The first story run in the publication Point North Tidings was on an actress whose life is an outstanding testimony as to what faith and prayer can do. Certainly Rhonda Fleming is living proof of that. What especially interested this writer is that she was one of those instrumental in the movement for Christians to be recognized and appreciated in what some refer to as the Golden Age of Hollywood. The movement among so many young Christians today, who are working on faith and family films, owes a great deal to her. I have had the opportunity to visit with Rhonda in her beautiful home and to talk with her many times in person as well as by phone, regular post and email. She has miraculously escaped harm and attributes such moments of survival to divine intervention. “I have often found myself saying ‘Lord you really must have a purpose for me.” Rhonda states “I gave my life to the Lord in Forest Home at 18 and He has always had His hand on me.”
Born Marilyn Louis on August 10, 1923 in Hollywood, California to Effie Olivia Graham, a famous model and actress in New York and businessman, Harold Louis, the future international film star grew up with aspirations to be a singer. It was during her years while attending Beverly Hills High School that Rhonda Fleming’s day of discovery would arrive. One day while running late to school, a seemingly suspicious car circled around the block observing her. “Finally, he stopped me,” Rhonda recalls, “and got out of the car and said ‘Young lady, have you ever thought of being in motion pictures?’ Well he turned out to be Henry Wilson, a famous agent who later became David O. Selznick’s right arm and started me on what I call a ‘Cinderella Story.’
Upon Rhonda’s future introduction to Selznick, the famed producer was so impressed that he signed her, without a screen test, to a seven year contract and offered her a featured role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. Rhonda says, “I had hoped to do some singing, but at the time I got into show business, musicals were not being made quite as often and Selznick did not do musicals. I wound up playing a patient at a mental institution with Ingrid Bergman as my doctor.” She won rave reviews for handling a very challenging role.
Rhonda did two more film noir classics, The Spiral Staircase, and Out of the Past. She also had a top featured role in her first Western film, Abilene Town, with Randolph Scott.
A tip from Hitchcock to Paramount landed her first starring role in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court opposite Bing Crosby. Hundreds of actresses tested to play the exquisite Lady Alisande, but Bing Crosby and director Tay Garnett felt that Rhonda Fleming was perfect for this technicolor musical extravaganza with her beautiful reddish hair, emerald green eyes, and lovely singing voice.
Rhonda was thrilled to star above the title with Bing Crosby, who never wanted to star alone, whom she pronounces as one of her favorite people to work with. “He’d be telling a story right before the director would say ‘Action’ and he’d go right on with the joke then into his line in the scene without missing a beat. And I wouldn’t know where my cue was because I was so focused on the joke. I’d tell him, ‘You can’t do that.’ He’d say ‘Oh come off it Fleming.’ We kidded a lot. We had fun.”
One day Bob Hope came on the set, Bing introduced us and he said to the crooner, “Well Bing, if you can use her, I guess I can too.” Rhonda made two films with the popular comedian. The first was a comedy film noir The Great Lover and the second a Western comedy, Alias Jesse James. In the latter there were a host of Western favorites in cameo roles including Roy Rogers, Gary Cooper, James Arness, Hugh O’Brian and Jay Silverheels.
She was amazed at how much work went into Hope’s performances and contrasts his approach to that of Bing Crosby. “Bing was so easy going and very relaxed and Bob would rehearse and rehearse I wondered, ‘how did they make all those Road pictures together because their styles were so different.”
About her natural acting ability Rhonda says “I was never trained but inherited my talent from my mother; I just tried to be believable and mean what I was saying – and it was so interesting, most directors would let me do my thing, they didn’t really direct me and my work – just suggestions that helped.” She never had any trouble with any directors except one and that led to her friendship with a future president. This was in a film in which she co-starred with Ronald Reagan. “This director really made life difficult for me. There wasn’t any reason for it, because I got along with everyone on the set. And did my job and was always prepared.” The director became so insulting during one scene Rhonda actually burst into tears and walked off the set. “I went to my dressing room to patch up my makeup, and I was sitting there thinking to myself ‘Should I go home or what?’” Shortly thereafter there was a knock on the door…it was Ronald Reagan. He said, ‘come on back to the set, Rhonda, he’ll never do that again.’ I was able to hold my chin up and continue, but I would have gone home that day if it hadn’t been for Ronald Reagan. He was a wonderful peacemaker.”
The teaming of Fleming and Reagan resulted in four films, The Last Outpost, Tropic Zone, Hong Kong, and Tennessee’s Partner. In The Last Outpost a.k.a. Calvary Charge Rhonda says “Reagan was at his best, and even then I could see what he was coming into. He sent for his horse from his ranch, riding beautifully, and had a take-charge way about him. He was always holding court on the set, and often when I was in the dressing room changing hairdos or costumes I could hear Ronnie and all the crew outside laughing and talking politics.”
Over the years Rhonda remained good friends with Ronnie and Nancy Reagan. The veteran actress has fond memories of her first visit to the Reagan White House, saying “I stood in the reception line and gave Nancy a hug, and I was thinking. ‘What am I going to say to him now that he is president?’ All I could think of was that I made four B-pictures with this man who was a fellow actor-a good actor. And the first thing that came to mind was the last film we made together. So I said ‘Hi Tennessee’s Partner’ and he laughed and gave me a big hug.”
Her many other films, which are often shown today on cable television stations, include The Redhead and the Cowboy, Pony Express, The Eagle and the Hawk, Those Redheads From Seattle, Jivaro, Yankee Pasha, Slightly Scarlet and the celebrated classic Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. There were some forty films in all.
