Sensation of 60s Hollywood - Juliet Prowse

Sensation of 60s Hollywood - Juliet Prowse

A metaphor for beauty and also a sensational dancer, actress Juliet Prowse was at the peak of her popularity as a film and television actress during the 1960s. Throughout her four-decade-long career, she appeared in numerous films and TV shows while being extensively active on the stage. In the latter half of her career, she was more focused on theatre. 

She was born in Bombay, India on 25th September 1936, and then raised in South Africa, where her family shifted after World War 2. Her father was an Englishman born in South Africa. He died when she was 3 . Her mother and she moved to their relatives’ place in Durban, but later they settled in Johannesburg.

 She started learning dance at the early age of 4. Prowse was selected for the Festival Ballet of Johannesburg at age 14, but her height,      which was around 6 feet, was too large for the strict requirements of the ballet world. She got inspiration from the success of her second cousin, Peter Prowse in South African film productions.  

By the age of 17, she went to London to continue her studies. There, she received the biggest disappointment of her life when she was turned down by Anton Dolin for the London Festival Ballet because she was too tall. Juliet appeared in Madrid in a traveling review that eventually took her to Rome.  Fred Astaire’s long-time collaborator, choreographer Hermes Pan, saw her there and asked her to sign on to work with Shirley MacLaine, Maurice Chevalier, and Frank Sinatra in 20th Century Fox’s Can-Can (1960). After Can-Can, she was exposed to a variety of roles in films.

Early Career and Fame

Juliet Prowse’s first cinematic appearance was as an uncredited dancer in the 1955 technicolour romantic musical film Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, in which she got the chance to work with choreographer Jack Cole. She used to dance in a club in  Paris when she was cast for her role of Claudine in the Walter Lang film Can-Can (1960) by an agent. She again worked with Frank Sinatra on the Frank Sinatra Show released in 1959.

Rise to fame with Can-Can (1960) and G.I. Blues(1960)

Can-Can was an American musical film directed by Walter Lang released in 1960. The film stars Frank Sinatra, Shriley MacLaine, Maurice Chevalier, and Louis Jourdan in the lead roles. Juliet Prowse played her first role in this feature film. Many critics enjoyed the film, and it got listed as one of the highest-grossing films of 1960. One of the advantages of  Can-Can was that the majority of the musical numbers were driven by the story rather than just filling in the gaps. The film was also nominated in various categories at prestigious award ceremonies like the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, and the  Grammy Awards. 

Juliet's original claim to fame was being the girl that offended Nikita Krushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union at that time. She was just another actress in Can-Can (1960), until  Nikita Krushchev visited the set of the movie, to watch one of the Can-Can numbers during a rehearsal. He publicly said that the dance was "vulgar". Many newspapers covered this story and published articles with a photo that featured Juliet. The film gave her fame and she won enthusiastic praise for both her acting and her dancing in the film. 

This publicity, along with her romantic affair with one of the stars of the film and popular icon Frank Sinatra helped her to get other film roles immediately. Before this, she had a relationship with a fellow dancer and one-time mentor, Sergio Fadini. They were part of a dancing trio called ‘Prowse Dancers’. After Juliet Prowse moved to the US, she entered into a relationship with Frank Sinatra.  They even got engaged in 1962, but only for two months. The relationship didn’t take a long drive and they broke up soon. Because Sinatra wanted      Prowse to give up her film career after the marriage, which Prowse refused, as she wanted to fulfill her dreams.

Sensation of 60s Hollywood - Juliet Prowse

Juliet Prowse in Can-Can (1960) (credit: Getty Images)

In the same year 1960, she also appeared with Elvis Presley in the musical comedy film G.I. Blues directed by Norman Taurog. The film was based on a play from 1942, called ‘The Fleet’s In’ on which several films were already made. In the film, Prowse played the role of a club dancer named ‘Lili’ with whom Presley‘s character, U.S. Army Specialist 5 (SP5) ‘Tulsa McLean’ becomes enamored. As a cabaret performer, Prowse won appreciation from critics for her exciting dance routines and for her performance in the film. 

The soundtrack of the film by Elvis Presley was a major hit in the U.S. market. The album topped the ‘Billboard Top Pop’ album chart and remained at the number 1 position for eleven weeks. Film’s soundtrack album was nominated for two Grammy awards in 1960 in the category of Best Vocal Performance Album, Male, and Best Soundtrack Album. 

During the shooting of the film, a romantic affair between Prowse and Presley took place. Director of the film Norman Taurog later recounted that he had to shout “Cut!” several times to separate the two stars during their kissing scenes. Prowse also made a brief cameo appearance in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer documentary film, Elvis: That's the Way It Is (1970), made on Elvis Presley, shows her close association with Elvis Presley.

Sensation of 60s Hollywood - Juliet Prowse

Elvis Presley with Juliet Prowse (credit: Pinterest) 

Juliet Prowse’s fame was huge after Can-Can, and in 1961, she even performed at President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural gala. As Kennedy and Frank Sinatra were friends, Sinatra put together many guests including Juliet Prowse.

Her next big film released in 1961 was The Second Time Around by 20th century Fox. Prowse essayed the role of Debbie Reynolds, a wild and reckless woman from Arizona in 1911. It was a comedy film with a western cowboy touch to it.

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After her relationship ended with Sinatra, Prowse’s film career stumbled. Fox Studios, who had signed her to a seven-year contract, put her only into minor musicals. This clearly shows the male dominance in the film industry at that time. This dominance is still present in our society somewhere or the other. Due to her contract with Fox studios, her next film was also with Fox released in 1961, The Right Approach. This CinemaScope drama film directed by David Butler was based on a play The Live Wire by Garson Kanin. 

