Sheree North, the platinum blond bombshell of 1950s musical motion pictures remembered by younger audiences for her continuing television roles as Lou Grant's sultry girlfriend on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and Kramer's mother Babs on "Seinfeld," has died. She was 72.
North, who had been in good health, died unexpectedly Friday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center of complications following surgery, said her daughter, Dawn Bessire of Santa Monica.
Groomed as a studio glamour girl who could substitute for the more famous but often unreliable Marilyn Monroe, North was later interviewed or cast in documentaries and shows about Monroe. Among them were the 1980 television movie "Marilyn: The Untold Story," in which she played Monroe's mother; and the documentaries "Marilyn Monroe: Beyond the Legend" in 1987 and "Intimate Portrait: Marilyn Monroe" in 1996.
Hollywood insiders originally whispered that 20th Century Fox hired North only as a threat to the troublesome Monroe -- whom she did replace in the 1955 "How to Be Very, Very Popular," in which she outdanced and outshone the leggy Betty Grable. North not only shared Monroe's blond coiffure but almost exactly matched her height and measurements.
Unlike other studio-styled blonds such as Jayne Mansfield or Mamie Van Doren, North tried to change her bombshell image, allowing herself to age gracefully, work without makeup and segue into older character parts. She worked steadily, enjoying a half-century career on stage, television and in film. But she never quite shook the initial image as a beauty, which she blamed on studio-generated press coverage in the 1950s.
"Even today," she told The Times in 1983, lamenting that she had been rejected for several dramatic roles because of her looks, "there's still the same reaction when producers hear my name. They remember me as the blond who was to have taken over from Marilyn Monroe."
Born Dawn Bethel in Los Angeles on Jan. 17, 1933, North danced as a youngster with USO shows during World War II.
"I started dancing about the time I started to walk," she told The Times in 1953. She said she later sanded floors and parked cars to pay for ballet lessons.
Abandoning thoughts of becoming a ballerina, she opted for paying jobs in local nightclubs and the chorus line at the Greek Theatre.
She made her film debut in the 1951 "Excuse My Dust" starring Red Skelton. But despite her first few films, she became so discouraged about launching a show business career that she considered going to secretarial school.
North had to cross the country for her breakout role -- a wild dance number in the Broadway musical "Hazel Flagg" she was given after an agent saw her dancing in a Santa Monica nightclub. The debut on the Great White Way earned her a Theatre World award and a chance to repeat her self-styled jitterbug in the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis musical comedy film version of the stage show, retitled "Living It Up," in 1954.
When she appeared on the initial episode of "The Bing Crosby Show" on television that same year, former Times television critic Walter Ames noted: "One of the surprises of the show was Sheree North, the shapely dancer. No one had given me an inkling that she could deliver comedy lines as well as she did, but she more than held her own with Bing and Jack Benny. Sheree came pretty close to walking off with the show."
After that, her film credits quickly rose to leading lady status, as in the 1956 musical film "The Best Things in Life Are Free" opposite Gordon MacRae and Dan Dailey.
North appeared on stage in such popular musicals as "Can-Can," "Irma La Douce" and "Bye Bye Birdie," and in such plays as "Private Lives," "The Madwoman of Chaillot" and "6 Rms Riv Vue." She also directed and produced several shows in small theaters, and in 2000 portrayed the Southern belle Amanda in a production of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" at the Laguna Playhouse.
Her film career also endured for several decades, including such films as "The Outfit" with Robert Duvall in 1973, "The Shootist" starring John Wayne in 1976 and the 1991 thriller "Defenseless" with Barbara Hershey and Sam Shepard.
But the actress probably gained her widest recognition on television, beginning with early 1950s variety shows including Ed Sullivan's "Toast of the Town." She went on to guest roles in such top series as "The Virginian," "The Big Valley," "The Fugitive," "Cannon," "McMillan and Wife," "Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law," "Kojak," "Hawaii Five-O," "Barnaby Jones," "Fantasy Island," "The Golden Girls" and "Murder, She Wrote." She earned Emmy nominations for appearances on "Marcus Welby, M.D." and "Archie Bunker's Place."
North had a key role in the 1979 miniseries "Women in White" and played the uptight boss Edie McKendrick on Danny Thomas' 1980-81 father-daughter sitcom "I'm a Big Girl Now."
In 1974, North became a part of television history on the 100th episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," when Ed Asner's character Lou Grant fell for her as Charlene Maguire, a saloon singer with a past. She inspired the crusty newsman Grant to start wearing mauve turtlenecks and zip around the office like, as one colleague said, "a 200-pound bumblebee."
"I can recall no more flawless work of television comedy than this 100th episode," commented former Times television columnist Cecil Smith. "It couldn't happen to a better actress. Sheree North is a superb performer and she gives Charlene the kind of acerbic sophisticated wit the series has not had since the abdication of Rhoda [Valerie Harper] to her own show."
North is survived by her husband, Phillip Norman of Pacific Palisades; two daughters from previous marriages, Dawn Bessire and Erica Torrablas; and a grandchild. No public service is planned.