Obituary: Eve Brent, actress

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Eve Brent had a tough act to follow when she achieved her big break in the movies in the late 1950s. Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan had already established themselves as the definitive Tarzan and Jane in the 1930s. It fell to Brent to reintroduce Jane Porter to the series after several films in which Tarzan seemed to be back in the singles market.

By this time Weissmuller had moved on and Tarzan was being played by the hunky American actor Gordon Scott. In 1958 Brent co-starred with Scott in Tarzan’s Fight for Life, in which Tarzan elicits the help of a modern doctor when Jane develops appendicitis, much to the displeasure of the local witch doctor who decides to have her killed.

Brent and Scott also began work on what was intended to be a Tarzan television series. But the TV show never happened and the episodes were stitched together and released in cinemas as Tarzan and the Trappers.

Jane did not quite provide the long-term meal ticket for which Brent might have hoped. The character was dropped again for the next film, the misleadingly titled Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure, in which Scott appeared alongside a young Scot by the name of Sean Connery, three years before his big break in another famous film series.

Brent might have faded back into obscurity at that point, but she stuck at it for several more decades and continued acting in Hollywood movies, some more prestigious than others.

In 1981 she won the best supporting actress award in the Saturn Awards, which celebrate the best in science-fiction, fantasy and horror, for her performance in Fade to Black. She played the wheelchair-bound aunt, the first victim of an obsessive film fan who takes on the personae of a series of movie villains, including Dracula and Norman Bates from Psycho.

Brent probably reached her biggest audience ever in 1999 when she appeared in The Green Mile, the film of Stephen King’s novella which was set on Death Row and starred Tom Hanks as a warden who is touched by one of the prisoners, a gentle giant of an African-American man, who patiently awaits execution after being convicted of raping and killing two white girls.

The film begins with Hanks’s character as an old man, now living in a nursing home, and Brent played his friend to whom he tells the story in flashback. It was a deeply touching movie and a box-office hit.

Brent was born, Jean Ann Ewers, in Houston, Texas, in 1929, though some sources suggest it was slightly later. Her mother was an actress and as a child she also began acting on radio, and on television as a teenager. She also appeared in numerous commercials. She was still in her teens when she married an air force officer. It was to be the first of five marriages. She also dated actor Red Buttons.

Brent arrived in Hollywood in the 1950s and began with small roles in film and television, combining her career with motherhood. Acting under the married name of Jean Lewis or Jean Ann Lewis, she appeared in the hit series Adventures of Superman, Highway Patrol and Dragnet.

Director Sam Fuller encouraged her to change her name to Eve Brent and cast her alongside Barbara Stanwyck in the 1957 western Forty Guns.

Brent was one of thousands of actresses considered to take over the role of Jane and it looked like providing her with a regular income for years to come, although she once said she took the part mainly to please her son, who was a big Tarzan fan.

At the time she said: “I have signed to make two Tarzans a year. It’s fun. It’s different. I wear a little sun suit, and I have to keep slim. When I’m working Gordon [Gordon Scott] makes me eat only raw carrots, honey, cottage cheese and vitamin pills.”

But Brent played the role in only two films and the heightened profile proved a mixed blessing. She said producers subsequently found it difficult to see her in other roles

“I really couldn’t get work as an actress because of Jane,” she said. “You get stereotyped, at least in the business at that time.” However, her view mellowed and she came to realise that Jane provided her with her own little entry in film history.

She appeared in a mixture of theatre, television and smaller, supporting roles in films, including the comedy A Guide for the Married Man. She had an uncredited roles as a prostitute in the Clint Eastwood film Coogan’s Bluff and as one of the passengers in Airport.

In 1978, she married for the fifth time and subsequently she once again used her married name on screen, acting as Eve Brent Ashe. In later life she landed a much wider variety of roles both in films and television, turning up in Thirtysomething, Twin Peaks, Frasier, the film Garfield, with Bill Murray, Scrubs and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

She is survived by her son.

BRIAN PENDREIGH