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Sheree North; blond bombshell recast career with character roles

LOS ANGELES -- Sheree North, a platinum blond bombshell of 1950s musicals who is remembered by younger audiences for her television roles as Lou Grant's sultry girlfriend on ''The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and Kramer's mother Babs on ''Seinfeld," has died. She was 72.

Ms. North, who had been in good health, died Friday at a Los Angeles hospital of complications following surgery, said family members.

Groomed as a studio glamour girl who could substitute for the often unreliable Marilyn Monroe, Ms. North was later interviewed or cast in documentaries and shows about Monroe.

Among them were the 1980 television movie, ''Marilyn: The Untold Story," in which she played Monroe's mother; and the documentaries ''Marilyn Monroe: Beyond the Legend" in 1987 and ''Intimate Portrait: Marilyn Monroe" in 1996.

Hollywood insiders originally whispered that 20th Century Fox hired Ms. North only as a threat to the troublesome Monroe -- whom she did replace in the 1955 ''How to Be Very, Very Popular," in which she outdanced and outshone the leggy Betty Grable.

Ms. North not only shared Monroe's blond coiffure but almost matched her height and measurements.

Unlike other studio-styled blondes such as Jayne Mansfield or Mamie Van Doren, Ms. North tried to change her bombshell image, allowing herself to age gracefully, work without makeup, and segue into older character parts. She worked steadily, enjoying a half-century career on stage, on television, and in film.

She never quite, however, shook the initial image as a beauty, which she blamed on studio-generated press coverage in the 1950s.

''Even today," she told the Los Angeles Times in 1983, lamenting that she had been rejected for several dramatic roles because of her looks, ''there's still the same reaction when producers hear my name. They remember me as the blonde who was to have taken over from Marilyn Monroe."

Born Dawn Bethel in Los Angeles on Jan. 17, 1933, Ms. North danced as a youngster with USO shows during World War II.

She made her film debut in 1951 in ''Excuse My Dust," starring Red Skelton. But despite her first few films, she became so discouraged about launching a show-business career that she considered going to secretarial school.

Ms. North had to cross the country for her breakout role -- a wild dance number in the Broadway musical ''Hazel Flagg." She was given the role after an agent saw her dancing in a Santa Monica nightclub.

The debut on the Great White Way earned her a Theatre World award and a chance to repeat her self-styled jitterbug in the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis film version of the stage show, retitled ''Living It Up," in 1954.

When she appeared on the initial episode of ''The Bing Crosby Show" on television that same year, former Times television critic Walter Ames noted: ''One of the surprises of the show was Sheree North, the shapely dancer. No one had given me an inkling that she could deliver comedy lines as well as she did, but she more than held her own with Bing and Jack Benny. Sheree came pretty close to walking off with the show."

After that, her film credits quickly rose to leading lady status, as in the 1956 musical film ''The Best Things in Life Are Free',' opposite Gordon MacRae and Dan Dailey.

Ms. North appeared on stage in such popular musicals as ''Can-Can," ''Irma La Douce," and ''Bye Bye Birdie." Her films including ''The Outfit" with Robert Duvall in 1973, ''The Shootist" starring John Wayne in 1976, and the 1991 thriller ''Defenseless" with Barbara Hershey and Sam Shepard.

But the actress probably gained her widest recognition on television. She had guest roles in such top series as ''The Virginian," ''The Fugitive," ''Cannon," ''McMillan and Wife," ''Kojak," ''Hawaii Five-O," ''Fantasy Island," and ''The Golden Girls." She earned Emmy nominations for appearances on ''Marcus Welby, M.D." and ''Archie Bunker's Place."

In 1974, on the 100th episode of ''The Mary Tyler Moore Show," Ed Asner's character Lou Grant fell for her as Charlene Maguire, a saloon singer with a past.

Ms. North leaves her husband, Phillip Norman, of Los Angeles; two daughters from previous marriages, Dawn Bessire and Erica Torrablas; and one grandchild.

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