Movie legend Elizabeth Taylor dies at 79

 

Elizabeth Taylor, the world famous movie star and AIDS activist who made her 1981 stage debut in Fort Lauderdale, has died of congestive heart failure at age 79.

BY STEVE ROTHAUS | srothaus@MiamiHerald.com

Elizabeth Taylor, the violet-eyed, beautiful child actress who became the world’s most famous movie star — most famous woman — lived her personal and professional triumphs and tragedies always in the public eye.

She died Wednesday of congestive heart failure at a Los Angeles hospital, in private, surrounded by her four children.

"My mother was an extraordinary woman who lived life to the fullest, with great passion, humor and love," her son, Michael Wilding, said in a statement. "We know, quite simply, that the world is a better place for Mom having lived in it. Her legacy will never fade, her spirit will always be with us, and her love will live forever in our hearts."

Taylor, a two-time Best Actress Oscar winner who starred in Hollywood classics including A Place in the Sun, Cleopatra and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, was known as much for her flamboyant personal life as for her films. Married eight times to seven men (twice to Richard Burton), she defined 1960s pop culture as a “superstar” and “jet-setter.”

In the late 1980s, her acting career mostly behind her, Taylor took on a new role -- Hollywood’s most outspoken celebrity in the new fight against AIDS and HIV. Her close friend Rock Hudson, who co-starred with the actress in the 1956 film Giant, died of AIDS complications in 1985.

In March 1988, she presented “An Extraordinary Evening With Elizabeth Taylor and Friends” at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, which raised more than $2 million split between University of Miami’s AIDS programs and amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research.

“She was one of the great ladies of our age. As a human being, first of all, and then, of course, as an artist,” said Broadway composer Jerry Herman, who worked closely on the fundraiser with Taylor.

“What she did for the AIDS epidemic is almost indescribable. She pioneered that alone at a time when people were afraid of the subject. I’m just so sad,” said Herman, an HIV survivor who composed Hello, Dolly!, Mame and La Cage aux Folles. “You can’t imagine what it felt like to a man like me, who was dazzled by her beauty and her talent and then in top of that in awe of her humanitarian work. … She was just a great humanitarian. Just a good soul.”

Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was born Feb. 27, 1932, to American parents living in London. The family moved to Los Angeles in 1939 at the beginning of World War II.

Taylor made her film debut at age 10 in the Universal Pictures film, There’s One Born Every Minute. She quickly moved to MGM for her next movie, Lassie Come Home, which turned her into a full-fledged star at 11. Among her most popular pictures during this period: National Velvet, Life with Father, Cynthia, A Date with Judy and Little Women.

Unlike most child stars of her era, the gorgeous Taylor easily transitioned into adult roles, starring in 1950s classics including Father of the Bride, A Place in the Sun, Giant, Raintree Country, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly, Last Summer.

At age 18, Taylor married hotel heir Conrad “Nicky” Hilton Jr., who drank and physically abused her. He also slept with father Conrad Hilton’s wife, Zsa Zsa Gabor, the Hungarian star later said. Taylor and Hilton divorced in 1951.

The next year, Taylor married actor Michael Wilding, with whom she had two sons, Michael and Christopher. Taylor and Wilding divorced in 1957, after she became involved with showman Mike Todd, producer of Around the World in 80 Days.

Todd and Taylor married a week after her split with Wilding became final. They had a daughter, Liza, and spent much time with another show-biz power couple, singer Eddie Fisher and movie star Debbie Reynolds.

On March 22, 1958, Todd died in a crash of his private plane, the Lucky Liz. In what became one of the great Hollywood scandals of the 1950s, Fisher left Reynolds to comfort Taylor and never returned home.

“I was the last to find out about the affair,” Reynolds told Britain’s Daily Mail in 2010. “There had been hints in the papers and I had noticed that when I turned up at functions or parties on my own my friends were whispering.”

On Wednesday, Reynolds released a statement to People magazine: "It was a long productive career, and she was the most glamorous and sexual star of our generation," Reynolds, 78, said in a statement. "No one else could equal Elizabeth's beauty and sexuality. Women liked her and men adored her, and her love for her children is enduring."

Added Reynolds: "She was a symbol of stardom. Her legacy will last."

Taylor and Fisher married in 1959 and the couple co-starred a year later in the film Butterfield 8. Shortly after, Taylor nearly died of pneumonia and doctors performed a life-saving tracheotomy. Weeks later, she received her first Academy Award. Many at the time said her illness won her the Oscar. Fellow nominee Shirley MacLaine ( The Apartment) reportedly quipped, “I lost to a tracheotomy.”

