Childhood & Early Life
She was born on January 31, 1929, in Lower Holloway, London, to Charles Simmons and Winifred (née Loveland) Simmons as their youngest child among four children.
Her father was a gymnast who won a bronze medal at the 1912 Summer Olympics and later worked as a gymnastic instructor and physical education teacher.
She was a very exuberant and lively child and grew up with her three siblings Edna, Lorna and Harold.
She studied at ‘Orange Hill School for Girls’ in Golders Green.
As the ‘Second World War’ broke in 1939, her family was evacuated to Winscombe, a village in North Somerset, where her father taught at the ‘Sidcot School’ for a while. During this time, little Simmons used to accompany her elder sister and sing songs at the village stage.
She returned to London in 1943 and started attending ‘Ada Foster School of Dance’ along with her sister Edna. After a couple of weeks, film director Val Guest visited the school. He was searching for a vivacious young girl to cast as Heidi, the precocious sister of Nina played by Margaret Lockwood, for his upcoming comedy film, ‘Give Us the Moon’ (1944). Simmons was selected and albeit inexperienced, she proved her mettle with her performance in the film, impressing all with her implicit talent at such a young age.
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During 1944-45 she worked in several other British films doing small roles including the most expensive British Technicolor film of that time, ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’ (1945), directed and produced by Gabriel Pascal. Pascal signed Simmons to a seven year contract.
Her next prominent portrayal was that of Estela in the film ‘Great Expectations’ directed by David Lean. The film based on a novel by Charles Dickens was released on December 26, 1946. According to her, this film changed her perception about filming, which till such time was only ‘fun and games’ for her, and from that time onwards she seriously contemplated taking up acting as a career.
After seeing her performance as Estela, Laurence Olivier resolved to cast her as Ophelia in his film ‘Hamlet’ (1948) and requested ‘Rank Organisation’, with whom she was contract-bound, to allot thirty days of her time, which they granted. The film brought her into limelight earning her international stardom and also fetched her first ‘Academy Awards’ nomination. After the film was released in the US, she was featured on the cover of ‘Time’ magazine.
Her other notable performances during this period includes films like ‘Black Narcissus’ and ‘Uncle Silas’ in 1947; and ‘The Blue Lagoon’ and ‘Adam and Evelyne’ in 1949.
Although Laurence Olivier extended her the scope to work and study at the British theatre company ‘Bristol Old Vic’, ‘Rank Organisation’ with whom she was contract-bound disapproved the idea.
In 1950 Simmons was voted Britain’s 4th most popular star.
In 1951 ‘Rank’ sold Simmons’ contract to American business tycoon Howard Hughes, who at that time owned the American film production and distribution company ‘RKO Pictures’.
Since early 1950s, she made a transition from a predominantly British film career to an American one. Over the years she executed several roles with great success and élan in films like ‘Angel Face’ (1952), ‘The Robe’ (1953), ‘The Egyptian’ (1954), ‘Guys and Dolls’ (1955), ‘Elmer Gantry’ (1960) and ‘All the Way Home’ (1963).
She bagged several awards during this period that include ‘Golden Globe Award’, ‘National Board of Review Award’ and ‘Laurel Award’. Her performance in the drama film ‘The Happy Ending’ (1969) directed by her husband Richard Brooks fetched her second ‘Academy Awards’ nomination.
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After the 1970s she concentrated more on television and stage performances. She performed as Desiree Armfeldt in the US national tour of the Stephen Sondheim’s musical ‘A Little Night Music’. She performed in the musical for three years that include the show’s production in the West End of London.
Her performance as Fee Cleary in the television mini-series, ‘The Thorn Birds’ won her the ‘Primetime Emmy Awards’ for ‘Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie’ in 1983. Some of the other series that she worked in are ‘North and South’ (1985), ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ (1991), ‘Dark Shadows’ (1991) and ‘In The Heat of the Night’ (1994). Her TV films include The Easter Promise (1975), ‘A Small Killing’ (1981), ‘Inherit the Wind’ (1988) and ‘Shadows in the Sun’ (2009).
Two of her later big-screen flicks were ‘The Dawning’ (1988) starring along with Hugh Grant and Antony Hopkins and ‘How to Make an American Quilt’ (1995) with Winona Ryder, Anne Bancroft and Ellen Burstyn.
She lent her voice as Grandma Sophie in the Japanese animated fantasy film, ‘Howl's Moving Castle’ (2004) and also as Shepway in the Hong Kong–produced 3D-CGI feature film, ‘Thru the Moebius Strip’ (2005).
Personal Life & Legacy
She married English film actor Stewart Granger on December 20, 1950, in Tucson, Arizona. She starred with Granger in many films. The couple became citizens of the United States in 1956 and their daughter Tracy Granger was born the same year. They got divorced in 1960.
She got married for the second time on November 1, 1960, to American film director and screenwriter Richard Brooks. In 1961, their daughter Kate Brooks was born. The couple divorced in 1980.
Though she lived and owned a home in New Milford, Connecticut in the late 1970s, later she settled for good in Santa Monica.
On January 22, 2010, she succumbed to lung cancer at her home. Her cremation ceremony was performed in Santa Monica and the remains were buried at the ‘Highgate Cemetery’ in London.
Simmons, who herself faced challenges and fought her own battle with alcohol addiction, never shied away from speaking publicly about her own ordeal due to the addiction. In 2003, she became a patron of ‘Release’, a British drug and human rights charity and the oldest independent drugs charity in the world.
She signed a petition in 2005 addressed to the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair appealing not to upgrade cannabis or marijuana from a class C drug to a class B one.