The first half of Rhonda Fleming's life was a fairy tale. She was discovered by a talent scout on her way to Beverly Hills High School. She had a certain presence — maybe it was her height — that exuded confidence.
In truth, she was about as naive as many other teenagers in pre-World War II America. She had received no acting lessons. And in spite of being scared to death, she went on.
"I was cast as a nymphomaniac in 'Spellbound,' with Ingrid Bergman," she said. "I didn't even know what a nymphomaniac was. My mother and I had to look it up in the dictionary."
When Technicolor was invented, Fleming, with her red hair and sparkling blue eyes, was an immediate sensation. She was known as the "Technicolor queen" of Paramount Studios. Her leading men included Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster.
After 40 motion pictures, Fleming had a mid-life debut on Broadway in Clare Boothe Luce's "The Women," and went on to take assorted television parts.
Fleming credited her sister Beverly, a Sacramento houswife, with giving her the fortitude to pick herself back up when she was nearing 50 and had lost everything in a bad marriage.
"I was 49, had nothing," she said. "I was part of the studio system, which was like a protective family. That was over, too, and now I was unprotected. I was wiped out. My sister said to me: 'Where's your backbone?' It turned out that it was the best thing that could have happened to me because I finally woke up."
In 1978, Fleming married for the fourth time to Ted Mann, of Mann's movie theaters, and they were together for 23 years until his death in 2001.
When her sister Beverly was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer in the late 1980s, Fleming became a prominent supporter of cancer research. Not long after her sister's death, she helped open the Rhonda Fleming Mann Clinic for Women's Comprehensive Care at UCLA.
"I'm not out to push me anymore," she said. "These centers are in existence because, even though we had the best medical care, we had no psychological support. No one to turn to for the spiritual [support]. No environment that was pleasant to be in while she suffered so. There wasn't even a curtain in the examining room to hide personal things like your wig, or a prosthesis."