Actress Susan Harrison passed away in March of 2019. Her death was widely reported, though it seems few people truly connected to her passing. And maybe that's understandable; her film and television career was brief and her name was lost in the shuffle. No sooner had she graced our screens, than she quickly disappeared into obscurity. Susan Harrison is no footnote in film history, but sadly, her story reads like a cautionary tale.

And yet her scant film credits just happen to include a seminal landmark movie that was perhaps a blessing and a curse - considering it was her film debut at only nineteen years old.


Although a 1956 press release referred to her as "Bronx-born", Susan Stewart Harrison was born in Leesburg, Florida in 1938. Her younger siblings were Martha, Jill, and Jack. After moving to New York, Susan graduated from Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx and later studied at the School of Performing Arts (later renamed Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis High School).

According to the same finely crafted press release, Susan Harrison worked as a waitress at Vesuvius, a pizza joint on Wall Street, and the Limelight club in Greenwich Village. It goes on to say she briefly worked as a model in the garment center.

That might have been the sole credible line, as the "18-year-old girl with the dark looks of a Brontë heroine" did indeed model for various photographers, most notably Peter Basch and Earl Leaf. Unfortunately, her modeling career was marked by a strange incident in 1956 when she suffered a back injury falling through an opening on a patio roof. The accident occurred during a photoshoot with writer Rick Strauss and photographer Peter Basch. Susan filed suit, asking for $100,000 in damages, which was settled for $7,500.

The incident on Marmont Avenue in West Hollywood was referenced in a piece Susan wrote for Ivy Wilson's Hollywood Album, titled I Am Me.

"When accidents do happen to a person, it is because in some way he was looking for it, or asking for it, or heading for it. I feel [sic] through a roof one time, about twenty feet to a concrete floor. Luckily, the result was only a couple of broken vertebrae. Everyone was surprised to find me alive. This accident, I am sure, was brought on because I had thought, deep down, of killing myself because I was very depressed."

Moving ahead, 17-year-old Susan appeared opposite Claire Kiley in the ABC drama Star Tonight. In the episode titled 'Can You Coffeepot on Skates?', Susan played a high-school valedictorian caring for her dying Uncle, played by Leo G. Carroll.

Susan was featured in the August 1956 issue of Harper's Bazaar, with accompanying photos by Bob Willoughby. Titled 'Bonjour Success', the article wrote Susan had tried out for two roles, Way Out West and The Tall Dark Man. The article went on to say she had got both parts. Not true.

The projects in question belonged to her future producing team of Harold Hecht, James Hill, and Burt Lancaster, yet neither project materialized.

Somewhat strangely, the article also announced the possibility of landing that year's most coveted role - Cecile in Otto Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse. That part went to Jean Seberg.

Sweet Smell of Success
By 1956, newspapers were announcing that actors Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, both of whom appeared in Carol Reed's circus fluffery Trapeze, would co-star in a new movie titled Sweet Smell of Success for United Artists. In addition, it was reported that actor 'Martin Milner of Hollywood' had been signed for the romantic lead as Steve, a clean-cut jazz musician.

Papers initially reported that Ernest Borgnine was on board. He was replaced by veteran actor Sam Levene, who worked with Lancaster on Broadway in Sound of Hunting and on the big screen in The Killers. Other names considered included Elaine Stewart (unable to be released from her MGM contract), as well as Claire Fitzpatrick. A favorite of gossip columnists, the Long Island model was crowned 'Miss Irish USA'.

When Hecht-Lancaster said they were going to use unknown players in their pictures, they weren't kidding. They signed Susan Harrison, 18, who has never acted before, to play opposite Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success.

Susan was a waitress in Wall Street and Greenwich Village. Max Arnow found her in New York, gave her a film test, brought her here and she's now set for a leading role. Hollywood by Hedda Hopper/The Daily News. October 19th, 1956

Max Arnow was a well-known talent scout at Warner Bros. and Columbia. He later formed Artists and Productions Associates with fellow industry players, Blake Edwards and Jack Lemmon.

