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John Garfield

“If I hadn’t become an actor, I might have become Public Enemy Number One.”

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John Garfield (March 4, 1913 – May 21, 1952) was an American actor adept at playing brooding, rebellious, working-class characters. He grew up in poverty in Depression-era New York City and in the early 1930s became an important member of the Group Theater. In 1937, he moved to Hollywood, eventually becoming one of Warner Bros.’ major stars. Called to testify before the U.S. Congressional House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), he denied Communist affiliation and refused to “name names,” effectively ending his film career. Some have claimed that the stress of this incident led to his premature death at 39 from a heart attack. (Rumors abounded that he “died in the saddle.”)

 

Garfield is acknowledged as a predecessor of such Method actors as Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and James Dean.

Garfield was born Jacob Garfinkle in a small apartment on Rivington Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, to David and Hannah Garfinkle, Russian Jewish immigrants, and grew up in the heart of the Yiddish Theater District. In early infancy a middle name—Julius—was added, and for the rest of his life those who knew him well called him Julie. His father, a clothes presser and part-time cantor, struggled to make a living and to provide even marginal comfort for his small family. When Garfield was five, his brother Max was born and their mother never fully recovered from what was described as a “difficult” pregnancy. She died two years later and the young boys were sent to live with various relatives, all poor, scattered across the boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. Several of these relatives lived in tenements in a section of East Brooklyn called Brownsville and there Garfield lived in one house and slept in another. At school he was judged a poor reader and speller, deficits that were aggravated by irregular attendance. He would later say of his time on the streets there, that he learned “all the meanness, all the toughness it’s possible for kids to acquire.”

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His father remarried and moved to the West Bronx where Garfield joined a series of gangs. Much later he would recall: “Every street had its own gang. That’s the way it was in poor sections… the old safety in numbers.” He soon became gang leader. It was at this time people started to notice his ability to mimic well-known performers, both bodily and facially. He also began to hang out and eventually spar at a boxing gym on Jerome Avenue. At some point he contracted scarlet fever, (it was diagnosed later in adulthood) causing permanent damage to his heart and causing him to miss a lot of school. After being expelled three times and expressing a wish to quit school altogether, his parents sent him to P.S. 45, a school for difficult children. It was under the guidance of the school’s principal—the noted educator Angelo Patri—that he was introduced to acting. Noticing Garfield’s tendency to stammer, Patri assigned him to a speech therapy class taught by a charismatic teacher named Margaret O’Ryan. She gave him acting exercises and made him memorize and deliver speeches in front of the class and, as he progressed, in front of school assemblies. O’Ryan thought he had natural talent and cast him in school plays. She encouraged him to sign up for a citywide debating competition sponsored by the New York Times. To his own surprise, he took second prize.

With Patri and O’Ryan’s encouragement he began to take acting lessons at a drama school that was part of The Heckscher Foundation and began to appear in their productions. At one of the latter he received back-stage congratulations and an offer of support from the Yiddish actor Jacob Ben-Ami who recommended him to the American Laboratory Theater. Funded by the Theatre Guild, “the Lab” had contracted with Richard Boleslavski to stage its experimental productions and with Russian actress and expatriate Maria Ouspenskaya to supervise classes in acting. Former members of the Moscow Art Theater, they were the first proponents of Stanislavsky’s “system” in the United States. Garfield took morning classes and began volunteering time at the Lab after hours, auditing rehearsals, building and painting scenery, and doing crew work. He would later view this time as beginning his apprenticeship in the theater. Among the people becoming disenchanted with the Guild and turning to the Lab for a more radical, challenging environment were Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, Franchot Tone, Cheryl Crawford and Harold Clurman. In varying degrees, all would become influential in Garfield’s later career.

After a stint with Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theater and a short period of vagrancy involving hitchhiking, freight hopping, picking fruit, and logging in the Pacific Northwest (Preston Sturges conceived the film Sullivan’s Travels after hearing Garfield tell of his hobo adventures) Garfield made his Broadway debut in 1932, in a play called Lost Boy. It ran for only two weeks but gave Garfield something critically important for an actor struggling to break into the theater: a credit.

