ran two seasons and continued in syndication much longer.
Ms. Jeffreys and Sterling, meanwhile, went on to other ventures. They co-starred in the short-lived ABC series “Love That Jill” (1958), as the heads of competing modeling agencies, and appeared together in regional productions of musicals, including “Camelot” and “The King and I.”
Sterling semi-retired from acting in the 1960s to focus on business endeavors, including manufacturing golf clubs, but Ms. Jeffreys remained a stage and TV stalwart, notably as the mother of David Hasselhoff’s character on “Baywatch” and as widowed socialite and hospital board member Amanda Barrington on ABC’s “General Hospital” from 1984 to 2000 and “Port Charles” from 1999 to 2003. She also appeared in the prime-time soap “Falcon Crest” and other series, often in snooty parts.
“I seem to be typecast as wealthy society ladies,” she told the Associated Press at the start of her long run on “General Hospital.” “That’s fine with me. People always think of me as being terribly sophisticated. I’m not at all. Robert always says I’m a baggy-pants comedian.”
Anne Jeffreys Carmichael was born in Goldsboro, N.C., on Jan. 26, 1923. She began appearing on local radio as a child, encouraged by a steel-willed mother once described as “a guided missile with charm.”
“Mother had the drive and the ambition,” Ms. Jeffreys told the Toronto Star. “She would say you were going to do a thing and it was done. . . . I came from a Southern family which thought going on the stage was just not the thing for a ‘nice’ girl, but mother thought otherwise. She heard me sing along with the phonograph when I was 6, and I guess that started things.”
In addition to performing, Ms. Jeffreys was involved in charitable causes, including Childhelp USA, which aids victims of child abuse, and animal rescue groups.
An early, wartime marriage to a soldier, Joseph Serena, was annulled. She was married to Sterling from 1951 until his death in 2006. Survivors include three sons from her second marriage, Jeffreys, Dana and Tyler Sterling; a stepdaughter, Tisha Sterling; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
The HBO comedy series “Getting On,” set in an elder care unit at a California hospital, marked Ms. Jeffreys’s final screen appearance, in 2013. “My life has been a full, happy and active one,” she once said, “and I hope I’ll always be as busy as a blind dog in a meat shop. I thrive on activity.”
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