Barbara Rush, Award-Winning TV and Film Actress, Dies at 97

Barbara Rush, Award-Winning TV and Film Actress, Dies at 97

Barbara Rush, the supremely poised actress who rose to fame with supporting roles in 1950s films like “Magnificent Obsession” and “The Young Lions,” died on Sunday at her home in Westlake Village, Calif., in Los Angeles County. She was 97.

The death, in a senior care facility, was confirmed by her daughter, Claudia Cowan.

If Ms. Rush’s portrayals had one thing in common, it was a gentle, ladylike quality, which she put to use in films of many genres. She was Jane Wyman’s concerned stepdaughter in the 1954 romantic drama “Magnificent Obsession” and Dean Martin’s loyal wartime girlfriend in “The Young Lions” (1958), set during World War II. In 1950s science fiction pictures like “It Came From Outer Space” and “When Worlds Collide,” she was the small-town heroine, the scientist’s daughter, the Earthling most likely to succeed.

In both “The Young Philadelphians” (1959), with Paul Newman, and “The World in My Corner,” a 1956 boxing film with Audie Murphy, Ms. Rush was the prized rich girl. In “Bigger Than Life” (also 1956), with James Mason, she played a vapid but supportive wife. And in “Come Blow Your Horn” (1963), with Frank Sinatra, she played the only “nice girl” in a swinging Manhattan bachelor’s life.

But she did transcend type occasionally, as an Indian agent’s bigoted wife, for instance, in the western “Hombre” (1967), with Paul Newman. She also played Kit Sargent, the Hollywood screenwriter attracted to and repelled by the ruthless title character in the classic 1959 television production of “What Makes Sammy Run?”

For much of her career, Ms. Rush was treated as a pretty face more than a serious actress. But she did receive a Golden Globe in 1954 as most promising newcomer, and she won the Sarah Siddons Award as Chicago’s top actress of the 1969-70 season for her stage role as a mature woman courted by a younger man in the Jay Presson Allen comedy “Forty Carats.”

Her stage work, in fact, became a second career. Her best-known role was in “A Woman of Independent Means,” a one-woman epistolary saga. But when the show opened on Broadway in 1984, the nicest thing Frank Rich, writing in The New York Times, said about it was that Ms. Rush was “a handsome woman who tries terribly hard to be ingratiating.” She went on to play the role, however, for appreciative audiences throughout North America.

Barbara Rush was born on Jan. 4, 1927, in Denver. Her father, Roy, was a lawyer for a mining company who died when she was a teenager. Her mother, Nora (Simonson) Rush, had been a homemaker but took up acting around that time to support the family. She later became a nurse. Barbara attended the University of California at Santa Barbara, where she played Birdie, the guileless alcoholic, in the blistering “Little Foxes” by Lillian Hellman.

In 1950, when she was 23, Ms. Rush received a scholarship to the Pasadena Playhouse Theater Arts College and was signed to a contract at Paramount Pictures. She made her film debut that year in the family comedy “The Goldbergs.”

Television was always a part of her career, with guest appearances beginning in the 1950s. Although she never had a hit series, she did star in several short-lived ones, most memorably as a wealthy Florida wife in “Flamingo Road” (NBC, 1981-82). She was also a newspaper’s Washington correspondent in “Saints and Sinners” (NBC, 1962-63), an abused wife for one season (1968-69) of ABC’s “Peyton Place,” and a soap opera star during the last year (CBS, 1973-74) of “The New Dick Van Dyke Show.”

Her final screen appearances were as a recurring character in the family-values series “7th Heaven,” between 1997 and 2007.

Ms. Rush married and divorced three times. Her first husband (1950-55) was the actor Jeffrey Hunter. Her second (1959-70) was Warren Cowan, a founder of the Rogers & Cowan public relations firm. Her last marriage (1970-75) was to Jim Gruzalski, a sculptor.

In addition to Ms. Cowan, from Ms. Rush’s second marriage, she is survived by a son from her first marriage, Christopher Hunter, and four grandchildren. For about 50 years, she lived in Beverly Hills at a house once occupied by the Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.

Ms. Rush continued acting until her early 90s and professed an overwhelming love of her work. In 1997, she told The San Francisco Chronicle, “I’m one of those kinds of people who will perform the minute you open the refrigerator door and the light goes on.”

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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