Garfield received feature billing in his next role, that of Henry the office boy, in Elmer Rice’s play Counsellor-at-Law starring Paul Muni. The play ran for three months, made an eastern tour and returned for an unprecedented second return engagement, only closing when Muni was contractually compelled to return to Hollywood to make a film for Warners. At this point the Warner company expressed an interest in Garfield and sought to arrange a screen test. He turned them down.

Garfield’s former colleagues Crawford, Clurman and Strasburg had begun a new theater collective, calling it simply “the Group,” and Garfield lobbied his friends hard to get in. After months of rejection he began frequenting the inside steps of the Broadhurst Theater where the Group had its offices. Cheryl Crawford noticed him one day and greeted him warmly. Feeling encouraged, he made his request for apprenticeship. Something intangible impressed her and she recommended him to the other directors. They made no dissent.

Clifford Odets had been a close friend of Garfield from the early days in the Bronx. After Odets’ one-act play Waiting for Lefty became a surprise hit, the Group announced it would mount a production of his full-length drama Awake and Sing. At the playwright’s insistence, Garfield was cast as Ralph, the sensitive young son who pled for “a chance to get to first base.” The play opened in February 1935 and Garfield was singled out by critic Brooks Atkinson for having a “splendid sense of character development.”

Garfield’s apprenticeship was officially over; the company voted him full membership. Odets was the man of the moment and he claimed to the press that Garfield was his “find”; that he would soon write a play just for him. That play would turn out to be Golden Boy and when Luther Adler was cast in the lead role instead, a disillusioned Garfield began to take a second look at the overtures being made by Hollywood.

Garfield had been approached by Hollywood studios before—both Paramount and Warner’s offering screen tests—but talks had always stalled over a clause he wanted inserted in his contract, one that would allow him time off for stage work. Now Warner Bros. acceded to his demand and Garfield signed a standard feature-player agreement—seven years with options—in Warner’s New York office. Many in the Group were livid over what they considered his betrayal. Elia Kazan’s reaction was different, suggesting that the Group did not so much fear that Garfield would fail, but that he would succeed. Jack Warner’s first order of business was a change of name to John Garfield.

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After many false starts he was finally cast in a supporting, yet crucial role as a tragic young composer in a Michael Curtiz film titled Four Daughters. After the picture’s release in 1938, he received wide critical acclaim and a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. The studio quickly revised Garfield’s contract—designating him a star player rather than a featured one—for seven years without options. They also created a name-above-the-title vehicle for him titled: They Made Me a Criminal. Before the breakout success of Daughters Garfield had made a B movie feature called Blackwell’s Island. Not wanting their new star to appear in a low-budget film, Warner’s ordered an A movie upgrade by adding an additional $100,000 to its budget and recalling its director Michael Curtiz to shoot newly scripted scenes.

Garfield’s debut had a cinematic impact difficult to conceive in retrospect. As biographer Lawrence Swindell put it:

“Garfield’s work was spontaneous, non-actory; it had abandon. He didn’t recite dialogue, he attacked it until it lost the quality of talk and took on the nature of speech. The screen actor had been dialogue’s servant, but now Julie had switched those roles. Like Cagney, he was an exceptionally mobile performer from the start of his screen career. These traits were orchestrated with his physical appearance to create a screen persona innately powerful in the sexual sense. What Warners saw immediately was that Garfield’s impact was felt by both sexes. This was almost unique.”

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His “honeymoon” with Warner’s over, Garfield entered a protracted period of conflict with the studio, they attempting to cast him in crowd-pleasing melodramas like Dust Be My Destiny and he insisting on quality scripts that would offer a challenge and highlight his versatility. The result was often a series of suspensions, Garfield refusing an assigned role and Warner’s refusing to pay him. Garfield’s problem was the same problem shared by any actor working in the studio system of the 1930s: by contract the studio had the right to cast him in any project they wanted to. But, as Robert Nott explains, “To be fair, most of the studios had a team of producers, directors, and writers who could pinpoint a particular star’s strengths and worked to capitalize on those strengths in terms of finding vehicles that would appeal to the public – and hence make the studio money. The forces that prevented him from getting high quality roles were really the result of the combined willpower of the Warner Bros., the studio system in general, and the general public, which also had its own perception of how Garfield (or Cagney or Bogart for that matter) should appear on screen.” A notable exception to this trend was Daughters Courageous, the sequel to his debut film. Now considered a late 1930s classic, the film did well critically but failed to find an audience, the public dissatisfied that it was not a true sequel (hard to pull off, since the original character Mickey Borden died in the first picture). The director, Curtiz, called the film “my obscure masterpiece.”

