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Diane Varsi; Actress Was Oscar Nominee for 1st Role

November 23, 1992|BURT A. FOLKART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Diane Varsi, an actress nominated for an Academy Award after only her first screen appearance but who soon abandoned Hollywood, saying that she found acting "personally destructive," has died.

Miss Varsi, probably best known for her Oscar-nominated role as Lana Turner's daughter in the 1957 melodrama "Peyton Place," was 54 when she died Thursday in Los Angeles.

Her daughter, Willo Hausman, said her mother had moved here from Northern California several months ago and died of respiratory problems. Miss Varsi also suffered from Lyme disease, an inflammation of the joints that can affect the heart and nervous system.

Born in San Mateo, Calif., into a broken home, she was an admittedly "difficult and temperamental child" who was raised in a series of schools and convents. She married briefly at 15 and for a second time at 17. By her 21st birthday she had been divorced twice, had a son, Shawn, and had landed a prime screen role in "Peyton Place." This came after working in various jobs, including apple picker and factory worker.

The tall starlet made her start in the entertainment world as a folk singer and drummer with a local band.

She studied acting in Los Angeles with Jeff Corey, who recommended his shy student to Mark Robson, a director who was casting "Peyton Place." Robson made her Turner's troubled daughter, Allison MacKenzie, in the film, based on the best-selling novel by Grace Metalious. It won nine Oscar nominations but no awards.

To prepare for the role, she told This Week magazine in 1958, she read the novel six times and the screenplay 30 times, making copious notes about Allison's appearance, education and attitude toward sex.

After that studied performance, she made two more pictures in quick succession, "From Hell to Texas," a chase Western starring Don Murray, and "Ten North Frederick," in which her portrayal of Gary Cooper's daughter lent her credence as a serious actress.

But she also became known as a difficult interview, a thoughtful introvert in an industry dominated by ego who would answer questions with more questions.

Despite her seeming lack of interest in stardom, interviewers came under her spell. Hedda Hopper called her "the most interesting (film) personality of 1958." Joe Hyams said she was "the Marlon Brando of actresses."

But after one more screen role ("Compulsion" in 1959), she moved to Bennington, Vt., and a simpler life, saying that "acting is destructive to me. I don't see any reason to be made miserable just because other people say I should go on with my career."

She said she had become attracted to New England while filming parts of "Peyton Place" there. By leaving town she also walked out on a long-term 20th Century Fox contract. That kept her from films until 1965 when the contract expired and her interest in acting was seemingly reborn.

In the interim she married for the third time--to artist Michael Hausman--and bore a daughter. She also is survived by a grandson.

Miss Varsi made a series of low-budget features on her return ("Sweet Love Bitter," "Wild in the Streets," "Killers Three," and others) and a 1966 featured TV appearance in a two-part "Dr. Kildare."

In 1971, she quit making what she called "cheap films of little merit" and took the role of a compassionate nurse opposite Donald Sutherland and Jason Robards Jr. in Dalton Trumbo's bitter anti-war film, "Johnny Got His Gun."

It was, she said, "the kind of role I've always wanted . . . but it's been a long wait."

At the time she was living in San Rafael with her two children and doing some photography and writing. She made a TV movie of the week in 1972 called "The People" and a final feature film, "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden," in 1977. But that virtually was the end of her career.

She had walked away from Hollywood for the final time, as might have been predicted by this 1967 comment to United Press International:

"I don't understand the term movie star. It doesn't mean much to me."

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