Eleanor Parker

Eleanor Parker as the baroness in "The Sound of Music." It took her many years to make peace with the fame the role brought her, her son said. (20th Century Fox / December 31, 1969)

Eleanor Parker, a versatile leading lady of the 1940s, '50s and '60s who earned three Oscar nominations — none of which were for her best-known role as the baroness in "The Sound of Music" — died Monday in Palm Springs of complications of pneumonia. She was 91.

Her death was confirmed by her son, actor Paul Clemens.

Parker brought a coolness, reserve and elegance to her portrayal of the baroness who is determined to marry the handsome captain played by Christopher Plummer, only to lose him to his children's governess, Maria, portrayed by Julie Andrews.

"Eleanor Parker was and is one of the most beautiful ladies I have ever known," said Plummer in a statement Monday. "I hardly believe the sad news for I was sure she was enchanted and would live forever."

The fame accompanying Parker's supporting but pivotal role in the enduring 1965 musical about the Von Trapp family was "something she came to make peace with" after many years, her son said Monday.

"It was a lovely role, and she was terrific in it," Clemens said, "but it was hardly her greatest role. It was only in the last 10 years of her life that she became glad she had done the film. People of all ages know it."

Her death came just four days after NBC aired its live version of "The Sound of Music," with Carrie Underwood as Maria, Stephen Moyer as Captain Von Trapp and Broadway musical comedy star Laura Benanti as the baroness.

The striking redhead appeared in more than three dozen movies, acting opposite many of Hollywood's most sought-after leading men, including Clark Gable, William Holden and Glenn Ford.

Born in Cedarville, Ohio, on June 26, 1922, she caught the acting bug as a youngster. At 15, she joined the Rice Summer Theatre on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, where she was offered a screen test by a 20th Century Fox talent scout.

Believing she would profit from professional stage experience, she turned down the test and continued her studies at the Pasadena Playhouse, where she was quickly offered another chance at Hollywood exposure, this time by a Warner Bros. scout. She did not agree to a test until she had finished her first year at the playhouse. She made her film debut in 1942 in a forgettable B movie, "Busses Roar."

Parker quickly proved to be more than just a pretty face. She was a character actress in a movie star's body — a nuanced, sensitive dramatic performer whether as a young woman on a ship bound for the afterlife in the 1944 drama "Between Two Worlds" or as John Garfield's resilient love interest in the 1945 classic "The Pride of the Marines."

She was so adaptable that she became known as "the star with 100 faces."

"I'm primarily a character actress," she once said. "I've portrayed so many diverse individuals on screen that my own personality never emerged."

She earned her first best actress Oscar nomination for the 1950 melodrama "Caged," in which she played a naive woman who is turned into a hardened criminal in prison. The next year, she received an Academy Award nomination for another difficult role in William Wyler's "Detective Story," starring as the wife of a police detective (Kirk Douglas) who harbors a dark secret that could destroy their marriage.

Parker earned her final Oscar nomination as a polio-stricken opera singer who makes a comeback in the glossy 1955 feature "Interrupted Melody." "That was her personal favorite," her son said. "She loved opera and learned to sing all the arias," although her singing was later dubbed in by soprano Eileen Farrell.

That same year, she appeared opposite Frank Sinatra in "The Man With the Golden Arm" and costarred with Robert Taylor in the western comedy "Many Rivers to Cross."

She continued to act in such films as 1959's "A Hole in the Head" and 1960's "Home From the Hill," but other than "The Sound of Music," her subsequent films were generally disappointments. Her last feature was the poorly reviewed 1979 Farrah Fawcett film "Sunburn."

She had a long career in television, including roles on shows including the 1969-70 NBC drama "Bracken's World," "The Love Boat," "Fantasy Island" and "Murder, She Wrote."

Parker, who lived in Palm Springs for more than 30 years, made one last TV movie, 1991's "Dead on the Money," before retiring.

ABC will air the original 1965 "The Sound of Music" on Dec. 22.

Besides son Paul, she is survived by son Richard; daughters Sharon and Susan; stepdaughter Laurey; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

susan.king@latimes.com

elaine.woo@latimes.com