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Jeff Morrow; Actor Best Known for Science-Fiction Roles

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jeff Morrow, a stage and film actor praised for his portrayal of a blackhearted centurion in Hollywood’s biblical epic “The Robe” but better known for a series of low-budget science-fiction thrillers, is dead.

Morrow, whose roles ranged from the distinguished (as the President in “Lincoln-Douglas Debates”) to the absurd (Exeter the friendly alien in “This Island Earth”), was 86.

Morrow died Sunday evening at a nursing home in Canoga Park after a long illness, said his son-in-law, Darrell Christian.

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Morrow abandoned a promising stage career in 1952 to play the raucous, brawling, drunken centurion in what 20th Century Fox hoped would prove an epic screen alternative to television.

Fox trumpeted the picture, filmed in Cinemascope, across the country, encouraging theater owners to install the larger screens required for the production. Audiences responded by the hundreds of thousands.

It made a star of Richard Burton and a sought-after character actor of Morrow.

But to escape the villain stereotype he inherited with “The Robe,” he made a series of lesser pictures as a leading man or featured player.

He co-starred with Rock Hudson in “Captain Lightfoot” in 1955 and with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in “Pardners” in 1956. In 1960, he was paired with Stuart Whitman in “The Story of Ruth.”

Morrow, born Irving Morrow in New York City, was an experienced Broadway actor when called to Hollywood.

He made his debut in 1936 opposite Katharine Cornell, Maurice Evans and Ralph Richardson as Tybalt in “Romeo and Juliet.”

He also appeared with Miss Cornell in “St. Joan” and toured with Katharine Hepburn in “Jane Eyre.”

His other New York credits included “Macbeth” and “Billy Budd.”

Morrow also continued to act in plays on the West Coast, including the 1956 Los Angeles production of “Lincoln-Douglas Debates.”

But among film buffs, he is perhaps best known for his performances in several science-fiction films that have achieved cult status.

He played the alien in “This Island Earth” in 1955 and starred in the 1956 cult classic “The Creature Walks Among Us"--the third in the “Creature From the Black Lagoon” trilogy.

In that film, Morrow played a scientist who mutates the swamp creature’s lungs so that it can exist on land. The creature returns the favor by lusting after Morrow’s scantily-clad wife (Leigh Snowden).

Morrow was also a frequent guest on episodic television, including such series as “The Twilight Zone” and “Bonanza.”

He had sustained roles in “Hollywood Screen Test” (1948-53) and “Temperatures Rising” (1973-74).

Morrow is survived by his wife, Anna Karen, and a daughter.


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