Jill Haworth: Actress who came to fame as Sally Bowles in the first stage run of 'Cabaret'

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Jill Haworth was a strikingly beautiful blonde actress who was spotted by producer-director Otto Preminger when she was only 14 years old, and cast in a pivotal role in his epic account of the founding of Israel, Exodus (1960).

She played in two more Preminger films, and starred in three French movies, prior to winning the coveted role of Sally Bowles in the Broadway musical, Cabaret (1966), in which she was ideally cast as the hedonistic heroine striving to be "divinely decadent" while singing in the floor-show of a seedy café.

She had the distinction of introducing on stage the popular title tune, but her performance was not widely appreciated and she was given a particularly cruel review by the New York Times critic Walter Kerr, who judged her presence in the cast as "worth no more to the show than her weight in mascara". I saw the show three months into its run, and though she was playing with such brilliant scene-stealers as Joel Grey and Lotte Lenya, she was perfect, the epitome of an upper-class English schoolgirl determined to be sophisticated, endearing in her efforts to be shocking, and infuriatingly blinkered regarding politics and her own limited talents. She was deliciously cheeky as she delivered the bouncy Charleston, "Don't Tell Mama", and when she sang "Cabaret" it was with the wild abandon of a defiant performer who believed she was electrifying despite the limitations of her voice, and the result was a show-stopper. She stayed with Cabaret for its two-year run, but her screen roles afterwards were not as distinguished as those earlier in her career.

She was born Valerie Jill Haworth (pronounced Hah-worth) in Sussex in 1945. Her father was a textiles magnate, and her mother trained as a ballet dancer. After her parents split up, she stayed with her mother, who enrolled her at the Corona School in London, where she trained as a dancer. In response to Otto Preminger's publicised search for a teenager to be in his mammoth film Exodus, based on Leon Uris' best-selling novel about Israel's struggle for independence, the school submitted her name and picture. Preminger's longtime friend from his youthful days in Vienna, Willi Frischauer, later recalled, "I happened to be with Otto at the Dorchester when a waif-like 14-year-old girl arrived with her mother. He interviewed and auditioned Jill Haworth, who was virtually unknown, and gave her the part."

The role in Exodus was that of a Jewish girl who is on the verge of going to the US when she falls in love with a young freedom-fighter, played by Sal Mineo. "Preminger coached little Jill Haworth with great patience," said Reischauer. The lengthy film starring Paul Newman received mixed reviews, but was a box-office hit, and Haworth was well received – her scenes with Mineo were considered particularly touching. Off-screen the couple formed a deep bond, and for some time she lived with the bisexual Mineo in his beach house in Santa Monica.

Preminger had signed Haworth to a three-film contract, but as he had nothing for her she made three films in France. She was top-billed in Ton ombre est la mienne (Your Shadow is Mine, 1962), as a long-lost sister who has to choose between two ways of life when she is discovered in a Cambodian village. In Les mystères de Paris (1962), based on a famous 19th-century novel by Eugène Sue, she was rescued from a cruel fate by swashbuckling Jean Marais, and in A Cause, A cause d'une Femme (Because of a Woman, 1963), she was one of several conquests of a Don Juan (Jacques Charrier) who help him clear himself of a murder charge.

When Preminger called on the actress again, it was for a surprisingly minor role in The Cardinal (1963), his overlong saga of a Boston curate's journey to becoming a Cardinal between the two World Wars. In the starry naval drama In Harm's Way (1963), which dealt with Pearl Harbour and its aftermath, she was effective as a nurse who falls in love with commander John Wayne's estranged son (Brandon DeWilde) and is raped by embittered officer Kirk Douglas, but it was her last film for the director. She also ended her romance with Mineo. "I love Jill," he said, "but I'm not for marriage and kids. We have incredible feelings for each other, but the idea of settling down goes against my make-up."

Haworth appeared in several television shows, including Burke's Law and Rawhide, before auditioning for the Broadway production of Cabaret along with more than 200 other actresses and winning the role, though she had never sung professionally. Sally Bowles had already been brought to life by Christopher Isherwood's writings, the play I Am A Camera by John van Druten and its subsequent film version, and now she was part of a musical superbly fashioned by Joe Masteroff (book), John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics).

"The critics underestimated her," director Harold Prince recalled. "She wasn't supposed to be so slick that you forgot she was an English girl somewhat off the rails in the Weimar era. When Jill came in and auditioned, she nailed it right away, walked that line. That's what we wanted and that's what she delivered."

Haworth returned to the screen in a low-budget horror movie, It! (1967), in which a psychotic museum keeper (Roddy McDowell) discovers a murderous Golem among the exhibits, then starred with Frankie Avalon in The Haunted House of Horror (1969), filmed in London at the height of the Swinging Sixties. The film's few plaudits were mainly for Haworth's stunning appearance in mini-skirts and boots. (An upcoming David Bowie was set to portray the film's villain, but the production company vetoed the idea.) In Tower of Evil (1972), she was one of a group of archaeologists marooned on a fog-enshrouded island, and in the 1972 television murder mystery, Home For the Holidays (1972), written by Joe Stefano, who scripted Psycho, she was one of four sisters summoned by their father, who suspects that his new wife is trying to kill him. Critics noted Haworth's effectiveness in a new kind of role for her – an acid-tongued party girl.

She was a pig-tailed student in another horror film, The Mutations (1974), in which Donald Pleasance was a mad professor who crosses plants with humans. In recent years she lived in a lavish New York apartment, and regularly provided voice-overs for both film and television.

"She was 'let's have a good time'," recalled Joel Grey. "She had a wild abandon about herself and her life." Prince said, "She was remarkably steadfast and mature after the drubbing. She played the part for nearly two years and never laid the weight of that on anyone. We just loved her."

Valerie Jill Haworth, actress: born Sussex 15 August 1945; died Manhattan, New York 3 January 2011.