March 1 (Bloomberg) -- Jane Russell, the actress whose buxom figure often hid her talent for comedy in movies such as “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” with Marilyn Monroe, has died. She was 89.
She died yesterday of respiratory failure at her home in Santa Maria, California, the Associated Press reported, citing her family.
Russell’s film career started with her much-publicized discovery by billionaire Howard Hughes. The industrialist first cast her in “The Outlaw,” a western ostensibly about Billy the Kid that he produced and directed. He also designed a seamless brassiere to showcase his female star’s outstanding assets.
In her autobiography years later, Russell called the Hughes bra “uncomfortable and ridiculous.” She wore her usual bra in the movie and Hughes never knew the difference, Russell said.
Though Hughes began filming in 1941, the era’s censors held back the movie’s nationwide release until 1949. The “Outlaw” posters Hughes concocted made Russell a favorite pinup before the movie’s release. Her half-open blouse (and the censors) provided all the publicity the picture needed.
The judiciary also boosted the appeal of the movie and its star. “We have seen Jane Russell. She is an attractive specimen of American womanhood. God made her what she is,” declared Judge Twain Michelsen after a San Francisco jury acquitted “The Outlaw” of indecency charges.
Behind her sultry screen image, Russell was an evangelical Christian who had grown up in prayer meetings. She used some of her movie earnings to help build a rustic chapel for her mother’s ministry.
A year after filming “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953), Russell formed a trio with Beryl Davis and Connie Haines that sang religious songs for 30 years, donating the proceeds to churches and adoption groups.
Jane Russell was born on June 21, 1921, in Bemidji, Minnesota. As a child she moved with her parents to Los Angeles, where her four brothers were born.
She began acting in plays at Van Nuys High School, where Bob Waterfield was the star quarterback, a future pro-football Hall of Fame member, as well as her future husband.
After high school, she took office jobs and modeled clothes for photographer Tom Kelley, who gained fame later for his calendar photos of Marilyn Monroe. A talent agent submitted one of Kelley’s photos of Russell to Hughes when he searched for an unknown actress to star in “The Outlaw.” She got the part after a screen test that featured a fight in a haystack.
Russell remained under contract to Hughes for 14 years. In 1948, he permitted her to accept the role of Calamity Jane opposite Bob Hope in “The Paleface” (1948).
She surprised critics with her deadpan comic delivery, providing her career with some momentum. Still, she said that most of her two dozen movie roles proved a letdown.
“I loved being on the set,” Russell wrote in her 1985 autobiography. “I loved the actual work. It was the results that were disappointing.”
When her film career came to an end, the actress made her Broadway debut in 1971, following Elaine Stritch in the role of Joanne in “Company.” Later, she made Playtex bra commercials for 15 years “for us full-figured gals.”
Russell and Waterfield were married while he was still the quarterback at UCLA. Unable to have a child, they adopted three children in the 1950s.
After discovering firsthand that adoptions overseas were mired in red tape, Russell succeeded in lobbying Congress to ease the regulations then in force. To aid her cause, she also founded and helped finance the Women’s Adoption International Fund to facilitate U.S. adoptions of foreign orphans.
Russell and Waterfield divorced after 25 years of marriage. Russell was widowed after two subsequent marriages. She had a daughter, Tracy, and two sons, Thomas and Robert.