June Haver, a singer and actress once groomed by 20th Century Fox to be “the next Betty Grable” but who left acting to join a convent and later married actor Fred MacMurray, has died. She was 79.
Haver died of respiratory failure Monday at her longtime Brentwood home, her family said.
Beginning in 1943, she appeared in 15 films in 10 years, including “Irish Eyes Are Smiling” (1944) and “The Girl Next Door” (1953), her last film, which was considered one of her best.
The blond, blue-eyed Haver was called the “pocket Grable” after she was paired with the screen legend in “The Dolly Sisters” (1945). The movie featured “sassy hokum” and “two lovely stars,” according to “Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide.”
The 19-year-old actress met MacMurray, 37, on the set of “Where Do We Go From Here?” (1945), the only movie they would make together.
She married him on screen but off-screen nuptials would have to wait: MacMurray was a happily married family man.
Haver’s first marriage, in 1947 to Jimmy Zito, a trumpeter she met when she sang as a teenager with a big band orchestra, lasted less than a year.
In 1949, she was engaged for a second time to dentist John Duzik. He died in her arms after what was supposed to be routine surgery.
Several years later, Haver broke her $3,500-a-week contract with 20th Century Fox and spent eight months as a novice nun in the Sisters of Charity convent in Xavier, Kan.
When she left, she said she “did not have the physical strength to withstand the strain of religious life,” according to the “Encyclopedia of Popular Music.”
She soon met up again with MacMurray – whose first wife, Lillian Lamont, had died in 1953 after 17 years of marriage – at a 1953 New Year’s Eve party. They were married June 28, 1954, at the Ojai Valley Inn.
By December 1956, they had expanded their family, which included MacMurray’s two children from his first marriage, by adopting twin girls.
Haver would not make another film.
“I’m a mother now,” she said. “I’m needed at home.”
The couple liked to cook, and they wanted to raise their family on a 1,500-acre ranch in Healdsburg, Calif., that MacMurray bought in 1941.
“My parents loved being actors ... but I think to keep everybody’s feet on the ground, this [the ranch] was the place to do it,” their daughter, Kate MacMurray, told the Press Democrat in Santa Rosa in 2004.
By the late 1950s, her father wanted to retire to the ranch, but television came calling with a pilot titled “My Three Sons,” which ran for 12 years and “changed everything,” Kate MacMurray said.
The family split their time between homes in Brentwood and Healdsburg. The ranch was sold to the Gallo family in 1996, five years after Fred MacMurray died. The couple had been married for 37 years.
Haver was born June Stovenour in Rock Island, Ill., to Fred and Marie Stovenour, a former actress. Her parents divorced when she was young and she was adopted by her stepfather, Bert Haver.
She said she made her musical debut playing the piano at age 7 with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. By age 11, she had devised a starring vehicle for herself on the radio. She wrote, emceed and starred in a program that she persuaded a local ice cream company to sponsor for $2 a week.
After singing with dance bands, Haver came to Hollywood and appeared in a string of musicals, many of which were set in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But she never achieved Grable’s popularity.
Throughout her life, she was so upbeat that friends were known to greet her with these words: “Cheer down, June.”
In addition to her daughter Kate of Healdsburg, Haver is survived by Laurie MacMurray of Los Angeles; stepson Robert MacMurray of Honolulu; stepdaughter Susan Pool of Little Rock, Ark.; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Funeral services will be private. Memorial donations may be made to the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital in Woodland Hills or St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica.