Cancer Clinic Offers Hope… Hollywood Legend Rhonda Fleming Takes on New Role
From actress, to singer, to humanitarian, to knowing her purpose in life, Rhonda Fleming is an icon in today’s world of Hollywood stardom. She represents the values and beliefs that give hope to the hopeless and calmness to the fearful.
“This acting business is okay, but giving to others is what I do. It’s part of my soul.”
A fiery, red-haired actress who once captivated audiences of the silver screen now captivates the hearts of the homeless and the sick. And she does so with the same spirit she was known for in her many starring roles in the 1950s. Rhonda Fleming, who many from the “boomer” generation remember as a frequent star in Hollywood films and westerns alongside Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Burt Lancaster, Ronald Reagan, Glenn Ford, Charlton Heston, and others, has traded her gun and horse for a more humanitarian role.
Among the roles that Ms. Fleming plays now is a member of the board for (PATH), People Assisting the Homeless for men, women and children. Since its inception, PATH has grown into a multi-facility organization that provides a wide range of coordinated services for homeless individuals throughout Southern California. The Rhonda Fleming Family Center provides 20 transitional-housing beds for single women with children and offers housing, life-skills training, case management, employment training, and support services. It also provides tutoring and recreational activities for children.
“We don’t give the families just temporary shelter, but also job training and counseling throughout the program.”
However, helping the homeless is not the only part that Rhonda plays in her role as humanitarian; much of her joy in life comes by offering hope to women with cancer through the Rhonda Fleming Mann Clinic for Women’s Comprehensive Care and Resource Center for Women with Cancer at UCLA.
Founded in memory of her sister, Beverly who died of ovarian cancer in 1990, Rhonda along with her late husband, Ted Mann, developed the center for those suffering from the disease. “Just always make it a place of hope,” she was told by her dying sister when Rhonda unveiled her plans for the new facility.
“We decorated the rooms in soft inviting colors,” reports Rhonda. We have fresh flowers every day, and the clinical psychologists are all people who give hope. Doctors should not tell patients there is no hope - that they should go home and just prepare to die. When the doctors told our very first patient she was dying, it created fear. But, with the hope and help we offered she went on to live two more years. She saw her son marry - and I was always so proud when I saw her walk into meetings. I was so grateful”
“At the Reflections shop, we offer every item that someone might need when going through cancer. We have wigs, turbans, prosthesis – Beverly and I had to drive all over the place to find these things when she was going through her cancer. Now we have these items right here for the women.”
Helping others seems to be what Rhonda was born to do. A longtime supporter of Childhelp, Rhonda and her late husband, Ted Mann, happened upon a sign for the children’s village one rainy Easter Sunday.
Most directors let her do her thing and she never had trouble with any directors except one, which led her to a friendship with a future president.
“Let’s go there,” she said to her husband. It was a long, windy road, but the pair deemed the trip worthwhile when they approached the village and spotted a sign above the door with words that deeply touched them “All Who Enter Here Will Find Love.” The staff took the couple to one of the bungalows and both Rhonda and her husband, Ted, instantly fell in love with the children who came running to hug the couple and show off their new Easter clothes. Sensing the children were starved for love, the pair realized that the children needed a chapel just for them where they could learn that God was their best friend. Soon thereafter, a lovely, child-friendly, blue and white chapel was erected.
Rhonda is quick to give credit to God the creator for her willing spirit to help others. “It’s only by the grace of God that I am even alive,” she says, alluding to at least three incidents during her lifetime that should have taken her life. Mishaps like being dragged by a horse across a gravel bed at age 12, nearly drowning at age 14, having a horse fall on her while on set making The Redhead and the Cowboy, and another near drowning incident in which Rhonda claims she was saved by an angel. “I was a real daredevil when I was young and foolish, but I think God always intervened because He had a higher purpose for me.”
Born Marilyn Louis in Hollywood, California to famous model Effie Graham and executive Harold Louis, the film star aspired to be a singer. But a different course was laid out for her, and it began during her high school days at Beverly Hills High while she was walking to school. A suspicious car circled around the block observing her. Finally, a man got out of the car and said “Young lady, have you ever thought of being in motion pictures?” As it turned out, the suspicious man was Henry Willson, an agent who later became David O. Selznick’s right arm.
Shortly thereafter, Rhonda was offered a top featured role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck, which led to co-starring with Bing Crosby in Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. From that point on, she appeared in countless films with countless Hollywood greats. In addition, she has starred on Broadway in The Women and in Kismet at the Music Center and in major television shows including Wagon Train, Police Woman, Love Boat, a two-hour production, the Last Hours Before Morning, and McMillian and Wife with Rock Hudson. In 1990, she starred in the television production, Waiting for the Wind in which she was reunited with her former co-star, Robert Mitchum.
Though she never played the diva role, Rhonda claims that she did get an unfair rap once by a gossip columnist who claimed that while working on a film with Dick Powell Rhonda walked off the set in the middle of a scene. It turns out she was bent over in pain and had to have an emergency appendectomy. On another occasion, she was erroneously accused of leaving the set, when actually she hurried away because she received a call regarding her father who was gravely ill and was dying.
Rhonda claims she was never trained for acting. She just tried to be believable and interestingly, most directors let her do her thing and she never had trouble with any directors except one, which led her to a friendship with a future president.
While she was co-starring in a film with Ronald Reagan, the director was being so difficult that he drove Rhonda to tears and she had to leave the set. While in her dressing room pondering whether to go home or return to the set, a knock came on the door and there was Mr. Reagan who coaxed her back and then had a talk with the director. “I was able to hold my chin up and continue, but I would have gone home that day if it hadn’t been for Ronald Reagan. He was a wonderful peacemaker,” she concludes.
From actress, to singer, to humanitarian, to knowing her purpose in life, Rhonda is an icon in today’s world of Hollywood stardom. She represents the values and beliefs that give hope to the hopeless and calmness to the fearful. As she stated at the beginning of this interview, “acting is okay, but giving back is part of my soul.” In addition, we need only to look at her life to know that her mission is being lived out through her generous gifts, not just monetarily, but also emotionally, spiritually, and physically.
Rhonda resides in Los Angeles, CA with her husband Darol W. Carlson, CEO of ChemMark International.
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"Cancer Clinic Offers Hope… Hollywood Legend Rhonda Fleming Takes on New Role"
Patricia Kirby brings several years of journalism, editing, and publishing experience to Radius magazine. She is a published writer and former co-editor of Hoosier Outdoor magazine, with a distribution throughout the mid-west. Patricia is also a form...