Queen of the B's

updated 10/14/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/14/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

HER START IN HOLLYWOOD WAS CLASSIC B-movie fantasy. She was Marilyn Louis then, a 17-year-old senior at Beverly Hills High, when she was spotted on the street by an agent in 1940 and quickly signed to a contract by producer David O. Selznick. Selznick changed her name—to Rhonda Fleming—and she landed her first small role—as a nymphomaniac in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound. "I didn't even know what a nymphomaniac was," recalls Fleming, now 68. "That's how naive I was."

Over the next 20 years, the striking redhead would come to reign as the Technicolor Queen of the Hollywood B's, appearing in such forgettable epics as Yankee Pasha, Slightly Scarlet, Those Redheads from Seattle and more than 40 other films. But after age 40, starring roles faded, so she launched a brief nightclub career, then landed occasional parts on stage and TV. Finally, 14 years ago, the thrice-divorced Fleming married millionaire theater-chain magnate Ted Mann, and after appearing in one last movie turkey, The Nude Bomb, quit acting altogether to settle into retirement.

Or so it seemed. Last month, a half-hour TV drama tilled Waiting for the Wind began turning up on local stations around the country. The syndicated program costarred Robert Mitchum as a Kansas farmer dying of cancer and Fleming in a character role as his unglamorous, world-weary wife. For the suddenly resurfaced actress, the drama's theme had touched personal chords.

Last year, Fleming's elder sister, Beverly Engle, died after a 19-year struggle with a rare form of ovarian cancer, leading Fleming and her husband to begin planning the Rhonda Fleming Mann Clinic for Women's Comprehensive Care, a center for female cancer patients that opened last month at UCLA. The loss also prompted Fleming to accept the role in Waiting for the Wind when the Protestant religious group that was producing it came calling. "I couldn't believe how good she looked when she arrived on the set each morning," says Mitchum. "She's always been one great dame."

Fleming, of course, is accustomed to praise for her beauty—perhaps too accustomed. Cast in bit parts early on, Fleming got her breakthrough role in 1949 when she was thrust into A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, as a last-minute replacement for Deanna Durbin. The comedians, she says, "were the light of my career. Bing chose me for the role and then behaved like a mother hen watching over me, and Bob Hope always had something clever to say." But the part—her first in color—had an unexpected result.

"Suddenly my green eyes were green green. My red hair was flaming red. My skin was porcelain white," she says. "There was suddenly all this attention on how I looked rather than the roles I was playing." Before long, says Fleming, "I'd been painted into a corner by the studios, who never wanted more from me than my looking good and waltzing through a parade of films like The Redhead and the Cowboy"

Fleming's costar in that hokey 1951 film was Glenn Ford, and over the years she would also appear with Burt Lancaster ("the perfect gentleman"), Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston—even Ronald Reagan. ("He surprised everyone because he never looked in a mirror," she says. "How many actors can you say that about?") Aside from the occasional good company, the B-movies "gave me a nice career," admits Fleming, "but it wasn't exactly satisfying."

These days, of course, Fleming's leading Mann is Ted, 65, the now semiretired drive-in king and former owner of Mann's Chinese Theater in L.A. The two live in identical 4,300-square-foot condos—his above hers—in Century City. "I treasure my privacy, and Ted needs his," she explains, insisting that the marriage is strong. "We love each other very much. Fm more fulfilled today than at any time in my life."

Fulfilled enough to fade back into retirement once more? Well, maybe not, hints Fleming. "Now that I've worked again, I wonder if that little ember isn't starting to burn inside me. I doubt I ever really wanted to be a glamour queen. Truth is, I would really enjoy doing another good character part."

CHARLES E. COHEN
DAVID MARLOW in Los Angeles

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