March 2, 2011

Jane Russell

Jane Russell, the busty brunette who shot to fame as the star of Howard Hughes' 1941 Western The Outlaw, died yesterday of respiratory failure, her family said. She was 89.

Although Russell made only a handful of films after the 1960s, she had remained active in her church, with charitable organizations and with a local singing group until her health began to decline a few weeks ago, said her daughter-in-law, Etta Waterfield. She died at her home in Santa Maria.

Hughes, the eccentric billionaire, put her onto the path to stardom when he cast her in The Outlaw, a film he fought with censors for nearly a decade to get into wide release.

The Hughes publicity mill ground out photos of the beauty in low-cut costumes and swimsuits, and she became famous, especially as a pinup for GIs.

Hughes bought the ailing RKO studio in 1948, and he devoted special care to his No. 1 star, using his engineering skills to design Russell a special brassiere (she said she never wore it).

By that time she had become a box-office draw by starring with Bob Hope in the 1948 hit comedy-Western The Paleface.

Her other movies included His Kind of Woman (with Robert Mitchum), Double Dynamite (Frank Sinatra, Groucho Marx), The Las Vegas Story (Victor Mature), Macao (Mitchum again) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Marilyn Monroe).

She followed that up with the 1954 musical The French Line, which has her cavorting on an ocean liner. The film was shot in 3D, and the promotional campaign for it proclaimed "J.R. in 3D. Need we say more?"

In 1955, she made the sequel Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (without Monroe) and starred in the Westerns The Tall Men, with Clark Gable, and Foxfire, with Jeff Chandler.

"Why did I quit movies?" she remarked in 1999. "Because I was getting too old! You couldn't go on acting in those years if you were an actress over 30."

For many years, she served as the TV spokeswoman for Playtex bras.

She was born Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell on June 21, 1921, in Bemidji, Minn., and the family later moved Los Angeles.

Russell, a widow, was married three times, including to pro quarterback Bob Waterfield, whom she divorced in 1968. Survivors include the three children she adopted with him.

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