Obituary:Virginia Christine

In 1975, the TV Times described Virginia Christine as "one of the small but select band of character actresses who are indispensable to any casting director". At the time Christine had appeared in more than 50 films, hundreds of television shows, and was currently starring in one of the longest-running commercials in television history.

Swedish on her mother's side, Virginia Christine was born in Stanton, Iowa, a town she described as "All Swedes". At 17 she won a national drama competition. While attending college in Los Angeles, she met the comedy character actor Fritz Feld. They were married in 1940, and two years later Feld directed her in a Los Angeles stage production of Hedda Gabler, to which he invited representatives from the major film studios.

Christine accepted a contract with Warner Bros, for whom she made Truck Busters, Edge of Darkness, Mission to Moscow and a recruitment short for the Women's Army Corps called Women at War (all in 1943). Warners then dropped her, and she accepted a contact with Universal Pictures, starting with The Mummy's Curse (1944), in which she played Princess Princess Ananka, an Egyptian mummy who, restored to life, joined fellow mummy Lon Chaney Jnr in terrorising a small Louisiana community. She wore a black wig over her blonde hair and a clinging white nightgown, inspiring the New York Post's film critic to write: "You will be safe in assuming that there never has been a mummy half as well-built or a quarter as good-looking." For the next five years, she played, in the main, cowgirls, saloon girls, vamps, convicts and gun molls in a succession of "B" movies and serials.

Christine's career took an upturn when she was cast as the wife of a paraplegic war veteran in Marlon Brando's first film The Men (1950). Hers wasn't a prominent role, but the film's producer, Stanley Kramer, liked her work, and used her as a nun in Cyrano de Bergerac (1950) and as a townswoman in High Noon (1952). When he made Not as a Stranger (1955), he gave her a two-way contract: both to coach Olivia de Havilland in her Swedish accent and to play a friend and countrywoman.

In Judgement at Nuremberg (1961), Kramer cast her as the German housekeeper of American judge Spencer Tracy, chillingly disavowing any national responsibility for the Holocaust. Her most impressive role in a Kramer film was as Katharine Hepburn's haughty business associate in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967). On hearing that Hepburn's daughter (Katharine Houghton) intended to marry a black doctor (Sidney Poitier), Christine reacted with undisguised horror, after which Hepburn walked her briskly down to her car and sacked her - a scene which rarely failed to draw applause.

"I only ever fought for one part," said Christine, who campaigned vigorously for the role of Kitty Collins, the femme fatale in the first screen version of Hemingway's The Killers (1946). She lost out to Ava Gardner, but Mark Hellinger, the film's producer, was impressed with Christine's test, and cast her as the sympathetic wife of policeman Sam Levene. Eighteen years later, she appeared in Don Siegel's remake of The Killers (1964), having also acted in his Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Flaming Star (1960).

She also acted under the direction of Vincente Minnelli in The Cobweb (1955), Billy Wilder in The Spirit of St Louis (1957) and Mark Robson in The Prize (1963). She and Fritz Feld acted in two films together: Wife of Monte Cristo (1946) and Four for Texas (1963). They had been married for 53 years when Feld died in 1993.

As well as the feature film Dragnet (1954), Christine appeared in its earlier television incarnation. Her other TV series included 77 Sunset Strip, Perry Mason, The Untouchables, The Fugitive, The Abbott and Costello Show, Mr Ed, The Adventures of Superman, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, The Long Ranger, Rawhide, Wagon Train, The Virginian, Gunsmoke, Bonanza and Tales of Wells Fargo.

Virginia Christine's most lucrative television assignment began in 1960, when Bob Palmer, the casting director who had given her the part of Princess Ananka, persuaded her to audition for a commercial. For the next 20 years she played Mrs Olson, a kindly, Swedish-accented housewife who kept solving domestic problems by recommending Folger's Mountain-Grown Coffee to a succession of married couples. The citizens of Stanton, Iowa somewhat bizarrely celebrated the celebrity status of their native daughter by converting a local water tower into a giant, ornately decorated coffee- pot.

Dick Vosburgh

Virginia Ricketts (Virginia Christine), actress: born Stanton, Iowa 5 March 1917; married 1940 Fritz Feld (died 1993; two sons); died Los Angeles 24 July 1996.

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