Jan Sterling, 82; Won Golden Globe for ‘The High and the Mighty’

Times Staff Writer

Jan Sterling, a blond beauty featured in film noir movies of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, died Friday at the Motion Picture and Television Fund home in Woodland Hills. She was 82.

Friends said she had been in ill health recently after suffering several strokes and a broken hip.

Sterling appeared in more than 40 motion pictures between 1948 and 1980, sometimes in starring roles but more often as a significant supporting character.

Her appearance as a terrified airline passenger in the 1954 film “The High and the Mighty,” won her a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress.

She also appeared in dozens of television shows, including multiple appearances on “The Guiding Light” in 1969 and 1970.


The widow of actor Paul Douglas, she was a longtime companion of actor Sam Wanamaker after Douglas’ death.

Although educated at British finishing schools and the Sorbonne in Paris and listed in her youth in the New York Social Register, Sterling often played floozies and gun molls.

One of her most memorable roles was that of the wife of a spelunker trapped in a cave-in in the 1951 Billy Wilder film “Ace in the Hole,” which was re-released later as “The Big Carnival.” Sterling’s character helped an unscrupulous reporter, played by Kirk Douglas, milk the story by proclaiming her heartbreak to the news media.

In “The High and the Mighty,” the airline passenger she played was a call girl.

“I was the original ‘happy hooker,’ ” Sterling said decades later. “I’ve played her in 10 of my 42 movies, and I’ve played her on television and on the stage.”

Born Jane Sterling Adriance to a wealthy New York City family in April 1921, she studied acting in England, making several appearances on the London stage. Moving to New York, she made her Broadway debut with a supporting role in “Broadway Born” in 1938.

Her first important Hollywood role was as the wife of a man who rapes a deaf mute in the critically acclaimed 1948 film “Johnny Belinda.”

Films that followed included “Union Station,” with William Holden, in 1950; “The Mating Season,” with Gene Tierney, in 1951; “Pony Express,” with Rhonda Fleming and Charlton Heston, in 1953; “Man With the Gun,” with Robert Mitchum, in 1955; George Orwell’s “1984,” with Edmond O’Brien, in 1956; and “The Incident,” with Martin Sheen, in 1967.

In 1968, she received the first annual achievement award of the Century Club, comprised of members of the American-Jewish Congress.

The award recognized her service in radio and television programs produced for the women’s conference of the Jewish Federation-Council of Greater Los Angeles.

Her last film appearance was in “First Monday in October,” with Walter Matthau and Jill Clayburgh, in 1981.

Sterling was married twice: to actor John Merrivale from 1941 to 1948 and to Douglas from 1950 until his death in 1959.

Her son with Douglas, Adams Douglas, died three months ago.

Funeral services were not announced.