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Shelley Winters was an Academy Award-winning actress known for films like The Diary of Anne Frank, A Patch of Blue and Alfie, among scores of others.
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Born on August 18, 1920, in St. Louis, Missouri, Shelley Winters entered the film world in the 1940s, later landing prominent roles in A Place in the Sun and The Night of the Hunter. She won Best Supporting Actress Oscars for The Diary of Anne Frank and A Patch of Blue, with later roles in many other projects like Alfie, The Poseidon Adventure and The Tenant. Winters died on January 14, 2006.
"I developed a whole fantasy world ... Reality was too unbearable. This ability to fantasize has been a powerful tool in my acting."
Shelley Winters was born Shirley Schrift on August 18, 1920 (some sources say 1922), in St. Louis, Missouri. Raised in Brooklyn, New York, theatricality came naturally to Winters, as her mother had been an aspiring opera singer. Her childhood was marked by tragedy, however, when her father was sentenced to prison for an arson he didn't commit. He was later exonerated, but the experience deeply affected Winters. "I developed a whole fantasy world ... Reality was too unbearable. This ability to fantasize has been a powerful tool in my acting," she later wrote.
In her teens, Winters tried out for the leading role of Gone with the Wind during a casting call in New York in 1938. While she didn't get the part, Winters was encouraged by director George Cukor to finish her schooling and study acting. Working as a model during the day, Winters took acting classes at night. She landed some small stage roles and performed at a number of resorts in the Catskills during the summer.
Her first big break came when director Max Reinhardt gave her a comedic part in his English adaptation of Die Fledermaus, which was called Rosalinda. The operetta debuted in the fall of 1942, and Winters' career soon took off. Harry Cohn, the president of Columbia Pictures, saw her in the show and hired her soon after. She crafted the stage name Shelley Winters, drawing inspiration for the name from the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and her mother, Rose Winter.
Moving to Los Angeles, Winters worked as a contract player for Columbia Pictures, making $100 a week. She made her film debut in What a Woman! (1943) starring Rosalind Russell. It was just a bit part, and she was eventually dropped by Columbia after a few more screen appearances.
Determined to succeed, Winters finally got her chance to work with George Cukor on the critically acclaimed drama A Double Life (1947). She gave a great performance as a waitress who meets an untimely end at the hands of a character actor (played by Ronald Colman). This role helped Winters land a new contract with Universal Pictures. "To this day I feel that getting A Double Life was a miracle. So much of a successful career depends on standing on the right corner at the exact right moment," Winters later wrote.
More films soon followed, including 1949's The Great Gatsby with Alan Ladd and 1950's Winchester '73 with Jimmy Stewart. She usually played loose women who often were handed a gruesome fate. Winters wanted more substantial work, and spent time in New York City to study at the Actors Studio in order to learn how to shed her brassy, bombshell image.
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