Based on Ernest Lehman's magazine story, the hard-boiled drama about ruthless gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker and his unscrupulous press agent Sidney Falco was produced by the Beverly Hills-based production team of Harold Hecht, James Hill, and Lancaster. The screenplay was handled by Clifford Odets, and at the helm was British director Alexander Mackendrick. Shooting began in October 1956 on location in New York - interiors were filmed in Hollywood at Goldwyn Studios' Soundstage 8.

Good fortune was around the corner when Hedda Hopper named Susan as one of her 'Top Movie Discoveries During 1956'. Others named in the illustrious list included Jayne Mansfield and Jean Seberg. Less fortuitous would be her marriage to nightclub singer, Andre Phillipe.

Phillipe, whose real name was Everett Cooper could have easily mixed with the seedy milieu of Sweet Smell of Success. Born in the Bronx, Cooper began singing in the early-1950's using his more Continental-sounding pseudonym.

Something of a lothario, Phillipe's name was attached to a variety of Hollywood ladies including Judy Garland, Nina Foch, Shelley Winters, and even Marlon Brando's one-time fiancée Josanne Mariani-Berenger. Having wowed cafe society, the wily Phillipe maneuvered his way into film and television, appearing most notably in bit parts for director Paul Mazursky in the 1970s. Cooper died in 2007.

Tonight's gossip... tomorrow's gospel!
Released June 27th, 1957, Sweet Smell of Success bowed at the air-conditioned Loew's State Theatre in New York. Reviews were mixed. While some acknowledged the sharp writing and terrific performances, others had a hard time with the lack of sympathetic characters. Writing for Brooklyn's Tablet Newspaper in July 1957, one critic said, "It is an ugly, nasty picture, possibly too involved for many people even to follow."

No Mass Appeal Theme

Technically of a high caliber, the picture is probably not destined for universal acclaim or appreciation despite the marquee attraction of Lancaster and Curtis... The theme and treatment are too isolated for mass appeal. Dorothy Masters, The Daily News. June 28th, 1957

In a movie that would never be forgiven or forgotten, Susan Harrison left her mark. Playing JJ's screwball sister Susie, the young newcomer appears almost 15 minutes into the black and white picture. Standing in the courtyard behind a jazz club, wrapped in a platina mink coat with the camera approaching for a closeup, Susan Harrison slowly turns to co-star Marty Milner and gently utters her first line, "Steve... I'll try to make you a good wife."

Her soft face is perfection. Her voice is not strong enough to crack eggshells. As Susie Hunsecker, she plays the fragile kid sister of cold cutthroat columnist JJ Hunsecker with a sense of trepidation and delicate beauty, certainly close to home.

Despite her brittle aura, Susie Hunsecker saw through an unscrupulous operator like Falco. We witness this early on.

Leaving the jazz club, they share a cab where the conversation quickly turns to her budding romance. Falco of course, not inquiring out of any genuine interest is tasked with breaking up the lovebirds, purely at JJ's behest.

As JJ would tell his sister later on, "Don't ever tell anyone Susie how I'm tied to your apron strings".

While they go back and forth, Falco lets her know that JJ is one his very best friends. Unconvinced of his performance, Susie smiles skeptically and says, "I know. But someday I'd like to look into your clever mind and see what you really think of him".

Indignant, Falco scolds her for such a comment, but Susie looks down and quietly responds, "Who could love a man who keeps jumping through burning hoops, like a trained poodle?"

This exchange is a wonderful moment and there is something comforting in Susie's insightfulness, especially given her treatment by those around her. Aside from the doomed boyfriend and his genial manager, Susie Hunsecker is on her own. Not even Mary, JJ's astute secretary, is compelled to comfort her after Susie's meltdown in front of everybody.

Apparently, Susan herself wasn't enamored with her performance. When asked what she thought of herself, Harrison told columnist Mel Heimer "Awful. Although they cut my best scenes."

