Hollywood mourns the loss of a legend as Janet Leigh, the accidental superstar, dies at 77

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The Independent US

Janet Leigh will always be remembered as the fresh-faced woman who takes a shower in the Bates Motel only to be slashed to death - horribly, and without warning - before the end of the first reel of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. But she was also one of Hollywood's rare class acts, a woman of poise and tact who retained a certain outward formality, even when recounting the raciest details from her film career.

Janet Leigh will always be remembered as the fresh-faced woman who takes a shower in the Bates Motel only to be slashed to death - horribly, and without warning - before the end of the first reel of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. But she was also one of Hollywood's rare class acts, a woman of poise and tact who retained a certain outward formality, even when recounting the raciest details from her film career.

Yesterday, Hollywood was mourning a legend as Leigh's family announced her death at the age of 77. She had been suffering from vasculitis, an inflammation of the blood vessels. As the end came on Sunday afternoon, she was at her Beverly Hills home with her husband, Robert Brandt, and her two actress daughters, Kelly Curtis and Jamie Lee Curtis.

Leigh's was, in many ways, the quintessential Hollywood story. She was plucked from obscurity, signed as a contract player with MGM in the twilight years of the studio system, catapulted to stardom, less for her acting than for her marriage to a red-hot heartthrob, Tony Curtis, then found acclaim by playing against type in three landmark productions: Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, Hitchcock's Psycho, and paranoid Cold War thriller The Manchurian Candidate.

Her modesty and unfailingly deferential manner - to the end, she referred to her directors as Mr Hitchcock and Mr Welles - suggested she never forgot her origins as a small-town California girl made good, who owed her career as much to luck as to talent and charm.

Jeanette Helen Morrison, as she was named at birth, would never have broken into the movies at all had it not been for a chance visit by the actress Norma Shearer to a ski lodge where her father was working as a desk clerk in 1946. Shearer was taken both with Morrison senior and with the photographs he showed of his 19-year-old daughter. So she had the pictures blown up to publicity-shot size and showed them to her talent agency friends back in Los Angeles.

The pictures were nothing special, but Lew Wasserman, the ambitious head of MCA, saw them as a chance to flatter an important Hollywood figure (Shearer was, among other things, the widow of the MGM producer Irving Thalberg) and put one over a rival, Charlie Feldman at Famous Artists.

Leigh was working as a book-keeper for her bandleader husband Stan Reames and living in a cheap LA hotel. In no time, she was signed to MGM for $50 a week, even though her only acting experience was a high school production of The Pirates of Penzance.

A succession of roles as ingénues followed. Leigh appeared in six titles in 1949, and worked to master her craft. Then, her 1951 marriage to Curtis made her the darling of the gossip columnists - they were the Tom and Nicole of the day - and her career took off.

She appeared in four films with Curtis, including Houdini and The Vikings, before attracting Orson Welles' attention for his glorious B-movie about cross-border corruption, Touch of Evil in 1958. Leigh broke her arm shortly before shooting began, forcing Welles to photograph her from ingenious angles to conceal her plaster cast.

Two years later, Leigh helped make one of cinema's enduring images. The shower scene in Psycho was shot over seven days, culminating in the ghastly, wide-eyed scream that has remained so memorable - and left the actress with an aversion to showers that lasted for the rest of her life. She was not naked for the shoot but wore a flesh-coloured moleskin, and the blood was not stage blood but rather chocolate sauce, which looked more convincing as it was flushed down the plughole.

In The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Leigh played the love interest denied to Laurence Harvey's brainwashed war veteran - once again gently subverting the ingénue image on which she had traded for more than a decade. Although it was raised to cult status only in the past 15 years or so, Leigh always considered it a "dynamite film", according to her autobiography.

The end of her marriage to Curtis in 1962 also marked the end of her most fertile period as an actress. In later years, she turned frequently to light comedy, although her last screen appearance was opposite her daughter Jamie Lee in the horror picture The Fog (1980).

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