Prowse was born in Bombay, British India to South African parents and reared in South Africa. She began studying dance at the age of four. In her early twenties she was dancing at a club in Paris when she was spotted by a talent agent and eventually signed to play the part of “Claudine” in the 1960 Walter Lang film, Can-Can. She had already missed a few opportunities to go to Hollywood because she was under contract but eventually left a show in Spain in which she was starring to travel to the United States for this film. It was during the filming of Can-Can in 1959 that she captured the international spotlight. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev visited the set of the film and after Prowse performed a rather saucy can-can for the Russian leader, he proclaimed her dance “immoral”. The publicity brought Prowse considerable attention in the United States. From there, her career accelerated. Prowse met Frank Sinatra on the set of Can-Can. Time magazine did not rate the movie highly, but declared Prowse the best thing in it: “In fact, the only thing really worth seeing is Juliet Prowse, a young South African hoofer who puts some twinkle in the stub-toed choreography. And the only thing really worth hearing is the crack that Frank flips back at Juliet when she whips a redoubtable hip in his direction. “Don’t point”, he gasps. “It’s rude.” She would go on to appear with Sinatra and other notable guests such as Ella Fitzgerald, Peter Lawford, Hermione Gingold, the Hi-Lo’s, Red Norvo, Nelson Riddle and his orchestra on the 1959 Frank Sinatra Show. She at times would sing in the chorus with other guests or Sinatra would sing to her. Sinatra and Prowse announced their engagement in 1962. Soon afterwards, they broke up reportedly because Prowse wanted to concentrate on her career. Prowse later admitted, “I was as much flattered as I was in love. He (Sinatra) was a complex person, and after a few drinks he could be very difficult.”
Prowse co-starred in 1960 alongside Elvis Presley in G.I. Blues. During shooting of the film they had a short and intense fling. “Elvis and I had an affair. … We had a sexual attraction like two healthy young people, but he was already a victim of his fans. We always met in his room and never went out.” Prowse also made a brief cameo appearance in the 1970 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer documentary film, Elvis: That’s the Way It Is as an interviewed audience member about to attend Elvis Presley’s opening night show at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada on 10 August 1970. She starred with Denny Scott Miller in her own NBC sitcom in the 1965-1966 season: Mona McCluskey, which was produced by George Burns. The series was based on the idea that the couple, Mike and Mona McCluskey, would live on his military salary, rather than her lucrative earnings as an actress. Miller died in 2014. Prowse also did other feature films, including The Fiercest Heart (1961) and Who Killed Teddy Bear? (1965) with Sal Mineo and Elaine Stritch. Although her film and television career did not make her as big a star as predicted, Prowse had a rather philosophical way of looking at it. “Things generally happen for the best. … I never worry about what happens in my career, because I can always do something else.” Prowse would later go on to headline successful Las Vegas shows, commanding a very high salary. Stating that Las Vegas was the most demanding place she ever worked, she won Entertainer of the Year for the Vegas run of Sweet Charity. She would later show off her famous dancer’s legs in a series of lucrative nationwide commercials for a number of advertisers, including L’eggs hosiery and Mannington flooring.
Prowse was the first guest to appear on an episode of The Muppet Show. In the late 1980s, she was mauled by an 80-pound leopard – twice. Once, while filming a scene for Circus of the Stars in 1987 and later that same year rehearsing a promotional stunt on The Tonight Show, when the same leopard attacked her. The later attack was more serious, requiring upwards of twenty stitches to reattach her ear. Throughout the mid-1980s and 1990s, Prowse hosted the Championship Ballroom Dance Competition on PBS. In 1994, Prowse was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In 1995, she went into remission and was well enough to tour with Mickey Rooney in Sugar Babies. The cancer subsequently returned and she died on 14 September 1996, eleven days short of her 60th birthday. She was survived by her son and her mother, and also her ex-husband, television actor John McCook, who is the father of her only child, Seth.
- September, 25, 1936
- Bombay, India
- September, 14, 1996
- Los Angeles, California
Cause of Death
- pancreatic cancer