While Lancaster and Curtis received their best notices, the supporting cast was equally worthy; Jeff (Jean Marie) Donell as Sally, the eager but disparaged wide-eyed assistant who lies for Sidney but pays the rent (the tailor can wait). Edith Atwater as JJ's secretary delegates his manic episodes. Lurene Tuttle as Loretta Bartha who discovers her gossip columnist husband was kidding around with a cigarette girl.

And the great Barbara Nichols as Rita the cigarette girl. Put her in a tropical island mood and she takes out all her hairpins (just leave the key under the mat).

Given the Fairytale-like circumstances of being plucked from obscurity, the inexperienced Susan Harrison handled her first professional role with surprising skill. Critics took notice... "Miss Harrison as Hunsecker's sister, is totally convincing in her first acting job."

Working alongside the imposing Burt Lancaster and frenetic Tony Curtis must have been daunting, to say the least. Yet her mannered performance struck the right note, going from demure and bird-like under her brother's leering gaze, to shrewd and victorious at the finish line.

Her fragile state of mind was certainly on the screen, at times her voice breaking and fading to a whisper.

Despite being named one of the best movies of 1957 by Time Magazine, Sweet Smell of Success was considered a box office failure - reportedly losing $500,000 for HHL. In its wake, Susan was largely forgotten and the experience had labeled the young actress everything from 'beatnik' to 'Hollywood rebel'. It must have been a tumultuous time. Compounding matters was her marriage to Andre Phillipe ended when the movie wrapped.

In early 1958, Susan appeared in William Saroyan's The Cave Dwellers at the Bijou Theater in New York. The cast included stage actress Eugenie Leontovich, who made an indelible impression four years later on screen in William Castle's Homicidal as Helga, a wheelchair-bound deaf-mute.

The play was well received. Critic John Chapman for the Daily News called The Cave Dwellers "a warm, lovely play, splendidly staged and acted". Chapman made note of Susan Harrison, calling her debut "an impressive one" and noted, "she is an actress of extraordinary sensitivity".

The following year was quiet in terms of work, but Susan's personal life gained momentum with her new husband Joel Colin. They had a son and spent two years in Arizona. As Susan explained, "It was a time of thought for me. I spent most of my time just watching mirages on the desert - and thinking - and the torment left my soul."

Labeling the actress a 'reformed beatnik' while mentioning troubled actress Diane Varsi in the same breath, newspapers were calling Susan's next motion picture a comeback. Citing early stardom at such a young age as the cause for her time away, Susan was quoted as saying she was a "tormented soul" back then.

I was an exploitable commodity. I had no one to really advise me who really cared for me. I married singer Andre Phillipe but he was as bewildered as I. Now I have someone who really cares for me and my welfare. I can face Hollywood as a mature person. Susan Harrison, 1959

On the small screen, Susan appeared in the long-running CBS show 'Playhouse 90'. Airing in April 1959, the episode 'In Lonely Expectation' was a drama about unwed mothers and featured Diane Baker and Beverly Washburn. More work was on the horizon when the Los Angeles Times reported Susan had signed on for a fictional part in 'Fidel', a project for Cubana Pictures International. The cast was to include Gary Crosby and Jose Ferrer, with 'Pillow Talk' director Michael Gordon at the helm. The revolutionary project fell through.

However M-G-M delivered on their new movie, and Susan and Joel moved back to Hollywood. The new film was Key Witness.

Key Witness
Based on Frank Kane's book, the 1960 drama about a civic-minded father terrorized by a ruthless gang of delinquents featured Dennis Hopper and Jeffrey Hunter. Shot on location in East Los Angeles by director Phil Karlson, critics called the solid little suspense drama "tense", "stark" and even "harrowing". As Ruby, the 'bad girl/seductive moll', Susan Harrison's official role as 'Den Mother to a troop of cutthroats' garnered decent if not remarkable reviews.

