Joan Barrett (Joan Vohs), actress: born St Albans, New York 31 July 1931; married 1952 John Stephens (one son, one daughter); died Tarzana, California 4 June 2001.
Joan Vohs enjoyed a brief career in Hollywood, making her film début in 1949 before retiring during the late 1960s to concentrate on a life of marriage, teaching Sunday School and children. This was a far cry from her days as a model, a Radio City Rockette and blonde bombshell. Vohs capitalised on her tall good looks and became popular as a rival to Joi Lansing, Mamie Van Doren and Tuesday Weld.
It wasn't long however before she became tired of playing the stereotypical dumb blonde, and tried her best to avoid being typecast. "Once a dumb blonde, always a dumb blonde in the opinion of some of the producers and casting directors," she said in 1955. And, in June 2000, she recalled: "They were unable to see me play anything else. One thing is for sure, you have to be smart to play dumb."
Vohs was born Joan Barrett in St Albans, New York, in 1931. Her mother had been a model for the John Powers Agency and had tried unsuccessfully to become an actress herself. When she married and became pregnant, she lived her failed ambition through her two daughters, Joan and Millicent. Both children were auditioned for modelling and advertising agencies. Whereas Joan thrived on the attention, Millicent cowered in her elder sister's shadow before finally admitting that a career in show business was not for her. This allowed Joan to shine. By the time she was 15, she was already a successful model. A year later and she became the youngest ever Radio City Rockette, a record that she still held at the time of her death.
"I did everything," Joan Vohs said last year,
and adored it. My mother was never one of those pushy types, but whenever she saw an opening for me she made sure I took it. I loved to dance, so wallowed in the attention. It was whilst on Broadway that I was spotted by a talent scout from MGM and was taken out to Hollywood.
Any ideas of becoming a serious actress were soon quashed. In her first year she made four films, cast in each as "the model". She made her film début in The Girl From Jones Beach (1949) opposite Ronald Reagan and Virginia Mayo. The following year she supported Rory Calhoun and Jane Nigh in the drama County Fair, and scored a greater success in Girls' School, directed by Lew Lenders and starring Leslie Banning and Louise Beavers.
In 1951, she was a girl in the chorus for the Stanley Donen musical romance Royal Wedding with Fred Astaire and Jane Powell. "Fred was a genius," said Vohs, "as graceful as a swan but as hard-working as an ox. He was a perfectionist through and through." Later that year, Vohs finally threw off the "dumb blonde" image and ventured into the dark world of film noir with As You Were, produced by Hal Roach Jnr.
For a time her name was linked with the singer and actor Tom Morton. However, in 1952, she married a businessman, John Stephens, with whom she had two children, William and Laurie.
During the mid-1950s Vohs signed a contract with Paramount Studios, where her career fared much better. She was cast as the suspected French spy Fortune Mallory in the western Fort Ti (1953) starring George Montgomery, and played Ruth, the wife of the real-life football star Elroy Hirsch, in Crazylegs (also 1953). The following year she had a starring role in Billy Wilder's Sabrina (1954), playing Gretchen Van Horn opposite Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn:
Sabrina was a wonderful film to be involved in both for the story and for the cast. Audrey Hepburn was like no other actress I worked with. She had her own unique quality and made everyone fall in love with her.
In 1955, she rejected an offer from the producer Hal B. Wallis to play Sonia opposite the top box- office duo Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in the comedy Artists and Models a role that finally fell to Eva Gabor. "The studio saw me as being difficult, I saw it as common sense," Vohs remembered:
I had had enough of playing fluffy women and wanted something with grit. Unfortunately the studio mogul Adolph Zukor saw things differently and after a fight over better roles I was released from contract.
Undaunted, she moved into television, where she found a wider variety of roles, appearing in Frontier, Maverick, Perry Mason and Hawaiian Eye, as well as travelling to Europe, where she starred in a series of dramatised Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales. Away from a studio, she also began to freelance, playing the lead, Susan Lang, opposite Scott Brady in Terror at Midnight (1956), and again in the cult "B" picture Lure of the Swamp (1957). These were to be her final two films.
"I enjoyed working in television too much to be bothered finding work in films," she remembered:
I now had a family of my own to look after and couldn't be bothered with the long arduous hours that filming entailed.
A devout Christian, even during her Hollywood heyday, Vohs continued to take Sunday School classes, often to the amusement of her fellow actors. "I'm sure they saw it as some kind of publicity stunt," she mused, "but I was just doing my duty." Vohs largely retired in 1966 after playing a stint in the television series Family Affairs as Miss Cummings. The show ran for a further five years and 139 episodes.
In her 35-year retirement as Mrs John Stephens, of Tarzana, California, she was asked to return to her career only once, when the director Sidney Pollock urged her to accept a cameo in his 1993 remake of Sabrina. "I must say I was flattered," she said,
but I didn't have the urge nor needed the money so decided to turn down Sidney's kind invitation and rest on my laurels.
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