The Right Approach was a story of five bachelor boys living together in a reconverted Hawaiian restaurant high in the Hollywood Hills. The new guy that takes his place, Leo Mack, is a young Hollywood hopeful. He stirs up trouble wherever he arrives, and uses his brother and their roommates and anyone else he can as a stepping stone to climb for fame as a singing and acting star. Juliet Prowse stands out in the film with her acting skills. Her character was way tougher and more immoral than any of the masculine characters.  Prowse has the lion's share of the film's strong dialogues.  She had a terrific screen presence with her wonderful accent, and her dance.

Sensation of 60s Hollywood - Juliet Prowse

Juliet Prowse in The Right Approach  (credit: YouTube)

In the same year 1961, her another film The Fiercest Heart was released. This adventure film was directed by George Sherman. The film was based on the 1955 novel of the same name by Stuart Cloete. The story is set in 1830s South Africa. The film also starred 1960 Summer Olympics Decathlon Champion Rafer Jhonson.

After 1961, she took a break from films but continued to work in different television shows and stage work. Her next three feature films, all released in 1965, were also the last three feature films she did. In 1965, her first film release was  Run for Your Wife, an Italian comedy film directed by Gian Luigi Polidoro. Juliet played the role of Jenny in this film.

Her second film in 1965 was Dingaka, an action drama film by South African director Jamie Uys. For this film, Prowse returned to South Africa in 1965. The film is about an African tribesman seeking revenge against the people who murdered his daughter. His crusade leads him to commit murder himself and to a trial before the court, where justice for the black people does not exist.

Her last feature film, also released in 1965, Who killed Teddy Bear was a neo-noir crime thriller film directed by Joseph Cates. But the film was refused certification on its original theatrical release due to its “raw, taboo-breaking nature’’. The film has been recently scanned and recovered from one of its few remaining 35mm prints and is available for the first time on Blu-ray and Digital. The restoration of the film involved careful grain management, both automated and manual removal of film dirt and damage in the reel of film, correction of major instability, warping, and density fluctuations. It was finally revived at New York’s enterprising Film Forum.

The basic plot of the film was around a nightclub dancer Norah played by Juliet Prowse.  Norah receives a series of obscene phone calls.         The case investigation is taken by police detective Lt. Dave Madden played by Jan Murray. He tries to catch the guilty caller before any actual crime takes place and Norah is harmed. Norah befriends the club’s busboy, Lawrence played by Sal Mineo, and Lt. Dave Madden as he investigates her case. Who Killed Teddy Bear has a strong cast and all gave a superb performance. 

Who Killed Teddy Bear is a standout thriller because of the way it captured the era in which it was filmed. The retro 60’s vibe from this film, whether it’s the busy disco dancefloor at the nightclub or the taxi-lit streets of Manhattan, teleports you to that era. The cinematography of the film was done by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Joseph Brun. His breath-taking imagery is truly the highlight of this film and his work here surely inspired a number of films that followed it. This thriller may have lost some of its thrill and charm over the years and may feel old school but it presents the original look of the ‘60s fashion. It can be noticed that an incredible amount of work went into restoring this film.   Critics describe this film as a masterpiece of underground cinema.

Sensation of 60s Hollywood - Juliet Prowse

Juliet Prowse in  Who Killed Teddy Bear (credit:

Apart from feature films, she also appeared as herself in a documentary film Spree released in 1967. After 1967, Prowse was now concentrating more on television and theatre. She toured shows such as Damn Yankees, Irma La Douce, and The Boy Friend. She was cast in the Las Vegas production of Sweet Charity where she played for 6 months. 

Although she often confessed an ambition to have an original stage musical written for her, that never came true. Prowse’s principal career was now in the night-clubs. In 1971, she made a sensational success with an act at Desert Inn in Las Vegas which was produced by Tony Charmoli. It was very well received by the audience and praised for its simplicity which contrasted with the atmosphere of Las Vegas. The act climaxed after Prowse had dance variations on the CharlestonCha-Cha, and jitterbug, performed comedy sketches, and sung ballads, with a memorable 15 min ballet to Ravel’s Bolero.

She did many guest appearances on very popular and leading television shows including  Perry Como,  Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, and Ed Sullivan. She also had her own situational comedy show Mona McCluskey that aired on NBC as part of its 1965-66 schedule. The series had Juliet Prowse in the central role

 In the meantime, Prowse was married to her first husband, Eddie James, for over a year, from June 1, 1969, to November 12, 1970. Later she married  TV actor John McCook on September 9, 1972. The couple divorced on September 5, 1979. Their only son Seth McCook, was born on August 2, 1972.

She also guest-hosted The Muppet Show in its first season and she was on a number of episodes of Hollywood Squares. After that, she was set to appear in the 1987 edition of the television show The Circus of Stars. She was 51 at that time. However, while rehearsing for the program, on September 28th, 1987, the jaguar in her act (Uncaged Animalsattacked her, biting into the artery in her neck. 

She survived that attack well enough, but then, in December of that year, she was set to appear on The Tonight Show to promote the airing of the Circus of the Stars and that jaguar attacked her again. This time it cut her up so bad that they had to reattach her ear. She needed 30-40 stitches to reattach part of her ear. From 1986 through the mid-'90s,  she hosted the popular television show Championship Ballroom Dance Competition on PBS.

Death and legacy

In 1994, Juliet Prowse was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She made her final public appearance in a 10-week summer run of Sugar Babies opposite Mickey Rooney in Las Vegas in 1995. Prowse passed away on September 14, 1996, at her Holmby Hills home after losing a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer. She will be always remembered for her extraordinary beauty and great dancing skills.      She was really one of the faces of Hollywood of the 60s who defined that Hollywood era.

Author Biographical Note: The author is pursuing graduation in Physics (Hons) from Ramjas College, University of Delhi, India.  

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