National News

Patricia Morison, 103, Dies; Broadway’s First Kate to Be Kissed

Posted May 20, 2018 6:05 p.m. EDT

Patricia Morison, who conquered Broadway in the hit musicals “Kiss Me, Kate” and “The King and I” after finding limited success in Hollywood, died Saturday at her home in West Hollywood, California. She was 103.

Her death was confirmed by her friend John Bowab, a director and producer, who said she had been in hospice care.

When Morison, blue-eyed and with long, flowing dark hair, signed a contract with Paramount Pictures in 1938, she recalled in an interview in 2011, actor Alfred Drake — who, a decade later, would be her co-star in “Kiss Me, Kate” — “told me: ‘Don’t go out there. They won’t know what to do with you.'”

He was right.

The studio scouts who saw Morison in her second Broadway show, the operetta “The Two Bouquets,” alongside Drake, were looking for a sultry, exotic vamp to rival the MGM star Hedy Lamarr and, perhaps, eventually replace Dorothy Lamour at Paramount. (“Lamour plus Lamarr equals La Morison!” was how the studio promoted her.) William LeBaron, the head of production at Paramount, invoked a third name: He called her “another Gloria Swanson” and predicted big things for her.

Her first film for the studio was “Persons in Hiding” (1939), a crime drama based loosely on the exploits of Bonnie and Clyde, in which she co-starred with J. Carrol Naish. A string of mostly forgettable roles in mostly forgettable films followed, and she was gone from Paramount by 1942.

Much to her disappointment, the studio did not make use of her singing ability. One executive’s explanation, she said, was simply that “we’re Paramount, not MGM.”

After joining Al Jolson and Merle Oberon on a USO tour of Britain, Morison returned to Hollywood and began receiving better roles in better movies. She was in the 1943 thriller “The Fallen Sparrow,” with John Garfield and Maureen O’Hara; “The Song of Bernadette” (1943), with Jennifer Jones; and “Without Love” (1945), with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. She was a memorable femme fatale opposite Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes in “Dressed to Kill” (1946). But stardom continued to elude her.

Perhaps Morison’s most noteworthy screen role was one that audiences never saw. In the classic 1947 film noir “Kiss of Death,” she played the wife of a gangster played by Victor Mature. Her character is raped and kills herself by asphyxiating herself in a kitchen oven. But her scenes were deemed inappropriate by the censors, and although her name remained in the opening credits, her entire part was removed.

Temporarily back in New York in 1944, she appeared in her third Broadway show, “Allah Be Praised!,” a musical comedy about Americans in the Middle East. Like her first two, it was not a hit; it closed after 20 performances. But four years after that, she would strike Broadway gold.

She was hand-picked by Cole Porter to play the feisty actress Lilli Vanessi opposite Drake, who played her co-star and ex-husband in “Kiss Me, Kate,” Porter’s behind-the-scenes show about a musical version of “The Taming of the Shrew.” The critics loved both her and the show — Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times praised her as “an agile and humorous actress who is not afraid of slapstick and who can sing enchantingly” — and so did the public.

Morison played Lilli for a year and a half on Broadway and later in a long-running London production, in a 1958 television adaptation and in a 1965 City Center revival. When the show was made into a movie in 1953, however, the role went to Kathryn Grayson.

“I didn’t like the film,” Morison told one interviewer succinctly.

She was also the last actress to play the role of Anna, first performed by Gertrude Lawrence, in the original Broadway production of “The King and I” in 1954. After the show closed, she joined her co-star, Yul Brynner, on the road for more than a year.

Morison made few movies after the 1940s and only a handful of television appearances, among them a role as a psychiatrist on an early detective series, “The Cases of Eddie Drake,” in 1952. One of her last roles was in an episode of “Cheers” in 1989.

Eileen Patricia Augusta Fraser Morison was born in Manhattan on March 19, 1915, to an English father, William Morison, an actor and playwright, and an Irish mother, Selena (Fraser) Morison, who had worked for British intelligence during World War I. (Her father, she said, explained the unusual spelling of his surname by claiming that his family was “too stingy to put two Rs in Morrison.”)

She studied painting at the Art Students League, acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse and dance with Martha Graham. She made her Broadway debut as a teenager in “Growing Pains,” a 1933 Broadway flop. (“They fired me in rehearsals,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 2015. “I cried so hard they gave me a walk-on.”) She understudied Helen Hayes in “Victoria Regina” in 1935, although she never went on. Three years later came “The Two Bouquets,” the Paramount contract and the move to Hollywood.

Morison, who never married, leaves no immediate survivors.

She remained active well into old age and said in a 2015 interview that a late-career disappointment was not getting the role of Rose as an old woman in the 1997 film “Titanic,” especially since her father, a Cunard worker in his youth, had nearly boarded the Titanic in 1912 but transferred to a different ship at the last minute. (Gloria Stuart, who did get the part, earned an Academy Award nomination.)

She performed at the annual AIDS Project Los Angeles benefit and at a Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS benefit in 2014. The next year she was honored on her 100th birthday at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles. A week after that, she was interviewed by Bowab at a benefit for the Pasadena Playhouse.

At one point Bowab asked if she would sing something. She responded with “So in Love” and “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” both from “Kiss Me, Kate.”

“As long as I have a voice,” Morison said, “I’ll sing.”