Midway through an acting career she abandoned early, out of frustrations with her casting, Yvette Mimieux, who has died aged 80, said the parts she was offered were usually “sex objects or vanilla pudding”. Her pale beauty was striking, but ethereal rather than fragile; qualities that led to the early roles that foreshadowed her entire career. “I suppose I have a soulful quality,” she said. “I was often cast as a wounded person, the sensitive soul.”
She was only 15 when the talent agent Jim Byron supposedly spotted her from his helicopter while she walked a horse in the Hollywood Hills; he landed and gave her his card. The other version of the story was more mundane: he spotted her auditioning for a bit part in Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock. He generated publicity for her through beauty contests and modelling.
By the time she was 17 she had landed an uncredited bit part in the film of Françoise Sagan’s A Certain Smile (1958), and appeared in the popular TV shows Yancy Derringer, Mr Lucky and One Step Beyond. MGM put her under contract, and gave her a small, bikini-clad role in Platinum High School (1960).
But she caught the public eye opposite Rod Taylor in George Pal’s adaptation of HG Wells’s The Time Machine (1960), playing Weena, the beautiful Eloi blissfully unaware that she and her fellows are raised in idyllic peace as cattle to be eaten by the underground Morlocks. In the erstwhile hit comedy Where the Boys Are, she proved the “spring break” movie’s darkness as a student who is a victim of date rape and gets hit by a car as she staggers down the highway in her torn dress.
She made the cover of Life magazine in 1961, described as a “warmly wistful starlet”, but Modern Romances scooped Life by using an earlier, anonymous modelling photo of her on their cover the same week. A week later, the press reported that the teenage star had been married in 1959, to a student, Evan Engber, who was now doing his military service.
She reprised the charmingly innocent and unaware Weena in Light in the Piazza (1962), as Olivia de Havilland’s adult daughter rendered permanently a pre-teen girl by a childhood fall from a horse that halted her mental development. On holiday she falls in love with a wealthy Italian, played by George Hamilton, who had acted with her in Where the Boys Are. He was totally unconvincing in the role, but had lobbied as an MGM contract player to replace the Cuban-Italian actor Tomas Milian, who might have provided a better contrast to Mimieux’s American child.
Her celebrity was cemented by Tyger, Tyger, a two-part episode broadcast in early 1964 of the TV hit Dr Kildare, starring Richard Chamberlain. She guest-starred as a surfing-mad teenager who suffers epileptic seizures. Her scenes in a bikini, including one where she balances on her parents’ coffee table to demonstrate her love for surfing to Kildare, are thought to be the first appearance of a navel on US TV. She had, officially, just turned 22 (her birth date is sometimes given as 1939), and had made eight movies, but stardom continued to elude her.
Mimieux was born in Los Angeles. Her father, René, was French, and worked as a film extra and electrician; her mother, Maria (nee Montemayor) was Mexican. Some of her publicity claimed she had studied archaeology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and that she had met Engber there.
As one of the last wave of MGM contract players she was doubly typecast, first by studio executives there, and then by other studios who sought her on loan to play those types of roles. She showed some talent in the adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s Toys in the Attic (1963), but she was back playing a young married woman too innocent for sex in Joy in the Morning (1965), and standard love interests in various action films.
In The Desperate Hours (1967), an early TV movie remake of the Frank Sinatra thriller, she was literally a vulnerable hostage. Her best part came while she was loaned to American International for the black comedy Three in the Attic (1968), as one of three women holding their womanising boyfriend prisoner.
She moved to starring in a TV detective series, The Most Deadly Game (1970-71), alongside Ralph Bellamy and George Maharis; she got the part following the death of Inger Stevens. She featured in another TV movie remake, of Death Takes a Holiday, opposite Monte Markham, and the growing market for TV movies meant that between 1971 and 1984 she made 13 of them, mostly forgettable, but including a remake of Bell, Book and Candle (1976) in which she took the role played by Kim Novak in the 1958 film.
In 1972 she married the director of musicals Stanley Donen. He moved back to the US from the UK in 1975, but his career was waning, and they never worked together.
Growing more frustrated, Mimieux wrote the TV movie Hit Lady (1974), to give herself a meatier role. But her career’s apotheosis came in Jackson County Jail (1976), a Roger Corman B-movie, which cast her as a California teacher – falsely accused in the deep south of a crime – who kills her jailer when he tries to rape her. It was as if Mimieux, teamed with Tommy Lee Jones, was fighting back against years of being cast as victims.
She co-wrote and produced the TV movie Obsessive Love (1984), in which she played a John Hinckley-inspired role as an over-the-top fan of a soap star. In 1985 she was cast in a TV series, Berrenger’s, a Dallas-like drama set in a New York department store.
That year she and Donen divorced; she retired from acting and married the entrepreneur Howard Ruby. She began painting, pursued her interests in archaeology and Haitian art, and together they took up the cause of protecting Arctic wildlife from exploitation. She came out of retirement briefly in 1992 to play an Ivana Trump-like character in the TV series Lady Boss.
Mimieux is survived by her husband and five stepchildren.