At the onset of World War II, Garfield immediately attempted to enlist in the armed forces, but was turned down because of his heart condition. Frustrated, he turned his energies to supporting the war effort. He and actress Bette Davis were the driving force behind the opening of the Hollywood Canteen, a club offering food and entertainment for American servicemen. He traveled overseas to help entertain the troops, made several bond selling tours and starred in a string of popular, patriotic films like Air Force, Destination Tokyo and Pride of the Marines (all box office successes). He was particularly proud of that last film based on the life of Al Schmid, a war hero blinded in combat. In preparing for the role Garfield lived for several weeks with Schmid and his wife in Philadelphia and would blindfold himself for hours at a time.

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After the war Garfield starred in a series of successful films such as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) with Lana Turner, Humoresque (1946) with Joan Crawford, and the Oscar-winning Best Picture Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). In Gentleman’s Agreement, Garfield took a featured, but supporting, part because he believed deeply in the film’s exposé of anti-semitism in America. In 1948, he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his starring role in Body and Soul (1947). That same year, Garfield returned to Broadway in the play Skipper Next to God. A strong-willed and often verbally combative individual, Garfield did not hesitate to venture out on his own when the opportunity arose. In 1946, when his contract with Warner Bros. expired, Garfield decided not to renew it and opted to start his own independent production company, one of the first Hollywood stars to take this step.

“I have nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of. My life is an open book. I am no Red. I am no ‘pink.’ I am no fellow traveler. I am a Democrat by politics, a liberal by inclination, and a loyal citizen of this country by every act of my life.”

Long involved in liberal politics, Garfield was caught up in the Communist scare of the late 1940s and early 1950s. He supported the Committee for the First Amendment, which opposed governmental investigation of political beliefs. When called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which was empowered to investigate purported communist infiltration in America, Garfield refused to name communist party members or followers, testifying that, indeed, he knew none in the film industry. Garfield rejected Communism, and just prior to his death in hopes of redeeming himself in the eyes of the “Blacklisters,” wrote that he had been duped by Communist ideology, in an unpublished article called “I Was a Sucker for a Left Hook,” a reference to Garfield’s movies about boxing. However, his forced testimony before the committee had severely damaged his reputation. He was blacklisted in Red Channels, and barred from future employment as an actor by Hollywood movie studio bosses for the remainder of his career.

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With film work scarce because of the blacklist, Garfield returned to Broadway and starred in a 1952 revival of Golden Boy, finally being cast in the lead role denied him years before.

On May 9, 1952 Garfield moved out of his New York apartment for the last time, indicating to friends it was not a temporary separation. He confided to columnist Earl Wilson that he would soon be divorced. Close friends speculated that it was his wife’s opposition to his plotted confession in Look magazine that triggered the separation. He heard that a HUAC investigator was reviewing his testimony for possible perjury charges. His agent reported that 20th Century-Fox wanted him for a film called Taxi but would not even begin talks unless the investigation concluded in his favor. Three actor friends, Canada Lee, Mady Christians and J. Edward Bromberg, had all recently died after being listed by the committee.

In the morning of May 20 Garfield, against his doctor’s strict orders, played several strenuous sets of tennis with a friend, mentioning the fact that he had not been to bed the night before. He met actress Iris Whitney for dinner and afterward became suddenly ill complaining that he felt chilled. She brought him to her apartment where he refused to let her call a doctor and instead went to bed. The next morning she found him dead. Long-term heart problems, allegedly aggravated by the stress of his blacklisting, had led to his death at the age of 39.

