Carol Lynley, a former child model who had an intense film acting career mirroring the country’s transformation from the modest Eisenhower era into the sexually frank 1960s, died on Tuesday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 77.
The cause was a heart attack, said Trent Dolan, a friend.
Ms. Lynley may be best remembered as the naïve, soft-spoken adolescent who becomes pregnant by her equally wide-eyed boyfriend, played by Brandon De Wilde, in the 1959 film “Blue Denim.” It was a role she had originated on Broadway the year before, when she was 16.
Ms. Lynley made at least a half-dozen Hollywood movies over the next eight years, but by the time she was in her mid-20s her star had faded, and she was never directly in the public eye again.
Still, she did make a notable if brief comeback in 1972, when she turned up wearing hot pants and go-go boots in the movie “The Poseidon Adventure,” singing (or at least lip-syncing) the Oscar-winning song “The Morning After.” The ensemble cast of the disaster film also included Oscar winners Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Albertson, Shelley Winters, and Red Buttons.
Her career may have been, at least partly, a victim of unfortunate marketing. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, Hollywood’s publicity machine had three blond teenage actresses to promote. In a case of extreme image segmentation, Sandra Dee was promoted as the pampered rich girl, Tuesday Weld as the bad girl and Ms. Lynley as the good girl — studious, sensitive, wholesome, and just a bit prim.
This worked well enough with the characters she played in her debut film, the Disney drama “The Light in the Forest” (1958), set in pre-Revolutionary America; in “Blue Denim”; and in “Hound-Dog Man” (1959), in which she starred opposite the teenage idol Fabian.
But beginning when she was 19, Ms. Lynley turned to portrayals of more knowing characters, like the small-town author Allison MacKenzie, who has an affair with her publisher, in “Return to Peyton Place” (1961), a disappointing sequel.
That film was followed by a sex comedy, “Under the Yum Yum Tree” (1963), with Jack Lemmon and Dean Jones, and by the drama “The Cardinal” (1963), in which she played both Tom Tryon’s wayward sister and her character’s daughter.
She was 23 when she posed discreetly nude in Playboy magazine and played the title role in “Harlow” (1965), a biographical film about the 1930s screen star and sex symbol Jean Harlow. (Another Harlow film, starring Carroll Baker, was also released in 1965. Neither did well.) That same year, she won positive reviews as a distraught young mother in Otto Preminger’s thriller “Bunny Lake Is Missing,” but neither critics nor fans responded to her in the same way as they had during her teenage years.
From the 1970s onward, her film career was winding down, and Ms. Lynley worked mostly in television, making guest appearances on various shows. She was in the original television film “Fantasy Island” and in at least 10 episodes of the series that it spawned, as well as the television film that later became the Darren McGavin series “Kolchak: The Night Stalker.” She also appeared in a number of low-profile movies, some of them of the straight-to-video variety.
She was born Carole Ann Jones in New York City on Feb. 13, 1942. A child of divorce, she began modeling under the name Carolyn Lee. When she went into acting — appearing on golden-age-of-television series like “Goodyear Television Playhouse” and “The Alcoa Hour” — that name already belonged to another member of the Actors’ Equity union (as did the name Carolyn Jones), so she invented the sound-alike name Carol Lynley.
In April 1957 she appeared on the cover of Life magazine, identified as “Carol Lynley, 15, Busy Career Girl.” She was indeed busy, making her Broadway debut in Graham Greene’s drama “The Potting Shed.” For that role, as a dying man’s talkative niece who reveals a family secret, she received a Theater World Award, given annually for an outstanding debut performance.
Ms. Lynley returned to Broadway once, in 1975, replacing Sandy Dennis in Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy “Absurd Person Singular.”
Her later projects included “Vic” (2006), a 30-minute short about an older actor, directed by Sage Stallone, a son of Sylvester Stallone; and “A Light in the Forest” (2002), in which she played the grandmother in a family-oriented fantasy. That film had no connection to Ms. Lynley’s first movie, which had almost exactly the same title.
Ms. Lynley was married from 1960 to 1964 to Michael Selsman, a film industry publicist, and they had a daughter, Jill, who survives her. She also had a long on-again, off-again relationship with the television host David Frost.
In 2000, in an interview with The San Francisco Chronicle, Ms. Lynley talked about middle-aged actresses’ difficulty in finding roles, but predicted a comeback for herself in old age.
“I don’t mean to sound conceited, but I am a very talented actress, and I have my head screwed on right,” she said. “I’m not going to drug clinics, I look good, and I’ve got all my marbles. So I really believe I’ll be back.”