Now Perry Mason Falls for the Enduring Charms of Jean Simmons

updated 03/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

No wasting time here. No shilly-shallying when there are important questions to be asked. Could you tell us, Miss Simmons, about giving Perry Mason his first on-tube kiss? "It was a very gentle kiss," she replies, "and he made me feel quite comfortable."

Just the genteel answer you'd expect from this elegant British actress. But then she starts to giggle. Jean Simmons is 58, but when she giggles she's once again the youthful enchantress who stole the hearts of Paul Newman in Until They Sail and Marlon Brando in Désirée. Okay, Simmons admits, "I tried to do quite a few takes of the kiss. I kept tripping and stuff like that." All this lip smacking between Simmons and Raymond Burr, 69, was for the big moment in NBC's Perry Mason: The Case of the Lost Love, airing this week. Simmons plays Mason's titular lost love, now married to Gene Barry, whom Perry defends on a murder charge. She sounds disappointed when she explains that she and Burr don't get to kiss more; after all, there is Della Street to consider.

Della or no Della, Perry's a fool to let her slip away. Writer-director Richard Brooks, 74, Simmons' second husband, likens Jean to Liz Taylor and recalls, "Every man I would meet would say to me, 'I have always loved your wife.' " For men of a certain age, the memory of seeing Simmons naked from the back in the 1960's Spartacus ranks high among their early carnal thrills. Even today, though her brunette hair is now mixed with gray, Simmons is lovely enough to withstand comparisons to her earlier screen appearances.

Still, hers has been an odd career. For an actress with two Oscar nominations (for Ophelia, opposite Laurence Olivier, in 1948's Hamlet and for an alcoholic housewife in 1969's The Happy Ending) and an Emmy award (1983's The Thorn Birds), Simmons' image in the public mind remains remarkably unfixed. Born in 1929 in a small town outside London, Jean has always referred to herself as "this Cockney kid from Cricklewood." Her late mother, Winifred Ada, a housewife, once described the town as "a place where they make lovely parts for automobiles." Her father, Charles, was a gymnastics teacher. Simmons studied dance at 14 and was discovered by film scouts who cast her in 1943's Give Us the Moon. But it was only when she played the spoiled Estella in 1946's Great Expectations that she began taking acting seriously. "That film I can watch today because it still holds up."

Despite an offer from Olivier to join him onstage at the Old Vic, Simmons moved to America in 1950 when Howard Hughes bought her film contract. There was another reason: She was in love with Stewart Granger, now 74, the debonair star of King Solomon's Mines.

Married late that year, the couple lived on an Arizona ranch. Periodically Simmons journeyed to Hollywood for a series of what she now dismisses as "my poker-up-the-ass roles, where I just stood around in those pretty frocks doing nothing." After 10 years with Granger, Simmons rebelled. "I felt I had been kept a little girl in the marriage," she says. "I didn't seem to be growing up at all." The divorce was hardly amicable. "We are not friends," she adds. The couple's daughter, Tracy, now 30 and an assistant film editor, lives in Los Angeles.

Almost immediately Simmons married Brooks, who had just directed her in Elmer Gantry. Their daughter, Kate, is now 25 and a restaurant worker in Palm Desert. Brooks and Simmons were married for 18 years. Of the breakup, Jean says, "It was simply that the mixture of an alcoholic and a workaholic just wasn't working." She assigns herself the first role. "I really don't like to talk about it, but that was the reason. All I can say is, thank God for Mrs. Ford." Simmons spent time in 1986 at the Betty Ford Center, but she is reluctant to discuss it because "it's almost become the in thing to do."

Today Simmons lives alone in a large Santa Monica house (three bathrooms, five fireplaces) decorated in "early mist-mash" style. Her callers are few, but she remembers fondly a visit from her mentor Olivier a few years back. "He called and said, 'Darling girl, may we have lunch together?' I told him to come out to the house. He was terribly tired. After lunch he said, 'Would you mind if I took a little nap?' So I put him in my bed and woke him up later with a cup of tea." Simmons giggles. "I've always thought that maybe I should put up one of those plaques on my bed: 'Laurence Olivier Slept Here.' What a lovely, lovely man he is."

Simmons recalls Spencer Tracy as "a great buddy who used to come over to the house to play cards." Cary Grant "helped arrange" her marriage to Granger by using Howard Hughes's private plane. Simmons remembers Hughes as a romantic gadabout. One time he invited her and actress Glynis Johns for a night on the town. "Suddenly we found ourselves in Howard's plane being flown to Reno, where we danced all night."

Simmons' face brightens with these memories of days gone by. She admits she frets now because "I don't go out very much. I'm simply becoming a hermit." She's also stopped jogging and tennis because "I smoke too much." Mostly she stays home doing petit point and watching daytime soaps. "I'm a lazy bag, you see," she says. Then comes the giggle that miraculously dispels her melancholy.

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