The funeral was the largest in New York since Rudolph Valentino with over ten thousand persons crowding the streets outside. His estate, valued at “more than $100,000,” was left entirely to his wife. Shortly afterward, ironically, the HUAC closed its investigation of John Garfield, leaving him in the clear. Garfield is interred at Westchester Hills Cemetery in Hastings-on-Hudson, Westchester County, New York.

In 1954, the widowed Roberta Garfield married attorney Sidney Cohn, who died in 1991. She died in January 2004.

He and Roberta Seidman married in February 1935. Though his wife had been a member of the Communist Party, there was no evidence that Garfield himself was ever a Communist. They had three children: Katherine (1938–1945), who died of an allergic reaction on March 18, 1945; David (1943–1994); and Julie (born 1946); the latter two later becoming actors themselves.

Garfield was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for Four Daughters in 1939 and Best Actor for Body and Soul in 1948.

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He was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7065 Hollywood Boulevard.

I loved Garfield’s persona. Like a polished agate with rough stone overtones.

Lana Turner

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In 1969, when I was a patrol sergeant in Hollywood I got a call to the Desilu studios on Gower. Eddie Albert greeted me on the set. In the next room was Lana Turner. Albert prevailed upon me that Turner was not feeling well and that it was nothing to worry about. I don’t recall the exact nature of the call, but I could tell that Albert was interested in keeping it low profile. Once I felt convinced there was no foul play, I had no problem in not going into the next room and checking on Turner. Albert was quite persuasive. I suppose I was a bit foolish, but often having been around actors, I understood their need for privacy, particularly in “iffy” situations like this one.

Lana Turner (February 8, 1921 – June 29, 1995) was an American actress popular during the 1940s and 1950s. Turner was born Julia Jean Turner in Wallace, Idaho. She was the only daughter of John Virgil Turner, a miner from Montgomery, Alabama (January 23, 1903 – December 14, 1930), and Mildred Frances Cowan, a sixteen-year-old native of Lamar, Arkansas (June 19, 1904 – February 22, 1982). Her father was of Dutch ancestry and her mother was of Scottish, English and Irish ancestry. A common and often repeated error is to add the given names of her mother Mildred Frances to her birth name. These names she used when she converted to Catholicism as a child.

Until her film career took off, young Julia Turner was known to family and friends as “Judy”. Hard times eventually forced the family to re-locate to San Francisco, where her parents soon separated. On December 14, 1930, her father won some money at a traveling craps game, stuffed his winnings in his left sock, and headed for home. He was later found dead on the corner of Minnesota and Mariposa Streets, on the edge of Potrero Hill and the Dogpatch District in San Francisco, his left shoe and sock missing. The robbery and murder were never solved. Soon after, her mother developed health problems and was advised by her doctor to move to a drier climate. With her ten-year-old daughter, she moved to Los Angeles in 1931.

Mildred and Lana were very poor, and Turner was sometimes separated from her mother, living with friends or acquaintances so that the family could save money. Her mother worked 80 hours a week as a beautician to support them. After Turner was discovered, her mother became the overseer of Turner’s career.

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Turner’s discovery at a Hollywood drug store is a show-business legend. As a sixteen-year-old student at Hollywood High School, Turner skipped a typing class and bought a Coke at the Top Hat Malt Shop located on the southeast corner of Sunset Boulevard and McCadden Place (not Schwab’s Pharmacy, as is commonly believed), where she was spotted by William R. Wilkerson, publisher of The Hollywood Reporter. Wilkerson was attracted by her beauty and physique, and referred her to the actor/comedian/talent agent Zeppo Marx. Marx’s agency immediately signed her on and introduced her to film director Mervyn LeRoy, who cast her in her first film, They Won’t Forget (1937).

Turner earned the nickname “The Sweater Girl” from her form-fitting attire in a scene in They Won’t Forget. According to her daughter, this was a nickname Turner detested throughout her entire career.In late 1937, she signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for $100 a week, and graduated from high school in between filming. According to LeRoy, it was thanks to him that she made the switch, for he left Warners to work at MGM and was advised by studio head Jack Warner to take her with him, because Warner believed that she wouldn’t “amount to anything.” Her first starring role for MGM was scheduled to be an adaptation of The Sea-Wolf, co-starring Clark Gable, but the project was eventually canned. Instead, she was assigned opposite teen idol Mickey Rooney in the Andy Hardy film Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938). It was this appearance, as a flirtatious girl described as “the kissing bug,” that convinced Louis B. Mayer that LeRoy’s protégée Turner could be the next Jean Harlow, a sex symbol who had died six months before Turner’s arrival at MGM.

