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Yvette Mimieux, who has died aged 80, was a blonde, blue-eyed American actress launched as a teenage sex symbol in a furry loincloth in a 1960 film adaptation of H G Wells’s The Time Machine.
With delicately pretty Hollywood looks that occupied “some vague region far west of Bardot and just east of Tuesday Weld” (in the words of one admiring critic) she debuted as a damsel in distress opposite Rod Taylor as Wells’s Victorian inventor in what became a classic big‑screen science fiction adventure.
At 17, she was underage when filming began, and ignored the rules about not working a full schedule. The cover of Life magazine pictured her under the headline “Warmly Wistful Starlet”. The following year she was cast in the teen sex comedy Where the Boys Are and in 1962 she was the beautiful but childlike daughter in Light in the Piazza with Olivia de Havilland and George Hamilton.
She continued to be cast as a sex kitten, making six films – many in eye-catching swimsuits – before she was 21. “I suppose I had a soulful quality,” she said. “I was often cast as a wounded person, the ‘sensitive’ role.” Although touted by MGM as a possible Lara in Dr Zhivago, from the mid-1960s she appeared in forgettable pictures including the Disney comedy Monkeys, Go Home!, The Caper of the Golden Bulls and The Neptune Factor.
Fearing that her screen career had peaked, she enrolled at UCLA, studied archaeology, took up writing and painting, and travelled the world. Discouraged by the lack of interesting roles for women, she began writing her own screenplays, some of which she sold to television.
The doyenne of American critics, Pauline Kael, thought Yvette Mimieux “a much better actress than the parts she gets”. Making a modest big-screen comeback in the 1970s, she took on the role of a falsely imprisoned woman victimised by a sadistic guard in Jackson County Jail (1976) with Tommy Lee Jones; this low-budget “drive-in movie” has since developed a cult following and in 1996 was selected by Quentin Tarantino for his film festival in Austin, Texas. Yvette Mimieux liked to play chess between scenes. After her last picture, with Joan Collins in Lady Boss in 1992, she started a business selling embroidery based on Haitian designs.
She always sought to protect her privacy. “I decided I didn’t want to have a totally public life,” she said in an interview. “When the fan magazines started wanting to take pictures of me making sandwiches for my husband, I said no.”
Yvette Carmen Mimieux was born in Los Angeles on January 8 1942 to a French father who was an occasional film extra, and a Mexican mother. She modelled as a teenager, before being spotted on horseback by a film publicist. When the director Vincente Minnelli saw her in a play he cast her in his melodrama Home From the Hill (1960) but she failed to make the final cut, and her first notable role was in Platinum High School (1960), which earned her a Golden Globe nomination as Most Promising Newcomer.
Signed to MGM after the success of The Time Machine, she was cast in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1961), an expensive flop; took a small part in The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1963); and the following year guest-starred in Dr Kildare alongside Richard Chamberlain, becoming, incidentally, the first person on American television to bare her navel.
In 1972 she co-starred with Charlton Heston as an air hostess in John Guillermin’s Skyjacked, but she had begun writing – journalism, poetry and short stories – as well as painting landscapes in Japan and working on archeological digs in Indonesia.
Increasingly she was disillusioned with the parts she was offered: “The women they [male screenwriters] write are all one-dimensional. They have no complexity in their lives… It’s all surface. There’s nothing to play. They’re either sex objects or vanilla pudding.”
When she wrote a thriller, she took the script to the producers Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg, who made it into a television film, Hit Lady (1974). In another TV movie, The Legend of Valentino (1975), she turned in a vivid performance as Natacha Rambova, the flamboyant designer who married the silent screen idol.
She was again on the big screen in The Black Hole (1979), Disney’s $20 million venture into sci-fi drama, and in Forbidden Love (1982) she played the Older Woman (“wasn’t it only yesterday she was the Younger Woman?” mused one reviewer), a divorced hospital administrator having an affair with a baby-faced doctor (Andrew Stevens). “Mimieux, as a loving pan up her bikini-clad body demonstrates, still looks dandy,” wrote the same critic.
For the psychological melodrama Obsessive Love (1984) she played a demented fan stalking her favourite soap opera star, played by the British actor Simon MacCorkindale. Yvette Mimieux herself created the original story after reading about John Hinckley’s obsession with the actress Jodie Foster which led to his attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan.
She was thrice married: first, in 1959, to a soldier in the US Army, Evan Engber; then, from 1972, to the film director Stanley Donen, with whom she lived for a time in London at Montpelier Square, Knightsbridge. After their divorce in 1985, she married an American businessman, Howard Ruby, who survives her.
Yvette Mimieux, born January 8 1942, died January 17 2022