Ursula Thiess: Actress who worked with Robert Mitchum and Rock Hudson

Tom Vallance
Saturday 28 August 2010 00:00

Ursula Thiess was an exceptionally beautiful actress who is best remembered as the second wife, and ultimately widow, of Robert Taylor, one of Hollywood's handsomest leading men.

His first wife, from 1939 to 1951, was the actress Barbara Stanwyck, and for many years the couple were cited as proof that marriage between top stars could succeed, but Stanwyck divorced him while he was in Rome filming Quo Vadis?, and three years later he married Thiess.

"We met on a blind date arranged by the studio," Thiess recalled. "The press reported that Robert Taylor had finally met someone even prettier than he was, but he was warped about marriage, thanks to Barbara Stanwyck, and he was not about to make a commitment. I had to virtually break up our relationship to get him to realise he really loved me."

She was born Ursula Schmidt, in 1924, in Hamburg, Germany, where her father managed a print shop. She had a normal childhood until 1939, when the authorities of the Third Reich drafted her for one year as a farm labourer. Returning to Hamburg, she began her stage career, adopting the name Ursula Schmidt-Huss. She also dubbed female voices, including Dorothy Lamour's, in American films: "It was Lamour's face but MY voice when you saw the films over there," she later said.

In 1942 she married the producer George Thiess, by whom she had a son and daughter, and she kept his surname professionally, although they divorced in 1946.

In 1948 she started a modelling career in Berlin. Her face adorned the covers of many German magazines including Der Spiegel, and in 1951 she was on the cover of Life magazine in the US, described as "a rising German model". The eccentric tycoon Howard Hughes saw the photograph and summoned her to Hollywood with the offer of a contract with his studio, RKO. After a lengthy publicity campaign in which she was hailed as "the most beautiful girl in the world", he gave her star billing in Monsoon (1952), and the same year Modern Screen magazine voted her the year's "most promising star", in a tie with Marilyn Monroe.

The public were less impressed. Though based on a play by Jean Anouilh, the trite Monsoon, made in India with a colourless leading man, George Nader, did little business, and Thiess made just four more films in Hollywood, all of them action adventures in which the strongest roles were given to the men – The Iron Glove (1953) a a cut-price swashbuckler with Robert Stack; Bengal Brigade (1954) in which Rock Hudson valiantly trying to portray an English officer; and The Americano (1955) with Glenn Ford, whom she recalled telling her "I like to treat my ladies rough," and later proved it – were routine fare. Richard Fleischer's Bandido (1956), was the best of the bunch, a skilfully woven tale of gun-runners during the 1916 Mexican revolution, with strong performances from Robert Mitchum and Zachary Scott as rivals for both the weapons trade and Thiess, who is married to villainous Scott but falls for Mitchum.

In 1954 Thiess married Taylor, and after Bandido, finding that she was pregnant, she retired to settle with Taylor on a large ranch in the San Fernando Valley. The couple's close friend, the actor Chad Everett, described them as a "hand-holding" couple, and they had two children who would many years later reminisce about their loving upbringing.

Thiess returned briefly to acting with some appearances on her husband's television series The Detectives (1959-61), playing a police reporter who has an affair with Taylor's character. She also filled a guest spot in 77 Sunset Strip (1963).

Thiess suffered tragedy in 1969 when Michael, her son by her first marriage, after spending a year in prison for trying to poison his father, killed himself at the age of 24 with an overdose in a motel room. Thiess discovered his body, and less than two weeks later Robert Taylor, who smoked four or five packets of cigarettes a day, died of lung cancer. ("He begged the children never to start smoking, so they'll never have to try and quit!") Thiess made her final film in 1972, The Left Hand of Gemini; a science-fiction tale co-starring Ian McShane, it had limited release.

She eventually remarried, to the millionaire film distributor Marshall Schacker, who had homes in Los Angeles and Hawaii; he died in 1986. After recovering from surgery for a benign brain tumour in 1979, Thiess became an accomplished artist, and engaged in volunteer work at the Children's Hospital associated with the University of California in Los Angeles. In 2004 she wrote an autobiography, But I have promises to keep: My Life Before, With and After Robert Taylor.

Ursula Schmidt, actress: born Hamburg, Germany 15 May 1924; married 1942 George Thiess (marriage dissolved 1947; one son deceased, one daughter), 1953 Robert Taylor (died 1969; one son, one daughter), 1974 Marshall Schacker (died 1986); died Burbank, California 19 June 2010.

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