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Veteran Actor Vincent Price Dies at 82 : Hollywood: The 20th-Century Renaissance man enjoyed art, gourmet cooking and the lecture circuit. He never tired of being best known for portraying ghoulish villains.

October 26, 1993|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Vincent Price, art historian and collector, gourmet cook, author, raconteur and multifaceted "Merchant of Menace" best known for his blood-curdling roles in horror films, died Monday night at his home in the Hollywood Hills. He was 82.

The veteran actor succumbed to lung cancer after a long battle with the disease, according to his personal assistant, Reg Williams.

Tall, graceful, worldly and well-spoken (he was educated at Yale and the University of London), Price became a popular lecturer on college campuses and guest on television talk shows, passing along such non-bloodthirsty tidbits as how to cook fish in a dishwasher.

But unlike most actors who gained fame in their younger years, Price retained box office appeal well into in his 70s, when he was still reaching into new entertainment venues, performing briefly in Michael Jackson's music video "Thriller" and as the voice of the rat in Disney's animated "The Great Mouse Detective."

Although something of a 20th-Century Renaissance man, Price was remembered best by mass audiences as a slimy, horrifying ghoul.

"I think I've made 110 pictures and only 20 of them have been in the thriller category," he said in 1986. "But that is what people remember. I guess it all started with 'The House of Wax,' one of the greatest successes in that field. I've been stuck with it ever since."

The "House of Wax" (1953) gave the genre and Price an extra boost because it introduced the short-lived technique of three-dimensional movies. As the evil proprietor of a wax museum who chose to coat real bodies with wax--after he had killed them--the actor literally reached out to audiences wearing special viewing glasses for the three-dimensional effect.

Price's other horror films included a series based on the writings of Edgar Allen Poe (whom Price considered the greatest American author)--"The Raven," "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The House of Usher," "Tales of Terror," "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Masque of the Red Death" and "The Tell-Tale Heart."

Price was still a force in film at age 80, when he performed a typical role as the kindly creator of a fantasy teen-ager, Edward Scissorhands. His character died before he had completed the youth's hands, leaving dangerous metal scissors at the ends of his wrists.

Price frequently borrowed Poe's climactic line from "The Raven" when asked all too frequently if he objected to being type-cast as a villain:

"Nevermore."

"It's the fact that you are type-cast that gives you your fame," he told The Times in 1985. "I'm not the least bit disappointed that I'm remembered primarily for my horror roles.

"We were all very serious about those pictures," he said of his colleagues in the fright fraternity. "Boris (Karloff), Basil (Rathbone), Peter (Lorre) and I knew we weren't doing 'Hamlet,' but we also thought we were doing marvelous entertainment."

"I've just done everything," he told another questioner, "but I feel that I've had a good life. I haven't been as 'successful' as some people, but I've certainly had more fun."

Although his distinguished speech caused many to think Price was a native of Britain, he was born in St. Louis, the youngest of four children of well-to-do Margaret and Vincent Leonard Price. His grandfather had made a fortune in baking powder, but lost it in the economic crash of 1893. His father was able to save and make a success of one subsidiary, the National Candy Co., which provided sweets for the nation's five-and-dime stores.

Price decided as a child that he wanted to be an actor, but he had better luck grounding himself in food and art. In his acting debut--as an angel in the school Christmas play--he forgot his lines.

He learned his culinary skills from his mother--"a one-woman home economics class. We learned about cooking. We learned about sewing. I still mend suits and I do it very well."

As for the fine arts, at 12 he bought his first piece, a Rembrandt etching, for $37.50--paying "$5 down and 50 cents a month for the rest of my natural life."

Developing his early talents, Price went on to write a cookbook, "A Treasury of Great Recipes," and instruct Johnny Carson and the nation watching "The Tonight Show" on how to prepare fish in a dishwasher:

"Tightly wrap trout in foil with lemon, wine, parsley, salt and pepper. Put it through the whole cycle. No soap!"

He also wrote art books, such as "I Like What I Know" and "Treasury of American Art;" a book on monsters with his son, Barrett, and one about his dog called "Book of Joe."

A well-received lecture at East Los Angeles College in Monterey Park led him late in life to donate the art and then endow the Vincent Price Gallery at the community college. He normally was booked a year in advance for about 60 lectures a season on food, art and Hollywood monsters.

He also found time to act, although it took him a while to get started.

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