Born Jeanette Helen Morrison, July 6, 1927, in Merced, California; died of an inflammation of the blood vessels, October 3, 2004, in Beverly Hills, California. Actress. Though Janet Leigh appeared in more than 60 motion pictures, she is best remembered for her role as the screaming blonde beauty knifed to death in the shower at the Bates Motel in the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Psycho. The shower scene remains one of the most famous murder scenes in the history of film. "That scene in Psycho alone established Janet as one of the stars every movie fan in the world will always remember," Paramount producer A.C. Lyles noted after her death, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Leigh was born in 1927 to Fred and Helen Morrison. She was an only child of wanderlust parents who switched jobs frequently, moving from city to city and apartment to apartment. Leigh escaped her household briefly at around age 15 when she eloped, marrying a 19-year-old man named John Carlyle. The marriage, however, was soon annulled and she returned home. After high school, Leigh studied music at the College of the Pacific in Stockton, California, and married Stanley Reames, a budding bandleader and sailor.
Leigh got her start in acting after Norma Shearer, a popular MGM film star of the 1920s and '30s, saw a picture of Leigh on her father's desk at the California ski lodge where he worked as a receptionist. Shearer was taken with Leigh's sexy-yet-wholesome look and passed the picture along to an agent. Leigh, just 19, went for a screen test and was awarded a $50-a-week contract with MGM.
The studio renamed her Janet Leigh and sent her to work with a drama coach. The work paid off and Leigh earned the female lead in the 1947 Civil Warera drama The Romance of Rosy Ridge, playing a mountain girl. She starred opposite Van Johnson, MGM's most popular male lead of the time. The following year, she played a country girl in The Hills of Home, which also starred the famous collie, Lassie. She divorced Reames that same year.
One of Leigh's first hits was the 1949 literary adaptation of Little Women, where she played the practical sister, Meg. Co-stars included June Allyson as the tomboyish protagonist, Jo, along with Elizabeth Taylor as the selfish sister, Amy.
In 1950, Leigh met actor Tony Curtis at a Hollywood party. They married in June of 1951, becoming one of Hollywood's most famed and beloved couples of the time. Countless photos of them at work—and at play—ran in magazines regularly. They made their first film together in 1953, a biography of the famous escape artist Houdini. According to the Independent, a Daily Variety movie reviewer at the time wrote that "Paired, they are a harmonious, ingratiating team." Fans filled theaters to watch them onscreen together. They followed with the 1954 action-adventure The Black Shield of Falworth.
Leigh's life was forever changed after appearing in the Hitchcock classic Psycho, released in 1960. In the film, Leigh played Marion Crane, an office worker and embezzler on the run who makes the fatal mistake of stopping for the night at the Bates Motel only to be slashed to death in the shower. This legendary scene—among the most memorable in all of movie history—lasted just 45 seconds but made Leigh famous for life. The scene, complete with shrill music, was shot in some 70 takes over seven days with cameras positioned at every imaginable angle. Leigh wore a flesh-colored moleskin bikini so as to appear nude. The slashing was not even shown; instead, Hitchcock built up the scene then left the scary slaying to the imagination of his viewers.
The scene, shocking for its day, has been endlessly analyzed by film scholars and parodied time and time again. Besides the shock value, the scene proved fascinating to moviegoers because Hitchcock killed off the film's biggest star just 30 minutes from its beginning. Leigh nailed the role with cameras capturing a truly terrified expression on her face the moment her character realized her gruesome death was coming. She received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress and won a Golden Globe.
Over the course of her career Leigh appeared in some 60 films. Among her most memorable films was The Manchurian Candidate, a 1962 Cold-War political thriller that also starred Frank Sinatra. Another noteworthy film was the 1958 Orson Welles classic Touch of Evil. In this murder saga, Leigh played the American bride of a Mexican narcotics cop played by Charlton Heston. Of her films, the National Film Registry has deemed four— Psycho, The Manchurian Candidate, A Touch of Evil and The Naked Spur —as worthy of preservation.
As Leigh's film career blossomed, her marriage began to suffer and in 1962 she and Curtis divorced. She soon married stockbroker and producer Robert Brandt and the two remained together until the end of her life. She continued to regularly make films through the 1960s. In 1963, Leigh appeared in Bye Bye Birdie alongside Dick Van Dyke.
One of Leigh's daughters with Tony Curtis, Jamie Lee Curtis, followed in her mother's footsteps and made a name for herself in horror flicks as well, appearing in the 1978 thriller Halloween . The mother-daughter duo appeared together in the horror film The Fog in 1980 and also in 1998's Halloween H20: 20 Years Later. Leigh made her final film appearance in 2000 in A Fate Totally Worse than Death.
Leigh wrote two novels and an autobiography titled There Really Was a Hollywood. In addition, she wrote an entire book on her account of the infamous shower scene that launched her career. It was called Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller.
Leigh died of vasculitis, an inflammation of the blood vessels, on October 3, 2004, at her home in Beverly Hills. She is survived by her husband, Robert Brandt, and daughters Kelly and Jamie Lee.
CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2004/SHOWBIZ/Movies/10/04/obit.leigh/index.html (October 4, 2004).
Entertainment Weekly, October 15, 2004, p. 15.
E! Online, http://www.eonline.com/News/Items/0,1,15063,00.html?eol.tkr (October 5, 2004).
Independent (London, England), October 5, 2004, p. 32.
Los Angeles Times, October 5, 2004, p. B10.
New York Times, October 5, 2004, p. B8.