Phyllis Kirk, 79; acted in ‘House of Wax’ and TV’s ‘The Thin Man’

Times Staff Writer

Phyllis Kirk, an actress who played the damsel in extreme distress stalked by Vincent Price in “House of Wax,” a horror movie considered the best and most popular 3-D film of the 1950s, has died. She was 79.

Kirk, who later starred in “The Thin Man” on television, died Thursday of complications from a post-cerebral aneurysm at the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, said Dale Olson, her former publicist.

When first asked to appear in “House of Wax” (1953), the actress resisted, because she “was not interested in becoming the Fay Wray of her time,” Kirk later said, referring to the screaming co-star of “King Kong” (1933).


Neither did she want to act in a movie that relied on a gimmick; the 3-D process required movie patrons to wear special colored glasses. Warner Bros. insisted that she take the part or be suspended from her contract.

“I went on to have a lot of fun making ‘House of Wax.’ It was just fun; Vincent Price was a divine man and was a divine actor,” Kirk said in a 2004 interview with the Astounding B Monster, a website for fans of B movies and cult films.

The movie tested her endurance, because she continually had to be filmed running from Price, who played a mentally warped sculptor whose victims are turned into wax figures. It also tested her patience; she “loathed” being a model for a wax statue.

“That is no fun! They pour this stuff all over you to make a mold, and then some genius re-forms the whole thing into wax,” Kirk told the website.

During the rest of the 1950s, she often appeared in television anthologies before being cast opposite Peter Lawford in “The Thin Man,” which aired on NBC from 1957 to 1959.

The pair played sophisticated married sleuths Nick and Nora Charles in the series based on the Dashiell Hammett book and MGM movies that had starred William Powell and Myrna Loy.

“The Thin Man,” which brought Kirk an Emmy nomination in 1959, “was the most happy and interesting work experience I ever had as an actress,” she told the Associated Press in 1984.

Known for being outspoken, Kirk worked with the American Civil Liberties Union to campaign against capital punishment in the late 1950s.

Before the California Assembly, she spoke against the death sentence of Caryl Chessman -- convicted on 17 counts of kidnapping, robbery and sexual assault -- and visited him in prison several times before he was executed in 1960.

“It made headlines, but it hurt her career too,” Olson said. “She was very opinionated and very passionate about her beliefs.”

After the Watts riots in 1965, Kirk helped establish and fund two preschool programs in the area.

She was born Phyllis Kirkegaard in Plainfield, N.J., and moved to New York in her late teens to study with the legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner.

After appearing in several New York plays, she made her movie debut in “Our Very Own” (1950) with Farley Granger and Ann Blyth. Kirk went on to appear in nearly 20 other films.

Actress Ava Gardner became her best friend, Olson said.

As her acting career waned in the 1960s, Kirk took stage roles and appeared as a celebrity contestant on game shows.

In the 1970s, she quit acting when she began having trouble walking, a problem she linked to a childhood bout with polio and meningitis.

Her second career -- in public relations, mainly at CBS -- provided “by far and away the best work relationship” she ever had, Kirk later recalled.

She is survived by a sister, Megan Kirk Flax of Santa Rosa, Calif.; two stepdaughters; and a step-granddaughter.

Kirk was cremated and her remains will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery next to her husband, Warren Bush, a television producer she married in the 1960s. He died in 1991.