Barbara Rush, Classy Star of 1950s Melodramas, Dies at 97

Barbara Rush, the classy yet largely unheralded leading lady who sparkled in the 1950s melodramas Magnificent Obsession, Bigger Than Life and The Young Philadelphians, has died. She was 97.

Rush, a regular on the fifth and final season of ABC’s Peyton Place and a favorite of sci-fi fans thanks to her work in When Worlds Collide (1951) and It Came From Outer Space (1953), died Sunday in Westlake Village, her daughter, Fox News senior correspondent Claudia Cowan, announced.

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“My wonderful mother passed away peacefully at 5:28 this evening. I was with her this morning and know she was waiting for me to return home safely to transition,” Cowan said. “It’s fitting she chose to leave on Easter as it was one of her favorite holidays and now, of course, Easter will have a deeper significance for me and my family.”

A starlet at Paramount, Universal and Fox whose career blossomed at the end of the Hollywood studio system, Rush also played opposite Frank Sinatra in Come Blow Your Horn (1963) and Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964), the last of the Rat Pack movies. Filming on the latter was stopped twice, once when President Kennedy was assassinated and again when Sinatra’s son was kidnapped.

In Douglas Sirk’s 1954 remake of Magnificent Obsession, Rush portrayed the adorable sister of Oscar nominee Jane Wyman, whose character is blinded in an accident caused by a reckless playboy (Rock Hudson).

Rush, Hudson and Sirk had warmed to the task by collaborating on the tongue-in-cheek film Taza, Son of Cochise (1954), in which the actors played Native Americans, and the three would work together again in the Ireland-set love story Captain Lightfoot (1955).

Rush portrayed the harried wife of James Mason, whose life unravels when he becomes addicted to cortisone, in Nicholas Ray’s controversial Bigger Than Life (1956), and she exceled as a disappointed socialite driven away by would-be lawyer Paul Newman in The Young Philadelphians (1959).

Rush also was seen as the despairing wife whose husband (Kirk Douglas) is having an affair (with neighbor Kim Novak) in Strangers When We Meet (1960), and she romanced Dean Martin and Richard Burton, respectively, in The Young Lions (1958) and The Bramble Bush (1960).

Rush never received an Oscar or Emmy nomination; she was given a Golden Globe in 1954 as most promising female newcomer for her performance in It Came From Outer Space, where she played the fiancee of an astronomer (Richard Carlson) as well as her seductive alien duplicate.

But who needs trophies? She was acknowledged in the 1975 film Shampoo when Warren Beatty’s Beverly Hills hairstylist and ladies man asked for references when applying for a business loan, bragged, “Well, I do Barbara Rush.”

The high-society Hollywood figure was married to actor Jeffrey Hunter (The Searchers) and legendary showbiz publicist Warren Cowan.

Barbara Rush was born in Denver on Jan. 4, 1927. The family moved to Santa Barbara, and she and her dad worked as ushers at the Lobero Theatre. After graduation from UC Santa Barbara, she won a scholarship to the Pasadena Playhouse and was noticed by a talent scout.

Paramount Pictures signed her to a contract in 1950, and she married Hunter in December of that year in Boulder City, Nevada. They became one of Hollywood’s most glamorous couples until their acrimonious divorce in 1955.

Rush made her movie debut in 1950 in The Goldbergs, based on the popular radio series, and then appeared in the 1951 releases Quebec with John Drew Barrymore and in Sirk’s The First Legion opposite Charles Boyer.

Her first starring role for Paramount came in the interplanetary fantasy When Worlds Collide, in which she played an astronomer’s daughter in love with a pilot. She moved on to the low-budget horror studio Universal International Pictures, which promptly cast her in It Came From Outer Space, filmed in 3D.

Rush went on to star in Oh, Men! Oh, Women! (1957), a rare comedy for her, in which she played the wife of a psychiatrist (David Niven); in No Down Payment (1957), with Joanne Woodward and Hunter, by then her ex-husband; in Harry Black and the Tiger (1958), opposite Stewart Granger; and in Hombre (1967), back again with Newman.

In the Village People disco musical Can’t Stop the Music (1980), directed by Nancy Walker of Rhoda fame, Rush played the mother of Bruce Jenner’s character.

On Peyton Place, Rush starred as Marsha Russell, who falls in love with Ed Nelson’s character as the series concludes. A quarter-century later, she was in another primetime soap, NBC’s Flamingo Road, playing the rich Eudora Weldon, whose adoptive daughter (Morgan Fairchild) was a brat.

Rush also appeared as the villainess Nora Clavicle, a women’s rights activist bent on evil, on the third season of Batman and recurred as Grandma Ruth Camden (Stephen Collins’ mother) on 7th Heaven.

When choice movie projects eluded her, Rush focused on theater. She won a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for her work in the one-woman show A Woman of Independent Means. She played a character at various stages of life from age 7 to her 70s and took the play from Van Nuys to Broadway and dozens of cities in between.

She also toured in such productions as 40 CaratsPrivate Lives (with Louis Jourdan), TwigsButterflies Are FreeThe Unsinkable Molly Brown and I Found April.

After her split with Hunter, Rush was married to PR kingpin Cowan from 1959 to 1968 (their wedding ceremony took place at the Beverly Hills home of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh) and to sculptor James Gruzalski from 1970 to 1973.

Survivors also include her son, Christopher Hunter.

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