North was born as Dawn Shirley Crang in Los Angeles, California, on January 17, 1932, the daughter of June Shoard and Richard Crang. Following her mother’s remarriage to Edward Bethel, she was known as Dawn Shirley Bethel. She began dancing in USO shows during World War II at age ten. In 1948, she married Fred Bessire. She bore her first child at age 17 in 1949, and continued dancing in clubs under the stage name Shirley Mae Bessire. North made her film debut as an uncredited extra in Excuse My Dust (1951). She was then spotted by a choreographer performing at the Macayo Club in Santa Monica, and was cast as a chorus girl in the 1953 film Here Come the Girls, starring Bob Hope. Around that time, she adopted the stage name Sheree North. She made her Broadway debut in the musical Hazel Flagg, for which she won a Theatre World Award. She reprised her role in the film version, Living It Up (1954), starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. In early 1954, aged 22, she appeared in a live TV version of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes on The Colgate Comedy Hour, with Ethel Merman, Frank Sinatra, and Bert Lahr. In 1954, North signed a four-year contract with 20th Century-Fox. The studio had big plans for her, hoping to groom her as a replacement for the studio’s leading, and increasingly uncontrollable, female star, Marilyn Monroe. Fox tested North for leading roles in two of their upcoming productions, The Girl in Pink Tights and There’s No Business Like Show Business—two films that had been offered to Monroe—while North was wearing Monroe’s own studio wardrobe. After her screen tests, however, North was not cast in either film. In March 1954, North had a brush with scandal when it was revealed that she had earlier danced in a bikini in an 8 mm erotic film. Fox capitalized on the publicity as the studio previously had with Monroe’s nude calendar posing in 1952.
In 1955, she was assigned the lead role opposite Betty Grable in How to Be Very, Very Popular (1955), a role that Marilyn Monroe had refused to accept. Media attention surrounding Monroe’s suspension and North’s hiring resulted in North appearing on the cover of Life magazine with the cover line “Sheree North Takes Over From Marilyn Monroe”. How to Be Very, Very Popular would eventually not live up to the hype Fox had generated, even though North had appeared on What’s My Line? to publicize the film. The movie received mix reviews from critics and was a moderate box office success. Despite this, film historians, then and now, cite North’s electrically-charged dancing to “Shake, Rattle and Roll”, as the film’s most memorable scene. In an attempt to promote North, Fox studio executives lobbied to cast her in films surrounded with popular stars. The studio had campaigned to cast her in a film with comedian Tom Ewell, hoping to repeat the success he had with Monroe in The Seven Year Itch (1955). Soon thereafter, the studio assigned North and Ewell to appear together in the romantic comedy The Lieutenant Wore Skirts, plotting the story of an army lieutenant whose husband tries to get her discharged. To promote the film, North posed for several publicity shots showing her legs. When the majority of the shots were released, only her legs appeared with the tagline, “Believe it or not, these legs belong to an army lieutenant”. The film premiered with much fanfare in January 1956, and became a box office success, grossing over $4 million in the United States.
North’s follow-up was The Best Things in Life Are Free (1956), a lavish musical in which her singing voice was dubbed by Eileen Wilson. She received fourth billing under Gordon MacRae, Dan Dailey, and Ernest Borgnine. It was an attempt by the studio to broaden North’s audience appeal, and while it earned favorable reviews from critics, it did not become the success Fox had hoped for. In 1956, Fox signed another blonde bombshell, Broadway actress Jayne Mansfield to a contract, and began promoting her instead of North. Although Fox slowly lost interest in North, the studio continued to offer her a string of films. She was offered the leading role in a film called The Girl Upstairs, in which she would have parodied Monroe’s on-screen persona. When North’s agent suggested she decline the film, Fox put her on suspension for two months. When her suspension was lifted one month later, North agreed to appear in The Way to the Gold only on the assurance that Elvis Presley would be her co-star. When Presley withdrew due to salary disagreements, he was replaced with Jeffrey Hunter, with whom North often quarreled. In the film North attempted to progress from her blonde bombshell image, playing a sarcastic waitress, and while the film drew mixed reviews, it was a box office success. She next starred in No Down Payment (1957), a melodrama about the lives of multiple families living in a California subdivision. Tony Randall played her alcoholic husband in the film. Although critically acclaimed, it was not a box office success. The following year, she appeared in her final two films for Fox. In Love and War (1958) was a war drama film pairing her again with Jeffrey Hunter, and also with Robert Wagner, Dana Wynter, and Hope Lange. It was not a critical or financial success. Although the musical film genre had declined in profitability, she next co-starred in Mardi Gras (1958) with Pat Boone and Tommy Sands. It was her final film under her contract.
After North’s contract with Fox ended in 1958, her career stalled. She continued to act in films, television, and on the stage throughout the rest of her life, but she failed to again obtain the recognition she had with Fox in the 1950s. She guest starred on episodes of The Untouchables and Gunsmoke (both 1963). North joined the cast of I Can Get It for You Wholesale in 1962, which featured Elliott Gould and introduced Barbra Streisand. She later guest starred on on a series of popular television shows, including Ben Casey and Burke’s Law (1963–65), The Virginian (1964–66), The Big Valley, The Iron Horse (both 1966), and The Fugitive (1965–67). After an eight-year absence from film acting, North accepted a lead role in the B-movie science-fiction film Destination Inner Space in 1966. The film opened to only a minor release in 1966, and has rarely been seen since. North co-starred with Elvis Presley in one of his final films, The Trouble with Girls (1969). Other notable performances were in Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick (1973) and another crime film, The Outfit (also 1973). She appeared briefly as John Wayne’s long-lost love in the actor’s final film, The Shootist (1976). She had supporting roles in two Charles Bronson movies, Breakout in 1975, and Telefon in 1977. In 1980, she played Marilyn Monroe’s mother in the made-for-television film Marilyn: The Untold Story. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, North appeared in guest spots on Hawaii Five-O, The Streets of San Francisco, McMillan and Wife, Matlock, and Magnum, P.I.. She played Lou Grant’s girlfriend on several episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She co-starred with Sheldon Leonard in the short-lived CBS sitcom, Big Eddie in 1975. During the 1980–81 season North starred in I’m a Big Girl Now with Diana Canova, Danny Thomas, and Martin Short. The series aired 19 episodes. In 1983, she appeared in the ensemble cast of the Steven Bochco series Bay City Blues. The hour-long drama series aired eight episodes. North later appeared on two episodes of The Golden Girls as Blanche Devereaux’s sister, Virginia.
In 1988, she gave a poignant performance in the film “Maniac Cop” that got North some long-deserved recognition. However, it didn’t appear to lead to more substantial roles. In the 1990s, she appeared as Kramer’s mother, Babs Kramer, in two episodes of the sitcom Seinfeld. North’s last onscreen role came in John Landis’ film Susan’s Plan (1998). North was married four times and had two children. In 1948, at age 16, she married Fred Bessire, a draftsman, with whom she had a daughter, Dawn (born 1949). The marriage ended in 1953. In 1955, she married television writer Bud Freeman, and the marriage ended a year later. Her third marriage was to psychologist Gerhardt Sommer, with whom she had another daughter, Erica Eve, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1963. On November 4, 2005, North died during cancer surgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. She was 73 years old. At the time of her death, North was married to her fourth husband, Phillip Norman.
- January, 17, 1932
- Los Angeles, California
- November, 04, 2005
- Los Angeles, California
Cause of Death
- complications following surgery