Joan Leslie, best known for a string of roles opposite some of the biggest stars of Hollywood’s golden age before her 18th birthday, died October 12 at age 90, her family announced today. Described in her time as projecting “sweet innocence without seeming too sugary,” among her most notable roles was the title character’s wife in Sergeant York, alongside Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra, in Yankee Doodle Dandy opposite James Cagney, and with Fred Astair in The Sky’s the Limit.
Born Joan Agnes Theresa Sadie Brodel in 1925 in Detroit, she began her show business career during the great depression, playing vaudville alongside members of her family as a way of making ends meet. She and her sisters toured Canada and the Midwest as The Three Brodels, bypassing child labor laws by lying about their ages. (Leslie once claimed when she was only 9 years old that she was actually 16.) When her sister signed a modeling contract, the family moved to Burbank, and shortly after, at age 11, Leslie signed with MGM, for whom she appeared in several uncredited roles.
Her big break came in 1940 when she signed with Warner Bros, performing in her most famous roles during the period either for WB or other studios to whom she was lent out. Among her other films during this period were The Hard Way, This Is the Army, Thank Your Lucky Stars, and Cinderella Jones. Devoutly religious, she became dissatisfied with the roles made available to her for both professional and moral reasons, and sued Warner Bros in 1946 to get out of her contract. Though she was successful, her career suffered after this when, as she later revealed in interviews, she was blacklisted by Jack Warner and unable to find work at any other major studio.
She married William Caldwell, an obstetrician, in 1950 and after the couple had twin daughters slowed her acting career considerably to focus on her family. Her final film was the 1956 romantic drama The Revolt of Mamie Stover, which also starred Jane Russell, Richard Egan, Agnes Moorehead, and Michael Pate. In later years she made sporadic appearances on television, including episodes of Charlie’s Angels, The Incredible Hulk, and Murder, She Wrote. She retired from acting in 1991.
In addition to her acting career, she founded a line of clothing. She and her husband remained married until his death in 2000, after which she founded the Dr. William G. and Joan L. Caldwell Chair in Gynecologic Oncology for the University of Louisville. A funeral mass is scheduled for 10 AM on October 19, at Our Mother of Good Counsel Church in Los Angeles.