The high point of actress Mary Murphy's screen career was The Wild One (1953), in which she played a sheriff's daughter who captivates the leader of a motorcycle gang that is terrorising a small town. The leather-clad star was Marlon Brando, and the controversial film was banned in the UK for 14 years for fear that it would incite teenagers to riot, though it is now a cult favourite and considered a forerunner of Rebel Without a Cause.
Born in Washington in 1931, Murphy, the youngest of four children, was raised in Cleveland, Ohio, until 1940 when her father, a businessman, died. Her mother took the family to California, and Mary was working as a package-wrapper in the Beverly Hills branch of Saks Fifth Avenue when she was spotted having coffee in a nearby drugstore by Paramount's chief talent scout, Milton Lewis. After a screen test she was given a seven-year contract, and for the next three years appeared in small roles in such films as The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), When Worlds Collide (1951), Carrie (1952) and Houdini (1953). "On Carrie, I met my idol, Laurence Olivier. He paid absolutely no attention to me at all. I was 18 years old and playing his daughter, who was 15 years old, and at one point I was able to look Olivier right into those beautiful eyes of his, and he looked back as if I totally was not there."
Murphy's name was becoming known primarily for her frequent appearance in fan magazines attending night clubs with famous companions, with captions labelling her "starlet" or "aspiring actress". She had a brief relationship with the president of Paramount, Adolph Zukor, and romances with Nicky Hilton and Bing Crosby. In 1953 a dancer friend, Tom Morton, was given the leading role of an aspiring playwright in Main Street to Broadway, and on his recommendation Murphy was given her first starring role, but the film was a trite affair.
Producer Stanley Kramer was still impressed enough to offer Murphy the role of the sheriff's daughter in The Wild One, which was inspired by a 1947 incident when 4,000 motorcyclists took over a small Californian town, Hollister, for the 4 July weekend, and destroyed it. "I was told the pairing of Brando and myself would not work unless Marlon felt attracted to me, so I had to meet him in Kramer's office and we had a casual conversation, but all the while he was sizing me up."
In Classic Images magazine Murphy recalled an attack of stage fright on her first day of shooting. "Marlon picked it up immediately and saw that I was tense and a bit scared. He sat with me for a while and clasped my hand in his and was wonderful. He was a gentleman and there was no flirting. He knew I was scared and he wanted to build my confidence." In one of Murphy's most affecting scenes, Brando helps her escape the violence by taking her into the local park, where she asks him what he is rebelling against, to which he replies, "What've ya got?" The film did not do well on its initial release – one criticism was that it failed to explain the causes of rebellion, just showing the results – but it was successful in most of Europe.
Though it gave some impetus to Murphy's career, many of her subsequent films were negligible, with the exception of William Wyler's The Desperate Hours (1955), in which she was the daughter in Fredric March's household, which is taken over by killer Humphrey Bogart and his gang. Beachhead (1954) was a taut war adventure, with Murphy providing romance for Tony Curtis, but The Mad Magician (1954) starring Vincent Price and filmed in 3-D, was inept, and Sitting Bull (1954) was a routine Western, though Murphy began an affair with her co-star Dale Robinson which led to a marriage in 1956 that lasted four months
Murphy travelled to the UK to make two films, Joseph Losey's intriguing mystery The Intimate Stranger (1956) and Escapement (1957). She also played a prostitute in Crime and Punishment USA (1959) – Dostoyevsky transposed to Santa Monica. Her final film was Sam Peckinpah's Junior Bonner (1972) starring Steve McQueen as an ageing rodeo star. In 1962 she married a dealer in lighting fixtures, and they had a daughter, but the union ended in divorce. Recently Murphy was engaged in environmental causes, and worked for a time in a Los Angeles art gallery.
Mary Murphy, actress: born Washington DC 26 January 1931; married 1956 Dale Robertson (divorced 1956), married secondly (marriage dissolved; one daughter); died Beverly Hills 4 May 2011.