Interview: Suzanna Leigh - Elvis and me? Now there's a story...

It's a long way from Hollywood to Northolt. Hester Lacey talks to Suzanna Leigh, Sixties starlet, about life after fame

Suzanna Leigh was the Kate Winslet of her day: a beautiful, feted young British actress who made it big in Hollywood. In her heyday she starred opposite Elvis Presley and Tony Curtis and stepped out with Steve McQueen; her other beaux included Patrick Lichfield, Richard Harris and Michael Caine (for one night only - well, it was the Sixties, after all). She lived a champagne lifestyle, mixed with the beautiful people and drove a Rolls Royce. She was presented to the Queen at a Royal Command Performance. (HRH wanted only to hear about Elvis, she remembers.)

Now, at 52, she is still beautiful, but rather less feted. She lives in a small rented flat in an unlovely London suburb, just across from the grey concrete bulk of the Northolt Swimarama leisure centre, with her daughter Natalia and her sheltie dog Sukie. She still looks like a film star, with golden hair, lovely green eyes and fantastic legs, but these days she is busy not with acting - although she has recently had "talks" with some American television companies - but with fighting the latest stage in a court battle for child support from Natalia's father. It's a battle that has occupied her on and off for the past 15 years.

Her determination to get to Hollywood sounds itself like an improbable film plot. Born plain Suzanna Smith, she decided she was going to be a star at the age of five. She was dyslexic but, she says, "Years ago they didn't call it dyslexic - they just said you were thick. So I had to work out very early what I wanted to be in spite of it." She was encouraged by her father, a professional gambler, who died when she was six. (She never had a good relationship with her mother, a millionairess property developer.)

Her father had told his daughter that Vivien Leigh was her godmother, so at the age of 11 she trotted round the corner from her mother's house in Cadogan Square to Vivien Leigh's house in Eaton Place and introduced herself. "She said she had known my father, though she had been to hundreds of christenings and didn't remember mine. It was about 15 years after she'd done Gone with the Wind and she was stunning, beautiful and slender with dark hair. She said she didn't mind a bit if I used her name." So Suzanna Smith became Suzanna Leigh and secured a few acting lessons into the bargain. "It was really exciting. She was so fantastic to me. She said that so many of my dreams seemed like hers." (A black and white photo of Vivien Leigh still hangs in her kitchen.)

Suzanna's drama school career lasted all of two terms. "I didn't feel I could afford the whole three years for the course - in those days it was all based on youth, there was no chance in Hollywood to turn up at 22," she recalls. "You had to hit it quick when you were very young. If you were lucky it lasted a little bit of time, then you'd disappear. Nowadays it's much better."

She started her professional life with bit parts in The Saint, graduated to leading glamour roles, and was given her own television series in France. Then came her big chance: her agent rang to tell her that Hal Wallis, the famous Hollywood producer, was in England looking for the new Shirley MacLaine. Faking a stomach upset, she rushed off the Paris set, drove at speed to the airport, jumped on a plane to London, rushed to the Dorchester where he was staying and banged on his door to tell him "I'm the one you're looking for". "There'd be an army of secretaries to stop you doing that today," she says, with a yelp of laughter. "It just wouldn't happen."

Things happened quickly after that: Suzanna was whisked away to Hollywood, and the place lived up to its reputation. She still bubbles with joy at the memory of her first day on the set: she was 19 at the time. "I went through the gates at Paramount and for me it was fantastic. My first day in the studio this big Caddy came along with the chauffeur. It happened exactly the way it did in Sunset Boulevard. I thought `That's it, I need no more'. It's the most amazing feeling when all your dreams come true."

One of her most enduring memories of Hollywood is of working opposite Elvis Presley on Paradise Hawaiian Style in 1966. She and Presley were allowed to meet only on the set to avoid any hint of scandal, but one day, in front of photographers, Presley swept her up and kissed her. The photos went round the world. "That won't do your career any harm, baby," drawled the King. She was with Presley when Steve McQueen called her over to the adjacent set where he was filming and introduced himself. "For anybody of my age that was it: working with Elvis and having Steve McQueen chatting you up. I thought `I'd die happy right now'."

But the Hollywood dream did not last. Suzanna was scheduled to make another film with Presley. "Then out of the blue came an edict from the Screen Actors' Guild saying that I couldn't take the part. British Equity had refused to allow Charlton Heston to film his scenes as Gordon of Khartoum in Britain, so the Guild had retaliated by making it very difficult for British actors to get parts in Hollywood," she explains. "My mentor, Hal Wallis, said that union members were so opposed to me that they were throwing darts at my picture at the Guild's Beverly Hills offices."