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Mayer turned her into a glamorous star, mostly popular among college boys, and gave her the leads in several teen-oriented films in the late 1930s and early 1940s, such as Dramatic School (1938), These Glamour Girls (1939) and Dancing Co-Ed (1939). In early 1940, she was also set to star in a remake of Our Dancing Daughters, but the film was never made.[10] From the beginning of her career, Turner stood her ground on her beliefs and was one of the few actresses at MGM to go against Mayer’s wishes.

Turner, an actress bolstered by her extreme beauty, reached the height of her fame in the 1940s and 1950s. During World War II, Turner became a popular pin-up girl due to her popularity in such films such as Ziegfeld Girl (1941), Johnny Eager (1942), Slightly Dangerous (1943) and four films with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “king of the lot”, Clark Gable. The Turner-Gable films’ successes were only heightened by gossip-column rumors about a relationship between the two. Turner even had a B-17 Flying Fortress—the Tempest Turner—named after her. Following the canned The Sea Wolf project, Turner and Gable were set to star in The Uniform in December 1940. Turner was eventually replaced by Rosalind Russell and the film was released as They Met in Bombay (1941).

Meanwhile, Turner was receiving much publicity for her personal life, and her career was one of the very few to be furthered by this. MGM boosted this by changing the title of her latest film to Slightly Dangerous (1943).

After the war, Turner’s career continued successfully with the release, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), which co-starred John Garfield. As claimed in a documentary, Turner did not get along with him and when she found he was her male lead, she responded: “Couldn’t they at least hire someone attractive?” The now-classic film noir marked a turning point in her career, and it marked Turner’s first femme fatale role. Reviews of the film, and in particular, Turner’s performance, were glowing, with a critic of The New York Times writing it was “the role of her career.” While not exactly giving up her pin-up credentials, Turner established herself as a skilled actress. The Postman Always Rings Twice was thus a turning point in her career. Turner commented on this:

“I finally got tired of making movies where all I did was walk across the screen and look pretty. I got a big chance to do some real acting in The Postman Always Rings Twice, and I’m not going to slip back if I can help it. I tried to persuade the studio to give me something different. But every time I went into my argument about how bad a picture was they’d say, ‘well, it’s making a fortune.’ That licked me.”

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She got the role after turning down “four pretty-pretty parts in a row.” The film became a box office success, which prompted the studio to take more risks on the star. In August 1946, it was announced Turner was set to replace Katharine Hepburn in the big budgeted historical drama Green Dolphin Street (1947), a role for which she darkened her hair and lost 15 pounds. She was cast due to the persistence of producer Carey Wilson, who was overwhelmed by her performance in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Turner later recalled she was surprised about replacing Hepburn, saying: “And I guess I’m about the most un-Hepburnish actress on the lot. But it was just what I wanted to do.” It was her first starring role that did not center on her looks. In an interview, Turner said: “I even go running around in the jungles of New Zealand in a dress that’s filthy and ragged. I don’t wear any make-up and my hair’s a mess.” Nevertheless, she insisted she would not give up her glamorous image.

Later that year, Turner headlined Cass Timberlane, a role that Jennifer Jones, Vivien Leigh and Virginia Grey were previously considered for. As of early 1946, Turner was set for the role, but schedules with Green Dolphin Street almost prohibited her from taking the role, and by late 1946, she was almost recast.Production of Cass Timberlane was very exhausting for Turner, as it was shot in between retakes of Green Dolphin Street. Nevertheless, she took the female lead in Homecoming (1948) in August 1947, only moments after finishing Cass Timberlane. She was the studio’s first choice for the role, but they were reluctant to offer her the part, considering her overbooked schedule.[19] Paired again with Clark Gable in Homecoming, their chemistry projected on the screen was well received by the audience, and they were nicknamed “the team that generates steam”. By this period, Turner achieved the milestone of her film career, and was not only MGM’s most popular star, but also one of the ten best paid women in the United States.

