Actress, TV personality Arlene Francis dead at 92

Friday, June 1st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ Arlene Francis, the witty actress and television personality who was a panelist on the popular ``What's My Line?'' show for its 25-year run, has died. She was 92.

Francis died Thursday at Kaiser Hospital in San Francisco. Medical Examiner's Investigator David Le Noue said she had been admitted within the past day and had died of natural causes.

With her warmth, quick wit and infectious laugh, the fashionably dressed Francis was one of the busiest personalities on television in the 1950s.

At one point, she was host of ``Home'' _ a daytime magazine program _ on NBC five days a week, mistress of ceremonies of ``Talent Patrol'' on ABC Thursday nights and panelist on ``What's My Line?'' on CBS Sunday nights.

``I started out with one goal,'' she said. ``I wanted to be a serious actress.'' She did many plays and a number of movies, but it was television that brought her fame and considerable fortune.

Her screen debut was in ``Murders in the Rue Morgue'' in 1932. She screamed ``No! No!'' as Bella Lugosi shackled and killed her.

Later films included ``Stage Door Canteen'' in 1943, ``All My Sons'' in 1948, Billy Wilder's ``One, Two, Three'' in 1961 and ``The Thrill of it All'' in 1963.

The theater, however, was her first love.

She made her Broadway debut in 1936 and had her first major role _ as a Spanish beauty _ in George Abbott's ``All That Glitters'' two years later.

She appeared with Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton in the Mercury Theatre production of ``Danton's Death'' in 1938 and in Maxwell Anderson's ``Journey to Jerusalem'' in 1940.

Her first real hit was ``The Doughgirls'' in 1942, a racy comedy about wartime Washington in which she played a funny Russian sniper. It ran for a year and a half.

Despite that, she said, she always wanted ``a good solid hit on Broadway.'' She said she could picture herself as an ``old character actress in a wheelchair, and friends whispering ... `At last she got THE part.'''

A woman of enormous energy, she would appear in summer stock or a Broadway show when her television schedule allowed.

She auditioned for her first radio part at the same time she was getting started in the theater.

``Radio came easily,'' she recalled. ``It wasn't exactly what I wanted, but it was a crutch that paid well _ and I never stopped working.''

In the 1940s she played in as many a five radio serials a day. She also was host of a dating show called ``Blind Date'' which was transplanted to television in 1949.

``What's My Line?'' began in 1950 and was a success from the start. Contestants came on and the panel tried to guess their interesting or unusual occupations by asking yes-or-no questions.

Francis, Dorothy Kilgallen and Bennett Cerf were longtime permanent panel members. The game show ran 17 years on CBS; Francis continued as a panelist in a syndicated version that ran until 1975.

She always wore a diamond heart-shaped necklace which was noticed by TV viewers and jewelry designers, triggering a diamond heart fad in the mid-1950s.

``Home'' was an ambitious series NBC created in 1954 to follow the ``Today'' show. To boost ratings it traveled around the country to originate from different cities.

Once, before a live TV camera, Francis descended to the Pacific Ocean bottom off Santa Catalina in a diving bell. Something went wrong and the bell shot to the surface as Francis screamed. Regaining her composure, she quipped, ``Wow, now I know what it feels like to be a champagne cork.''

In 1960 she began ``The Arlene Francis Show,'' a daily interview program on WOR radio in New York. It lasted for 23 years.

Born Arlene Francis Kazanjian on Oct. 20, 1908, in Boston, she was the daughter of a well-known portrait photographer.

After overcoming her parents' opposition, she studied at the Theatre Guild School. She dropped her surname when she went to Hollywood.

She was married twice: to movie executive Neil Agnew in 1935 and, after their divorce 10 years later, to actor Martin Gabel in 1946. Gabel died in 1986. They had a son, Peter.