Sally Forrest: Performer who made her name as a dancer, but found real fame in Ida Lupino's taboo-busting films

One of her more notable dancing moments was in The Pirate (1948), in which Gene Kelly, singing "Nina", is slapped by the fan of a duenna when he flirts with Forrest

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Sally Forrest, who achieved overnight fame starring as an unwed mother in Ida Lupino's Not Wanted (1949), becoming Lupino's protégé, had spent four years as a dancer at MGM with little thought of a dramatic career.

Lupino had just finished her contract with Warners and was keen to produce movies. She thought Forrest would be perfect to play the lead in Not Wanted, the controversial (for its time) tale of an unwed mother who regrets giving up her child. But although it started a period in which she starred in several movies, Forrest will be best remembered for the dance numbers she performed on the big screen and on television.

The daughter of an Irish immigrant father and a German mother, she was born Katharine Sally Feeney in 1928 in San Diego, where her father was Chief Boatswain's Mate in the US Navy. She was 12 years old when her mother sent her for dancing lessons – and her teacher Margaret Ellicott, who had coached Rita Hayworth when she was Rita Cansino, was so impressed by Forrest's potential that she gave her free tuition.

During her last year in high school, she was persuaded to audition for Hollywood studios, and MGM offered her a contract as dancer and assistant choreographer in 1946. She made her screen debut in the ensemble of the Jerome Kern biography, Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), followed by chorus work in the ballet story, The Unfinished Dance (1947). She was an assistant choreographer on the Esther Williams vehicle Fiesta (1947), and her exotic work was noticed by top choreographer Robert Alton, who made her his assistant on The Kissing Bandit (1948) to help him stage the film's high point, the sensuous "Dance of Fury" for Ricardo Montalban, Cyd Charisse and Ann Miller.

One of her more notable dancing moments was in The Pirate (1948), in which Gene Kelly, singing "Nina", is slapped by the fan of a duenna when he flirts with Forrest. Easter Parade (1948), The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949) and In the Good Old Summertime (1949) are other films in which she can be glimpsed.

Meanwhile, Lupino had been suspended by her studio, Warners, rather than accept poor scripts – and had decided to work behind the camera, forming her own company, Film Makers, and co-writing with Paul Jarrico a screenplay dealing with unwed motherhood. Many young actresses had tested for the part before Forrest, but when actors' agent Milo O. Frank sent her to audition, she was immediately signed by Lupino. Frank, who became Forrest's husband in 1951, thought her strong physical resemblance to Lupino played a part: "I think she reminded Ida of Ida".

Elmer Clifton was signed to direct, but just after shooting started he had a heart attack and Lupino took over. "We shot the movie in eight days," Forrest later recalled. "Before shooting, the cast rehearsed for a week at Ida's house with Ida directing." The film was a hit, and Lupino than cast her protégé in Never Fear (1950), in which she played a dancer stricken with polio, and Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951), as a tennis star driven by an ambitious mother (Claire Trevor).

MGM offered Forrest a new contract, this time as a star, and she had strong roles in the superior thriller Mystery Street (1950), and the western Vengeance Valley (1951), in which she was an unwed mother again. She then teamed up with Red Skelton in the musical Excuse My Dust (1951), with songs by Arthur Schwartz and Johnny Mercer. Though a period tale, it included a sequence fashioned for Forrest by choreographer Hermes Pan, in which a character talks of the "jass music" that the future will bring, prompting a vision of the future with Forrest performing a torrid number with a male chorus.

She also danced in The Strip (1951), co-starring Mickey Rooney and Louis Armstrong, but the studio did not nurture her adequately, and in 1951 she was loaned to Universal for The Strange Door, a horror movie with Charles Laughton and Boris Karloff. Code Two (1953) was her last MGM movie, and she made her final two films at RKO – Son of Sinbad (1955), in which she performed a skimpily clad dance solo that allegedly pleased studio head Howard Hughes but not the censors, and her finest film, Fritz Lang's splendid newspaper thriller, While the City Sleeps (1956), in which her boyfriend (Dana Andrews) uses her as bait to trap a serial killer.

In 1953, Forrest and her husband moved to New York, where Forrest made her stage debut, taking over the leading role of "the girl upstairs" in The Seven Year Itch (the part Marilyn Monroe played on screen). She appeared in touring productions of such plays as Remains to be Seen (with Roddy McDowall), but her principal work was on television, acting in dramatic anthologies and dancing in musical specials.

In the Ford Star Jubilee spectacular You're the Top, a 1946 tribute to Cole Porter, she and George Chakiris danced two torrid routines that brought them an offer to play two weeks in Las Vegas. They were such a hit that they were kept on for 14 weeks. Forrest retired from performing in the late 1960s, though in 1984 she played the Ruby Keeler role in a San Diego production of No, No, Nanette.

Sally Forrest, actress: born San Diego, California 28 May 1928; married 1951 Milo O. Frank (died 2004); died Beverly Hills, California 15 March 2015.