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In 1948, Turner appeared in her first Technicolor film, appearing as Lady de Winter in The Three Musketeers, opposite Gene Kelly, Van Heflin and June Allyson. In November 1947, she agreed to do the film, thereby giving up an unfinished film project called Bedeviled. However, in January 1948 it was reported that she had withdrawn from the film. Initially, Louis B. Mayer gave her permission for doing so because of her schedule, but she was later that month put on suspension. Eventually, Turner agreed to make the film, but did not start production until March due to having to lose weight. In 1949, she was to headline A Life of Her Own (1950). The project was shelved for several months, and Turner insisted in December 1949 that she had nothing to do with it, saying: “Everybody agrees that the script is still a pile of junk. I’m anxious to get started. By the time this one comes out, it will be almost three years since I was last on the screen, in The Three Musketeers. I don’t think it’s healthy to stay off the screen that long.”

During the 1950s, Turner starred in a series of films that failed to succeed at the box office, a situation MGM attempted to remedy by casting her in musicals. The first, Mr. Imperium (1951), was a flop, while The Merry Widow (1952) was more successful. She gave a widely praised performance in Vincente Minnelli’s film, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) (in a role partly based on Diana Barrymore), and later starred with John Wayne in the adventure film The Sea Chase (1955). She was then cast in the epic The Prodigal (1955), but the film and her performance in general were not well received. After the film Diane (1956), MGM opted not to renew her contract. This was a difficult time for Hollywood’s major studios because a recent court decision forced them to divest themselves of their movie theaters. In addition, television had caught on in a big way; the public was staying home. Turner was just one of MGM’s star roster to be let go.

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Turner’s career recovered briefly after she appeared in the hugely successful big-screen adaptation of Grace Metalious’s best-selling novel, Peyton Place (1957), for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. Another few box-office failures followed (Another Time, Another Place (1958), for example) when the 1958 scandal surrounding her daughter’s killing of Stompanato threatened to derail her career completely.

In the trail of the related negative publicity, Turner accepted the lead role in Ross Hunter’s remake of Imitation of Life (1959) under the direction of Douglas Sirk. Universal Studios capitalized on her new-found notoriety; the result was one of the biggest hits of the year, as well as the biggest hit of Turner’s career: she owned 50% of the earnings of the picture and for only the first year of the film’s career she earned $11 million. Critics and audiences couldn’t help noticing that the plots of both Peyton Place and Imitation of Life had borrowed heavily from Turner’s private life. Each film depicted the troubled, complicated relationship between a single mother and her teenage daughter.

She made her last film at MGM starring with Bob Hope in Bachelor in Paradise (1961). Other highlights of this era include By Love Possessed (1961), based on the James Gould Cozzens novel and two Hunter productions (for whom she did Imitation of Life), Portrait in Black (1960) and Madame X (1966), which proved to be her last major starring role.

In 1969, Turner appeared in her only lead starring role on television in ABC’s Harold Robbins’ The Survivors, but despite the presence of other big-name stars, the program fared badly opposite Mayberry R.F.D. and The Doris Day Show on CBS and The NBC Monday Movie, and was cancelled midway into the season.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Turner appeared in several television roles, most notably as a guest star for several episodes on the series Falcon Crest as the mysterious Jaqueline Perrault and The Love Boat, but the majority of her final decade was spent out of the public eye.

On October 25, 1981 the National Film Society presented Lana with an Artistry in Cinema award. In 1994 she received Donostia Lifetime Achievement Award at the San Sebastian International Film Festival, Spain. In 1982, Turner released a memoir, in which she stated that she had two abortions and three stillbirths. She said she was an alcoholic and had attempted suicide.

Turner spent most of the 1970s and early 1980s in semi-retirement, working only occasionally. In 1982 she accepted a much publicized and lucrative recurring guest role in the television series Falcon Crest. Her first appearance on the show gave the series the highest rating it ever achieved. Turner made her next final film appearance in 1991, and died from throat cancer in 1995.