Obituary: Suzanna Leigh, actress, interior designer, encyclopaedia seller

Suzanna Leigh, actress. Born: 26 July, 1945, in Reading. Died of cancer: 11 December, 2017, in Winter Garden, Florida, aged 72.

Film stars Roger Moore, Peter McEnery, Hannah Gordon, Sandor Eles and Suzanna Leigh arrive at Turnhouse Airport for the opening of the Edinburgh ABC cinema
Film stars Roger Moore, Peter McEnery, Hannah Gordon, Sandor Eles and Suzanna Leigh arrive at Turnhouse Airport for the opening of the Edinburgh ABC cinema

When she was 11 Sandra Smith decided she would pay a visit to the home of film star Vivien Leigh who lived just a few streets away in the affluent Belgravia district of London. Sandra’s dad, a successful racehorse owner and gambler, had told her that Leigh was her godmother.

Sandra thought it only polite to make contact and tell her that she was going to be a film star too and that she was dumping the rather bland moniker Sandra Smith and adopting instead the name Suzanna Leigh.

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Sandra was a big fan not only of Vivien Leigh, but also of Elvis Presley who was shaking up the charts at the time. Her dream about becoming a film star took a sharper focus when she decided she wanted, quite specifically, to be the romantic lead in a movie opposite Elvis.

Ten years later, as Suzanna Leigh, she had fulfilled the childhood dream, starring opposite Elvis in Paradise – Hawaiian Style (1966).

And although her Hollywood career was cut short by a union dispute, she went on to star in a string of English movies in the 1960s and 1970s, including The Deadly Bees (1966), The Lost Continent (1968) – attracted by the promise that she could design her own costumes, and Lust for a Vampire (1971), assuring her a certain cult status among horror fans.

She was born Sandra Eileen Anne Smith in Reading in 1945. She was very close to her father, but he died when she was six. She said her mother took little interest in her and she was sent off to a convent school until she persuaded her mother to send her to a school specialising in drama and the arts instead.

She followed Vivien Leigh’s career with special interest before summoning up the courage to pay her a visit. A natural raconteur, Suzanna Leigh recalled the visit at a personal appearance at the Monsterama fan convention in Atlanta in 2016: “The door opened and the butler says (adopting a deep, authoritative butler voice), ‘Yes, young lady, and who are you and what do you want?’

“So I said, ‘Oh, hello, my name is Suzanna Leigh, but it’s not actually Suzanna Leigh yet, but it will be.’

“Suddenly I hear this voice (she adopts a rather posh female voice), ‘Who is that James?’”

And back in character as the butler Suzanna Leigh says: “’ It’s a young person, my lady, who wishes to see you about her name.”

She was ushered into Vivien Leigh’s presence and performed an excerpt from Sabrina Fair, recently filmed with Audrey Hepburn. Vivien remembered her father and was very supportive and encouraging.

Within a year or two Sandra Smith was getting small roles in British films as Suzanna Leigh. At 16 she blagged her way to a leading role in the popular French television drama series Trois Etoiles en Touraine, claiming to speak French when her knowledge of the language did not extend much beyond a restaurant menu.

While making Trois Etoiles en Touraine, Suzanna Leigh heard that the leading American producer Hal Wallis was in London looking to sign a promising young actress for his Hollywood movies, because his contract with Shirley MacLaine had come to an end.

Feigning exhaustion, Leigh begged for time off filming, flew to London, went straight to the Dorchester Hotel and insisted on auditioning for him, even though he was apparently on the point of signing Samantha Eggar.

Her audition impressed Wallis so much that he changed his mind and at 19 Leigh was in Hollywood co-starring with Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis in the comedy Boeing Boeing, which was followed by Paradise – Hawaiian Style with Elvis.

The reality lived up to the childhood fantasy. “We had so much fun and I loved my time with Elvis,” Leigh said later. Photographs of them kissing appeared in magazines all over the world.

They were both under contract with Hal Wallis, who in turn had a deal with Paramount, and they might have made more movies together, but a union row blew up over foreign actors and actresses in Hollywood and Leigh found herself sidelined.

Leigh was young and impatient and decided to return to England to make the Paramount horror movie The Deadly Bees (1966). It was followed by Deadlier than the Male (1967), with Elke Sommer and Richard Johnson as the fictional adventurer Bulldog Drummond. It was one of a series of film that attempted to cash in on the success of James Bond around that time with only limited success.

Leigh continued to work through the late 1960s and first half of the 1970s, starring in Hammer’s Lust for a Vampire and the spoof Son of Dracula (1974), which was produced by the Beatles’ company Apple Films, with Harry Nilsson as Dracula’s offspring Count Downe and Ringo Starr as Merlin.

But then the roles dried up. A single mother, with a daughter to support, Leigh set up an interior design business, sold off her jewellery, taught etiquette, speech and diction, sold Encyclopaedia Britannica at Heathrow Airport and for a while was on benefits.

Latterly she moved back to the United States and wrote her memoirs, entitled Paradise, Suzanna Style, a reference to the film she made with Elvis. She is survived by her daughter Natalia Leigh, who is an actress and acting teacher in the US.