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LOS ANGELES — Actress Rhonda Fleming, the fiery redhead who appeared with Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, Ronald Reagan and other film stars of the 1940s and 1950s, has died. She was 97.

Fleming died Wednesday in Santa Monica, California, assistant Carla Sapon told The Associated Press.

From her first film in color, "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court " (1949) with Bing Crosby, Fleming became immensely popular with producers because of her vivid hues. It was an attraction she would later regret.

"Suddenly my green eyes were green. My red hair was flaming red. My skin was porcelain white," Fleming remarked in a 1990 interview. "There was suddenly all this attention on how I looked rather than the roles I was playing.

"I'd been painted into a corner by the studios, who never wanted more from me than my looking good and waltzing through a parade of films like 'The Redhead and the Cowboy,'" she said.

Before Reagan entered politics, the actress co-starred with him in "Hong Kong," "Tropic Zone," "The Last Outpost" and "Tennessee's Partner."

"He surprised everyone because he never looked in a mirror," she once said of Reagan. "How many actors can you say that about?"

Fleming possessed a fine singing voice, and later in her career sang onstage in Las Vegas and in a touring act.

In the big-studio era, many new personalities were publicized as having been discovered in quirky ways: Kim Novak while riding a bicycle past an agent's office, Lana Turner spotted in a malt shop.

In Fleming's case, young Marilyn Louis was reported to have been headed to class at Beverly Hills High School when a man followed her in a big black car and told her, "You ought to be in pictures." She eluded him, but he turned up at her home and offered to be her agent.

Legend or not, at 19 Louis was awarded a six-month contract at the studio of David O. Selznick and a new name: Rhonda Fleming. She played a bit part in the 1944 wartime drama "Since You Went Away," and then Alfred Hitchcock chose her to play a nymphomaniac in "Spellbound," starring Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck.

"I rushed home, and my mother and I looked up 'nymphomaniac' in the dictionary," she recalled. "We were both shocked."

"Spellbound" led to another suspense film, "The Spiral Staircase," in which she was strangled by the villain, George Brent. With Selznick concentrating on the career of his wife, Jennifer Jones, he lost interest in his contract players, and Fleming left the studio to freelance.

Her next films: "Abilene Town," a Randolph Scott Western; "Out of the Past," a film noir with Robert Mitchum; and "Adventure Island," a tropics thriller starring Rory Calhoun.

She won a role in "A Connecticut Yankee," a Crosby musical based on the Mark Twain story, after Deanna Durbin dropped out to retire to France. Crosby was so impressed that he recommended her to Bob Hope, with whom she starred in "The Great Lover."

After Fleming's sister, Beverly Engel, died of cancer in 1991, Fleming and her husband established the Rhonda Fleming Mann Resource Center for Women with Cancer at the UCLA Medical Center. They also was active in various other charities for cancer patients, children and the homeless.

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