Dana Wynter: Actress best known as co-star of the original 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers'

Click to follow

A coolly elegant dark-haired beauty Dana Wynter had a spell as a Hollywood leading lady in the 1950s, starring opposite Robert Taylor and Richard Todd in D-Day, The Sixth of June, and Kenneth More in Sink the Bismark!, but her best-remembered role is that of Becky Driscoll in Don Siegel's classic sci-fi thriller Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).

One of the most chilling moments in cinema is that when the film's hero (Kevin McCarthy) kisses her impassive face and realises she has been taken over by aliens. The film is often cited as an allegory for the communist witch-hunts of the time, though its director and writer denied such intentions later. However Wynter said that the cast realised the film had a subtext. "I felt that it pointed up the wickedness of communism and fascism where governments forced their will and ideologies upon other people."

The daughter of a British surgeon father and Romanian linguist mother, she was born Dagmar Winter in Berlin in 1931, but grew up mainly in Scotland and England. Many years later, when an American journalist asked her what she missed aboutEngland, she replied, "The harvest festival. During the war there was petrol rationing and so we would ride horseback to our country church for services. The choir boys loved thehorses and would come out and feed them apples. At festival time, the churches are filled with fruit, vegetables, pies, bread and sheaths of corn behind the altar. The aroma is unbelievable. After the service, all those things are distributed to the poor and the local hospital."

After the war, her parents divorced, and she moved with her father and stepmother to Southern Rhodesia. After graduation from a private school, she studied medicine at Rhodes University in South Africa. "I was brought up in a medical household and had this idea of plastic surgery as a means of helping deformed children. However, I didn't enjoy the physics or chemistry. When my university's amateur drama class won a competition with a play I was in, I became infected with the acting bug. I loved the preparation, rehearsal and technical part of it, so after a year I left the university and returned to England to find work in the theatre."

She was appearing in a fringe theatre production in Hammersmith when spotted by an agent, who found her small roles in several British films, including White Corridors (1951), Lady Godiva Rides Again (1951), The Crimson Pirate (1952, with Burt Lancaster), and Knights of the Round Table (1953), in which she can be fleetingly seen as Morgan Le Fay's servant. She sailed for the US in 1953, on 5 November. "There were all sorts of fireworks going off, and I couldn't help thinking it was a fitting send-off for my departure to the New World."

In New York, with her first name changed to Dana, she established herself as a star of live TV, playing major roles in such series as Robert Montgomery Presents, Studio One and Suspense. In 1955 she was given a contract by 20th Century-Fox, plus a starring role in The View From Pompey's Head (1955, Secret Interlude in the UK), a heated drama in which a New York lawyer returns to his roots in the South where he meets an old love (Wynter) who now has a wealthy but uncouth husband; she won a Golden Globe as Most Promising Newcomer.

Fox then loaned her to Allied Artists for her finest screen opportunity in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. There have been three remakes of this classic tale, and when asked by historian James Rosin if she could account for their failure, she replied, "In our film the players were honest and believable. That was very important for the film had no gore, minimal violence and no sophisticated special effects. It also took place in a small community, which made it all the more frightening. Two of the remakes were set in large cities."

Wynter's next film was her personal favourite, D-Day, The Sixth of June (1956) "Robert Taylor and Richard Todd were both dear friends, and the movie was an old-fashioned wartime romance, all the more powerful because although the principal characters did the right thing, it didn't work out for them in the end.'

In 1956 Wynter married Greg Bautzer, a high-profile divorce lawyer who was noted for his liaisons with Hollywood stars – Lana Turner and Joan Crawford had been amonghis lovers, and his character is featured in the Crawford screen biography, Mommie Dearest, as "Uncle Greg". The couple had one son, but were divorced in 1981.

Wynter was loaned to MGM to star in Richard Brooks's powerful tale of the Mau Mau attacks in Kenya, Something of Value (1957), but the focus was on the male protagonists played by Rock Hudson and Sidney Poitier as childhood friends who grow up to find themselves on opposing sides in the conflict. Fox gave her top billing in Fraulein (1958), but the quirky tale, of a German girl who helps an escaped prisoner of war then poses as a prostitute to escape Russian persecution, was unpopular, and Wynter was judged miscast. In Love and War (1958) was blandly episodic as it traced the effects of war on three soldiers, after which, on loan to United Artists, Wynter travelled to Ireland to film Shake Hands with the Devil (1959), in which she played an English girl kidnapped by a militant member of the IRA (James Cagney) in Michael Anderson's gripping account of the Troubles in the 1920s. It was one of her better roles, but Cagney's superb performance dominated the film. Wynter fell in love with Ireland, and was later to buy a house in County Wicklow.

For Fox, she starred with Kenneth More in what was arguably her best film for the studio, Lewis Gilbert's Sink the Bismarck! (1960). Starting with newsreel footage of Hitler launching the battleship in 1939, then jumping to 1941, when it is attacking Atlanticconvoys, the film skilfully cross cuts from the British high commandstrategy sessions to naval encounters from both the British and the German points of view. The two stars give expert performances, and a scene in which More (as a naval captain) offers "Wren" Wynter a position as his personal assistant, unaware that she has been offered a posting in America with promotion, then receives news that his sailor son is missing before she can respond, is a masterly demonstration of understatement.

Wynter lacked, though, the charisma that makes a major star, and Fox let her go. She played foil to Danny Kaye in On the Double (1961) and returned to the UK to act in John Huston's gimmicky thriller The List of Adrian Messenger (1963), but her subsequent career was on television. She played guest roles on countless shows, such as Hart to Hart and The Rockford Files, and in 1978 became a regular on the Irish soap opera, Bracken, with a young Gabriel Byrne.

Dividing her life between her homes in California and Ireland, she began to write, contributing a regular column called Grassroots to The Guardian newspaper in the 1980s, as well as magazine articles about the contrast between her two homes. Her last film was a Western, Santee (1973), and her final television appearance was as Raymond Burr's wife in The Return of Ironside (1993).

Dagmar Winter (Dana Wynter), actress: born Berlin 8 June 1931; married 1956 Greg Bautzer (divorced 1981; one son); died Ojai, California 5 May 2011.