From the Archives: Joan Bennett, Movie, Stage, TV Star, Dies

Actress Joan Bennett, whose 50-year career included more than 75 film roles ranging from sweet, young blondes to sinister and vampy schemers, has died at her home in Scarsdale, N.Y. She was 80.

Bennett's daughter, Shelley Wanger, said the actress died of a heart attack while having dinner. She was declared dead on arrival at White Plains Hospital Friday evening.

A star of film, stage and television, her acting career began in 1928 and spanned some of Hollywood's most glamorous years. Her film credits include the 1933 classic "Little Women," in which she played one of the sisters of actress Katharine Hepburn.

In 1950, she also played a nurturing mother in Vincente Minnelli's comedy, "Father of the Bride." Bennett starred opposite Elizabeth Taylor and Spencer Tracy in Minnelli's 1951 comedy "Father's Little Dividend."

"I loved working with Spence and Liz," Bennett once told an interviewer. But she frequently dismissed her celebrity status and said her family was her life's most fulfilling role.

Bennett, who married her first of four husbands at age 16, once said of her children: "When they were still little, it was in my movie contract that I had to be home from work in time to bathe and feed and put them to bed."

"I don't think much of most of the films I made," she said in 1986. "But being a movie star was something I liked very much."

Bennett was born to an acting family in Palisades, N.J., as the daughter of Richard Bennett, one of the nation's top stage performers during the first three decades of the century. Joan Bennett's acting debut was with her father in a 1928 Broadway play called "Jarnegan." She was 16.

Soon after the play she was signed for films, following her two older sisters to Hollywood. Bennett was 18 when she was chosen by representatives of Samuel Goldwyn to play her first movie role in "Bulldog Drummond" opposite actor Ronald Coleman.

She was later to work on stage with one of her four daughters, Melinda, in the play "Susan and God."

Bennett's early roles tended to be bland, blonde innocent characters until 1939, when the script for "Trade Winds" required her to wear a brunette wig. After the change in hair color she was soon portraying a new type of character, like the Cockney tart in "Man Hunt," an artist's model in "Woman in the Window" and a scheming woman in "Scarlet Street."

Her sinister and sometimes vampy characters led one critic to refer to her as a "noir priestess."

Bennett's marriages and home life were frequently the fodder for Hollywood gossip sheets. She never liked such attention and once sent Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper a live, de-scented skunk.

But in 1951, Bennett's third marriage made headlines when her husband, film producer Walter Wanger, shot Bennett's Hollywood agent twice in the groin. Bennett witnessed the afternoon shooting in a Los Angeles parking lot.

Wanger later told police, "I shot him because I thought he was breaking up my home." But Bennett said Wanger was distraught over finances and denied any romantic relationship with the agent, Jennings Lang.

Wanger, father of two of Bennett's daughters, served a four-month prison sentence for the shooting.

Bennett's first husband was John Marion Fox, scion of a wealthy Seattle family. They were married when she was 16 and had one child before they divorced three years later. In 1932 she married Gene Markey, a writer. They also had one child and were divorced in 1937. Wanger and Bennett were married in 1940.

From 1966 to 1971, Bennett starred in the television soap opera, "Dark Shadows." She also authored two books, "The Bennett Playbill" and, in the 1950s, "How to Be Attractive."

Bennett's film credits also include "For Heaven's Sake," "Desire in the Dust," "Mississippi Gambler," "Moby Dick," "She Wanted a Millionaire," "The Texans, "The Man in The Iron Mask," "Girl Trouble," "We're No Angels," "Navy Wife" and "House of Dark Shadows."

Bennett appeared on stage in "Stage Door," "Pleasure of His Company," "Fallen Angels" and "Butterflies Are Free."

In 1978, she acted in the TV movie "Suddenly Love," followed by "A House Possessed" in 1980 and "Divorce Wars" in 1981.

The actress is survived by her husband, David Wilde, and four daughters, Diana Anderson of Los Angeles; Melinda Bena of Chappaqua, N.Y.; Stephanie Guest of Manhattan, and Shelley Wanger of New York.

She will be cremated and buried in Old Lyme, Conn. No date has been set, Wilde said. 

news.obits@latimes.com

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