SOUTH AFRICAN CLASSIC FILM STAR JULIET PROWSE by Deborah Painter

Juliet Prowse had been working for years in both classical ballet and in modern dance prior to the incident that led to her becoming an international celebrity.

Nikita Khrushchev, Premier of the Soviet Union, visited the set of the film Can-Can during a well-publicized visit to the United States.  When he saw Juliet Prowse dancing the can-can, he famously deemed it “immoral”. Juliet Prowse and her long legs promptly became a sensation.  Those same long legs that had contributed to her height of 1.56 meters had forced her to abandon classical ballet and pursue modern dance, which led to a career in motion pictures, television and theatre.

Juliet Anne Prowse was born in Bombay (Mumbai), India on September 25, 1936.  Her father, who was a British manager for Westinghouse, moved his young family to South Africa.  He died when Juliet was three.  Her mother Phylis wanted her to be a success so she paid for dance lessons beginning when Juliet was four.  Juliet was the ”baby ballerina” star of the Festival Ballet of Johannesburg at the age of 14.  She was inspired by the success of her second cousin Peter Prowse in South African film productions.  By the age of 17 she was dancing on stage in London but she was by now too tall for ballet, as she maintained that she was taller than her male partners.  Juliet appeared in Madrid in a traveling review that eventually took her to Rome.  Fred Astaire’s longtime collaborator, choreographer Hermes Pan, saw her there and asked her to sign on to work with Shirley MacLaine, Maurice Chevalier and Frank Sinatra in 20th Century Fox’s Can-Can(1960).Can-Can led to roles in a variety of films.  One was Paramount Pictures’ G. I. Blues, with Elvis Presley.

Juliet Prowse relaxes in this publicity photograph for G. I. Blues.CREDITS: Paramount Pictures

It is a sweet film about Tulsa McLean (Presley), an American tank crewman stationed in West Germany who tries to finance a nightclub he wants to own when he retires from the Army. He takes bets from his unit that he can make dancer Lili (Prowse) spend one night with him.  He is far from the playboy his friends want him to be.  By the end of the picture Tulsa’s decent behavior toward Lili leads to a happy ending for both.

In 1961 Juliet performed at President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural gala.   Her big movie in 1961 was The Second Time Around

Juliet Prowse relaxes outside her trailer with some children while on location filming Dingaka in her home country of South Africa. CREDITS: Embassy Pictures

(20th Century Fox), in which she played the daughter of Debbie Reynolds, an adventurous woman in 1911 Arizona Territory. In The Fiercest Heart (20t hCentury Fox), which took place in South Africa in the 1830s, Prowse was Francina, the daughter of a Boer military commander. Prowse was engaged to Frank Sinatra for less than two months in 1962.   She also had a short lived affair with Elvis Presley at the same time. In 1965 Juliet Prowse returned to her homeland to work in the dramatic film Dingaka, an Embassy Pictures release directed by future world famous director Jamie Uys.   Juliet showed her acting skills in a serious part as the wife of a lawyer who defends Ntuku Makwena(Ken Gampu), accused of killing a man for killing his daughter to improve his prowess as a stick fighter.   In 1965 Juliet Prowse also starred in the Magna Corporation release Who Killed Teddy Bear?.   Disc jockey Nora Dain (Prowse) calls the police after getting obscene telephone calls and one day comes home to find a mangled toy teddy bear in her apartment.  Comedian Jan Murray is fine as a detective assigned to find her harasser.

Juliet Prowse was a guest on The Dean Martin Show. CREDITS: The National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC)

Juliet’s cheerful demeanor made her many friends in the entertainment industry.  She made many appearances on American television musical variety programmes, among them The Perry Como Show, The Red Skelton Show and The Dean Martin Show.  She had her own short lived American television series, United Artists TV’s Mona McCluskey.  In it she was a movie star who allows her Air Force sergeant husband (Denny Miller) to support her on his 500 dollar a month income and saves her own income for the future.

Her motion picture career was winding down just as her theatre career picked up steam.  Prowse’s Las Vegas performance in Sweet Charity in 1966 was a big success and this took her to London, where Juliet won the British equivalent of a Tony Award.  She was married to choreographic assistant Eddie James in 1969 and divorced him one year later. Her marriage to actor John McCook in 1972 lasted for almost exactly seven years to the day.  They had one child, Seth.The year 1976 brought Juliet a successful run with I Do! I Do! On Broadway.  In 1987 Prowse was mauled by a leopard when rehearsing for an American television special, Circus of the Stars.  Juliet recovered and returned to work.  Several months later that same leopard mauled her again when she was preparing to go on stage for The Tonight Show television programme to promote Circus of the Stars. She did very little television after that incident.  Seven years later her doctor diagnosed pancreatic cancer.  According to her manager, Mark Mordoh, Juliet believed that if she was dedicated enough she would triumph over the cancer, and continued to teach yoga classes to those who wanted to improve their strength and balance.  Sadly, Juliet Prowse succumbed to cancer on September 14, 1996 in Los Angeles.  The star was survived by her son, film actor Seth McCook, her companion, B. J. Allen, her ex-husband, John McCook, her mother, Phylis Polte of Vanderbijlpark, Gauteng, and her brother, Dr. Clive Prowse, also of Vanderbijlpark.