Suzanna Leigh: Elvis Presley co-star who lost out on Hollywood break and had to eke out a living in UK

Wrangling between film unions cost her work that might have made her as big a star as her inspiration Vivien Leigh – she even sold encyclopaedias to make ends meet

Christine Manby
Tuesday 19 December 2017 16:23
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Leigh with Elvis Presley in the 1966 movie ‘Paradise, Hawaii Style’
Leigh with Elvis Presley in the 1966 movie ‘Paradise, Hawaii Style’

If there was ever proof of the value of knocking on doors, it’s the life story of actress Suzanna Leigh.

Born plain Sandra Smith in Berkshire, to a property developer mother and professional gambler dad, the convent-educated schoolgirl was aged just 11 when she acted on a family legend that her godmother was Vivien Leigh. When she turned up on the actress’s doorstep in London’s Eaton Place, the original Ms Leigh said she had attended so many christenings that she had no idea if Sandra was her goddaughter or not, but she encouraged the aspiring actress to use her name.

“It was really exciting,” the actress, who has died aged 72, told The Independent in 1999, which noted a black-and-white photo of Vivien Leigh in her kitchen. “She was so fantastic to me. She said that so many of my dreams seemed like hers.”

With her glamorous new pseudonym, Suzanna Leigh was 13 when she made her film debut in the 1958 George Pal film Tom Thumb.

It’s said that Leigh was following Vivien’s example when she later knocked on the door of Hollywood producer Hal Wallis. Captivated by her beauty, he cast her opposite Tony Curtis in Boeing Boeing and sent her to Hawaii to play Elvis Presley’s love interest in 1966’s Paradise, Hawaii Style. The rock’n’roll star, whom Leigh once called a “fabulous actor”, became a firm friend.

After playing opposite Elvis, Leigh’s ascent to mega-stardom seemed assured, but while she went on to play the lead in several horror films, including The Deadly Bees (1967), and had her own series in France, Trois étoiles en touraine (1966), politics were to bring her Hollywood acting career to a halt. A dispute between the American Screen Actors Guild and its UK equivalent Equity saw Leigh lose a number of possibly pivotal roles. And while she continued to act in films in the UK, including Son of Dracula (1974), in which she played opposite Ringo Starr, she never recovered the stellar trajectory of her early career.

Bad luck also played its part. In 1972, she became involved with Tim Hue Williams, father of her only child, Natalia. Hue Williams abandoned Leigh during her pregnancy and refused to pay child support. Natalia became Leigh’s sole focus. She sold all her assets to pay for treatment of Natalia’s childhood illness, saying, “It’s only money and I have my daughter.”

Leigh with Roger Moore in TV's ‘The Saint’ (Rex)

Leigh’s early resourcefulness came to the fore again as she fought to ensure her daughter’s health and happiness. She gave classes in diction and etiquette and even sold encyclopaedias – knocking on those doors again – before falling back on her friendship with Elvis to become a celebrity guide at Graceland.

In 2000 Leigh published her biography, Paradise, Suzanna Style. Her friendship with Elvis had continued to define her career. Later she became “plagued with doubts” about the manner of his death. In 2011 Leigh suggested Elvis had been murdered by the mob. As she uncovered evidence, Leigh claims she herself became a target. The wheel nuts on her truck were loosened.

Throughout her life, Leigh was sustained by notions of spirituality. In 2014 compilation book Chicken Soup For The Soul: Touched by an Angel, she recounted several instances in which divine guidance had supposed saved her life.

Nearly 50 years earlier she had refused to board a doomed flight from London to Rome. A year later, she claimed to have heard a voice saying “slow down” just before all four tyres on her car burst. Recalling her friendship with Sharon Tate, she said, “If I’d stayed in Hollywood I might have died! …I’d have been at that lunch where the guests were murdered by Charles Manson… My god, aren’t I lucky!”

Leigh’s career was just beginning to warm up again when she was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer in 2016. She had recently published two more books, and had appeared in 2015’s Grace of the Father.

Her daughter Natalia Leigh Denny, who also became an actress, wrote of her mother’s death: “The world will forever be a little less light and magical.”

Suzanna Leigh, actress, born 26 July 1945, died 11 December 2017

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