Industry heavyweight Variety commented, "A hard-hitting, fast-moving, exciting little film... Dennis Hopper is a chilling menace and Susan Harrison gives an absorbing study in far-outness."

For the Los Angeles Times, critic Charles Stinson wrote, "Hopper, using a poor-white Dixie accent, plays his role with a slight lunatic air... Attractive Miss Susan Harrison appears quite effectively as Hopper's amorous alley cat of a girlfriend who is not too bad with a blade either."

With print ads screaming about 'Kooky young hoods and their moll', the picture hit drive-ins all across Los Angeles in October 1960. MGM's other beatnik motion picture The Subterraneans was second-feature.

Television Appearances
Over the next two years, Susan remained busy on television. Some of her credits include; Tirza the gypsy girl on a color episode of Bonanza ('Dark Star', 4/17/60), and an evil girl scheming for attention on Alfred Hitchcock Presents ('The Gloating Place', 5/14/61) - both for NBC.

Susan then went safari with Mark Miller on ABC's Follow the Sun ('The Nature of the Beast', 10/13/61), and entered another dimension as a ballerina on
The Twilight Zone ('Five Characters in Search of an Exit', 12/22/62) for CBS.

Susan was supposedly featured in NBC's Mr. Novak opposite series regular and ex-husband Andre Phillipe, although no such credit is found. But she donned a hospital gown playing a catatonic schizophrenic opposite Rip Torn on ABC's drama Breaking Point ('Millions of Faces', 11/21/63).

Her personal life was just as busy, but for different reasons; now estranged from her second husband Joel Colin, Susan gave birth to her second son in the back of a car on the way to the hospital in February of 1963. Two years later, her troubles only increased. Susan lost her court suit against producer Harold Hecht, charging him with fraud over her original 1956 contract that would have guaranteed more money and future roles.

Hecht responded by alleging Susan accepted $5000 in hand rather than wait for income from additional pictures. One of those pictures might have been The Devil's Disciple, which Susan supposedly screen-tested for. The project was postponed until much later and completed without her.

Now living in the Pico-Union district in Los Angeles, more troubling times lay ahead. Susan found herself on one-year probation from the Los Angeles Superior Court after allegedly neglecting to give her two-year-old son Daniel urgently needed medical attention. Newspapers erroneously reported the details, when in fact Susan did indeed rush her son to her doctor right away after the accident. According to sources, the child was running and fell, hit his head on a tile floor, resulting in a large bump on the forehead, but appeared otherwise unharmed.

The newspapers stated the child was already in a critical semi-paralyzed condition but doctors were told she would prefer to treat the boy herself. After doctors reported this to the police, she was arrested. Susan fought tirelessly to get her child back, and when the child was finally released to the family, he had severe contractions and other signs of neglect and substandard health care. This unsettling chapter would find Susan Harrison retreating from public life.


With no further work and struggles close to home, the years that followed must have been extremely difficult. There was some moving around and adjusting. Susan would later move in with her daughter, now living in the San Fernando Valley. Here she would spend all her time caring for family, which would later include more than a few grandchildren.

And twenty-nine years after her last acting role, she appeared on stage in Carbondale, Illinois for James Prideaux's comedy Mixed Couples. In 1999, Susan was widowed from her third husband, Cass Conger.

While her name was rarely mentioned beyond late-night reruns of Bonanza or The Twilight Zone, it would be her defining movie in 1957 that brought her back. Over time, the hugely influential Sweet Smell of Success garnered overwhelming critical appreciation and acquired its' rightful place in film history. Enjoying renewed interest, the film returned to Broadway of all places in the form of Nicholas Hytner's 2002 stage production. The cast included John Lithgow as JJ and Kelli O'Hara as Susie Hunsecker.

It would be another few years before Susan Harrison made occasional appearances, either discussing her career or attending film conventions. By then, however, Susan was frail but carried incredible grace... her sultry eyes still retaining the sparkle that made her one of the most beautiful actresses to flicker on the screen... if only for a moment.
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