Unfortunately her many excellent TV performances are not as available today for fans except on cable channels that are bringing back the great shows. Rhonda particularly enjoyed working on two episodes of Wagon Train, one in which her singing and dancing were showcased. She also guest starred in a 90 minute episode of The Virginian, which would later serve as a riveting pilot for the Western spin-off Laredo. In addition to TV Westerns she also starred in mystery dramas including The Dick Powell Theater and Hong Kong. Her dramatic TV work extended into the eighties with appearances on Police Woman and The Love Boat.
Singing has remained a first love and she has two albums to her credit. In the ‘50s Rhonda joined a gospel singing group known as The Four Girls. With her was Jane Russell, Connie Haines, and Beryl Davis. They were a hit on TV and stage and they were encouraged to make an album which was titled Make a Joyful Noise Unto The Lord. Spirituals on pop labels was something not done, but the album soared on the charts. Later she was invited to open the new ‘Tropicana Hotel’ in Las Vegas following Eddie Fisher which led to great reviews – her singing on stage caused her to be persuaded to record an album of classic love songs simply titled Rhonda.
Rhonda Fleming performed dozens of her own stunts, having been a natural athlete since childhood. And with being engaged in numerous adventurous escapades also came her share of spills. “I was a real daredevil when I was young and foolish” Rhonda admits, “and paid the price.” At the age of 12 she was tattered and torn after being stirrup dragged across a bed of gravel by a skittish horse; and at the age of 14, nearly drowned when she was twirled vehemently by a massive riptide off the coast of the Pacific Ocean. Another time while making The Redhead and the Cowboy she reports, “they wanted to get a close-up of me rearing a horse without using a stunt girl but never told me it was up a hill. So in the scene I was riding up hill and I reared the horse up too high and it almost fell back on top of me. By the Grace of God I was not squashed like a bug. I was knocked unconscious. How I got up and walked away and finished that film was another miracle.”
Mishaps such as these, whether on a movie set or in her personal life have led Rhonda Fleming to feel that God’s protecting Hand has always been present. It was during her 23 year marriage to theater mogul,Ted Mann, until his demise, that Rhonda’s thoughts about being a recipient of miracles were confirmed. While vacationing in Jamaica, the actress decided to go snorkeling with a group of tourists, as Mann, who was not a swimmer, stayed on shore. She was so busy enjoying the underwater scenery that she soon found herself far behind the pack. “I looked back and saw Ted standing by himself on the beach and I thought, ‘I better get back’ because I was really tired, and my breathing was getting a little tougher. I started to head back, and I hyperventilated. I’m a swimmer, but I could not stay above water. It was like two hands pulling my feet and legs under and I let out ‘Help me, help me.!’ “Not being a swimmer Mann could not do anything. Rhonda cried out the last “Help me!” and immediately began to submerge. “This is where every time I tell this story, I get goose bumps and tears,” she shares. “because suddenly there is a man standing next to Ted, and he was not there before.” Finally realizing Rhonda was in danger – Mann turned to the stranger and said “Oh, go! Go!”. No time was wasted. Rhonda continues “This man came out to me so fast because I went under, and he grabbed me by the elbow and took me into shore.” The man who saved Rhonda Fleming’s life vanished as mysteriously as he appeared. “He found some paper bag from who knows where, and had me breath into it, and then he was gone.” Rhonda asked Ted later “Where did he come from?” And Ted replied, “I don’t know”. Rhonda says “In my heart I knew it was an angel. I have been saved so many times. It’s by His grace that I’m here today. I think God always intervened because he had a higher purpose for me.”
Rhonda Fleming’s purpose has been revealed by the positive effects of her many philanthropic efforts. Along with her late husband Ted Mann, she established the Rhonda Fleming Mann Clinic for Comprehensive Care for Women with Cancer at UCLA and the Rhonda Fleming Research Fellowship at the City of Hope to advance research and treatment associated with women’s cancer. Rhonda started the clinic in memory of her sister Beverly, who died of Ovarian cancer in 1990. “We wanted a place where there was caring, compassion, communication, and concern, with clinical social workers, support groups, and lots of information and hope. I told my sister not long before she died that all the tender loving care that she and I had yearned for but never found when she was treated would be available to women. She said ‘Oh, Honey, I’m so glad. Just always make it a place of hope.’ And that’s what we did. Beverly always had hope. She survived many more years than she would have with the rare form of Ovarian cancer she had. Her courage and her sense of strength really encouraged me to move forward with God’s help.”
Rhonda has also been a big supporter of Childhelp USA, a non-profit organization dedicated to the care and treatment of child abuse and neglect. Moreover her main emphasis today is reaching out to the homeless via PATH (People Assisting The Homeless) with her Rhonda Fleming Family Center. According to PATH CEO, Joel Roberts vision, PATH gives thousands of people per year a new lease on life, including our veterans.
She meets regularly with a group of “Prayer Warriors” to pray for individuals, groups, and situations. She believes very strongly in prayer and its ability to heal.
A special blessing for Rhonda was Darol Wayne Carlson. Widowed for two years after the death of Ted Mann, Rhonda ran into Darol who was an old friend and whose wife had also died. A deeply Christian man, they make a good team and have been married now for more than ten years – a double blessing for all who know them.
Rhonda Fleming-movie star, mother, grandmother, philanthropist, and humanitarian shares her personal philosophy. “To me, the key to a rich inner life is love-the ability to love, to have love, to give love, to share love, to feel love. It’s not always easy and it’s not always reciprocal. Jesus taught us how to love. That’s what He came for because He is pure love.”
In retrospect, Rhonda sees her life mirrored in the Biblical passage: “Call upon me in the day of trouble and I will rescue you and you will honor me.” She concludes “And He has rescued me and I’m doing my best to honor Him.”