Noreen Nash, actress who appeared in Giant, James Dean’s final film – obituary

Noreen Nash during the making of Giant
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Noreen Nash, who has died aged 99, was an actress who established herself in the 1940s and 1950s; she often played second fiddle to the female lead in big pictures while headlining in “B” movies.

The biggest film she appeared in was James Dean’s last, the 1920s-set Western Giant, directed by George Stevens and co-starring Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson; she played Lona Lane, a glamorous actress.

“What I remember most is, by the time I got on that picture, George Stevens and James Dean were at each other,” she recalled. “Dean did his usual mumbling and Stevens kept saying: ‘This script cost a lot of money. I want to hear those words!’ George didn’t like James’s style of acting.”

In 2002, when she travelled to London for the retrospective of the Hollywood paparazzo Frank Worth, Noreen Nash did the rounds of chat shows, and recalled a bet Elizabeth Taylor had made with Rock Hudson about which of them could seduce Dean first.

With Gene Raymond in Assigned to Danger
With Gene Raymond in Assigned to Danger - Everett/Alamy

“I had an idea Rock would win, but Elizabeth wasn’t so sure,” she said. “James was troubled but gorgeous. Elizabeth won.”

She was born Norabelle Jean Roth on April 4 1924 in Wenatchee, Washington, where her father Albert owned a Coca-Cola bottling plant, while her mother Gail was a school teacher. Academically excellent, Norabelle had little idea of becoming an actress until she won the title of “Apple Blossom Queen” in her home town.

Her prize was a trip to Hollywood, spending her time between photoshoots doing the rounds of studios, promoting Washington apples. When she was visiting the Warner Bros lot she was spotted by one of their talent scouts, Solly Biano, who secured her a screen test.

Though it was unsuccessful, Bob Hope’s agent Louis Shurr had already spotted the youngster dining with her mother at the Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood, and within a week she had a contract with MGM.

With Darryl Hickman in The Devil on Wheels
With Darryl Hickman in The Devil on Wheels - Everett/Alamy

She made her debut as a showgirl in the 1943 Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney musical Girl Crazy (1943) followed by a series of other uncredited roles over the next three years. Meanwhile, in 1942, after a whirlwind engagement of six weeks, she married Dr Lee Siegel, “doctor to the stars”, the house medic at 20th Century Fox.

“Lee had stories on all the stars,” she recalled in 2011. “I received the most lavish gifts from Garbo, Ava Gardner and Joan Crawford – in truth they were buying my silence, for if I were to talk, I could be more damaging than Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons and all the other Hollywood gossip columnists rolled into one.”

In 1943, she modelled with another Hollywood aspirant, Marilyn Monroe. “We did a couple of shoots together,” Noreen Nash recalled. “On the first day she was her natural colour, on the second day she was platinum blonde. She was a smart girl even then. She knew how to flirt with the photographer to get the best results.”

The 1947 gambling drama The Big Fix
The 1947 gambling drama The Big Fix - LMPC via Getty Images

In 1945 her agent suggested she change her name, and as Noreen Nash she played a farmer’s daughter in Jean Renoir’s Oscar-nominated drama The Southerner, which chronicled the struggles of an impoverished family in Texas.

Two years later, alongside Terry Moore, she was one of the first actresses to wear a bikini on screen when she played a judge’s daughter in The Devil on Wheels, the first film to explore the youth craze for street racing in hot rods.

Noreen Nash was busy in 1948: in the US-Mexican co-production The Adventures of Casanova she played a lady-in-waiting; in the film noir Assigned to Danger she had a meaty role as a getaway driver’s sister who becomes mixed up with his gang when he is killed on a job; she had a small part in a drama about dog-fighting, The Tender Years; and in The Checkered Coat she played the wife of a psychiatrist helping police hunt a murderous psychopath.

With her husband Dr Lee Siegel, 'Doctor to the Stars', at Ciro's night club in Hollywood in 1955
With her husband Dr Lee Siegel, 'Doctor to the Stars', at Ciro's night club in Hollywood in 1955 - Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Noreen Nash also made a name for herself in Westerns such as The Red Stallion and Storm Over Wyoming, then into the next decade she played Passion Flower in Aladdin and His Lamp (1952), and the following year was in the forgettable Phantom from Space, about an alien who wreaks havoc after landing in Santa Monica.

Giant (1956) proved to be Noreen Nash’s last role of note, and she bowed out after the comedy Wake Me When It’s Over (1962). She went on to graduate in history from UCLA in 1971, and in 1980 she wrote a romantic novel, By Life Fulfilled, about a 16th-century doctor. In 2015 she collaborated with Jeanne Rejaunier on Titans of the Muses: When Henry Miller Met Jean Renoir.

Lee Siegel died in 1989, and in 2001 Noreen Nash married the actor James Whitmore at his Malibu beach house. Happy to live in his shadow, she refused all film offers. He died in 2007, and she is survived by two sons from her first marriage.

Noreen Nash, born April 4 1924, died June 6 2023

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