Assuming it would take a while to sort out the problem, Suzanna flew back to Europe. "With hindsight I should have just stuck it out," she says. "I was supposed to do all these other pictures. It would have meant being out of work just sitting there. But when you're 20 and you're getting so many offers from Europe - I really couldn't believe that between Hal Wallis and Elvis they wouldn't be able to sort it out. My agent had died. So I went back to England."

She still lived the high life, however, mixing in London's showbusiness circles and working in movies, and living in exclusive Belgravia. She did some films in Europe, England and the West Indies. "And that was it really." She met Tim Hue-Williams, to be the father of her daughter, Natalia, at Ascot in 1972. This led to a 10-year relationship which ended when Hue-Williams deserted her for a rich heiress, his best friend's fiancee, when she was four months pregnant. Hue-Williams denied paternity and she had to submit her baby to a DNA test. Since then he has failed to contribute to his daughter's keep, ignoring court orders and pleading poverty.

Suzanna wanted to concentrate on motherhood and had let her acting career lapse. "I'd made a decision that I wanted a baby and it took years and years. I lost a couple during that time, and Natalia was three months premature when she was born." She had started an interior design firm which failed when a crooked lawyer cheated her - he later ended up in prison for fraud. It was now that her real financial problems began. Suzanna, now a single mother, initially supported them by selling her possessions and jewellery. ("Luckily I had quite a lot.") Natalia was very poorly when she was born and at the age of six she became seriously ill. Suzanna took her to Switzerland for several months to recuperate. By their return to England she'd lost all her assets. "I thought, `It's only money and I have my daughter'," she says. "Photographs are important. Everything else is replaceable."

Through the late Eighties and early Nineties she had an amazing stream of jobs. She hired a room in a library in Mayfair and gave lessons in etiquette. She ran speech and diction classes. And she sold the Encyclopedia Britannica at Heathrow Airport. "Being dyslexic I'd say to people things like `I won't bore you with the books' - if they took gold bindings I'd make quite a lot of money." By now she had lost her home in Belgravia, and had moved on, through a flat in Regent's Park that was sold over her head, passing through an ex-council flat, relying on benefit at various times.

But she isn't planning to stay in Northolt. When Natalia has done her GCSEs later this year she intends to move back to the US to restart her career. She has already been negotiating her own local morning television show in Memphis, where she hopes to settle. And she has written her memoirs, Paradise Suzanna Style.

Will the gulf between Northolt and new fame and fortune in the US be bridgeable? Let's hope so. Although she seems indestructibly optimistic the past few years must have been hard. But Suzanna Leigh says she has just one regret. "I should have stayed in Hollywood. But you don't know what's going to happen. Who knows, if I'd stayed in Hollywood I might have died! Sharon Tate was my best friend; perhaps I'd have been at that lunch where the guests were murdered by Charles Manson. I could have been dead in 1969. My god, aren't I lucky! I made it this far!"


On being an English actress in the US

Just being English gives you a real edge; they love the English. They have this idea that you're walking talent anyway. I'm sure Kate Winslet is finding the magic. It's so hard to get anything together over here; you just have to go where the real work is.

On Steve McQueen teaching her to shoot

He told me the biggest worry was getting to the point where you shoot too fast, before the gun's even out of the holster, and pepper your leg. He told me a great list of people who'd done this. I was quite good, but I said, "I promise you that is not going to be one of my problems."

On Elvis Presley's peacocks

Elvis had never met anyone quite like me and he loved to hear me tell stories. He was very hot on security, and I told him about keeping a pair of peacocks to make a noise if any intruders approach. Years later I went to Gracelands and found he had got his own peacocks. Of course, being Elvis, he didn't have a pair of peacocks, he had a flock of them. Apparently the noise was mindblowing.

On being a Catholic

I went through a very religious phase. I used to go to the cathedral a lot and say: "This is not on! This is not on, you know! When I prayed for a very small baby and said `I don't care how small my baby is', I didn't mean weighing less than one pound!"

On luck

My father was a successful gambler and I've always had a bit of the gambler in me. Luck is part of it but you make your own luck.

newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
Jihadi John
newsMonikers like 'Jihadi John' make the grim sound glamorous
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

    £7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

    Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

    Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

    Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

    £26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

    Day In a Page

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003