Next up: Cleopatra, co-starring Burton and Rex Harrison. With its $44 million budget adjusted for inflation, Cleopatra remains the most expensive movie ever made.

The Taylor-Fisher scandal paled compared to what came next. Taylor fell in love with Burton and began an affair with the married star of The Robe and Broadway’s Camelot. She dumped Fisher and married Burton in 1964. The couple adopted a daughter, Maria.

Through the next decade, Taylor and Burton appeared together in 12 films, including The V.I.P.s, The Taming of the Shrew and The Sandpiper. Her most memorable role during this period: Martha, the blowzy housewife of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a performance that won Taylor a second, well-deserved Oscar.

Taylor and Burton became the world’s best known couple, and in 1969 he bought her a 69-carat gem dubbed the Taylor-Burton Diamond. The Burtons appeared the next year on CBS with Lucille Ball in an episode of Here’s Lucy, in which the redhead gets the diamond ring stuck on her finger.

The Burtons divorced in 1974, remarried in 1975 and divorced again in 1976. Later that year, Taylor married former U.S. Navy Secretary John Warner. She campaigned with him during his successful run for U.S. Senate in 1978. They divorced in 1982.

Even as her film career faltered, the public never lost interest in Taylor, who remained a tabloid favorite as her weight fluctuated and she battled various addictions.

She underwent at least 20 major operations and she nearly died from a bout with pneumonia in 1990. In 1994 and 1995, she had both hip joints replaced, and in February 1997, she underwent surgery to remove a benign brain tumor. In 1983, she acknowledged a 35-year addiction to sleeping pills and pain killers.

After meeting construction worker Larry Fortensky during a stay at the Betty Ford Center, Taylor married for a final time in 1991. She and Fortensky wed at her close friend Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. The couple divorced five years later.

Taylor remained a close confidant of Jackson until his death two years ago. In 1999, Taylor was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In addition to her film and charity work, Taylor also was known for her heavily promoted lines of perfume (Elizabeth Taylor’s Passion) and jewelry.

She appeared infrequently in movies during the 1970s, in such films as Ash Wednesday, The Blue Bird and A Little Night Music. After The Mirror Crack’d in 1980, she did some TV work, including a highly publicized stint on General Hospital in 1981.

After four decades on the screen, Taylor took the plunge and became a stage actress. South Florida theater impresario Zev Buffman convinced her to star in a Broadway-bound revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes.

“We first met in the fall of 1980,” Buffman said Wednesday. “She had ballooned to nearly 200 pounds. I said what are you going to do? Your film career is almost over.”

Taylor said she was hesitant to perform on stage. “Richard always told me I couldn’t act my way out of a paper bag,” she told Buffman. “But if you can get one of these plays, I’ll lose some weight and we’ll do the show.”

Buffman said he didn’t want to open Little Foxes on Broadway and instead chose the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale.

“She couldn’t open in a major market because I didn’t know what we had,” he said. “I needed to protect her. You couldn’t go anywhere without the paparazzi. I learned that early. Opening in Lauderdale, people are so much nicer. They respected her privacy. Plus, I didn’t want the New York critics.”

Taylor debuted at Parker Playhouse on Feb. 27, 1981— her 49th birthday.

Costumed by Florence Klotz in exquisite gowns designed to highlight her famous violet eyes, Taylor earned rave reviews as the scheming Regina Giddens. She was paid $50,000 a week, a record at the time, for the show’s Broadway run and tour, earning more than $1.5 million in 18 months.

“She was a joy to work with,” said longtime South Florida show business publicist Charles Cinnamon, who traveled about three years with Taylor during her Buffman association. “She was a prima donna, but she was a pro. No interviewer could trip her up. She was ultra cool and smiled all the way through.”

Cinnamon says Taylor disliked the nickname Liz. “She wanted to be called Elizabeth,” he said.

Amid rumors that Buffman and Taylor had become closer than producer and star. “I cannot comment on that. I love my wife,” Buffman said Wednesday. “I can only tell you Elizabeth and I spent a lot of time together. I was a great host and companion. That would give rise to rumors.”

Buffman and Taylor tried to capitalize on the success of The Little Foxes by forming a production company called the Elizabeth Theatre Group. The company’s first Broadway venture reunited Taylor and her two-time ex, Burton, in a 1983 revival of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, but the reviews were as scathing as the ones for Little Foxes had been enthusiastic. A second Elizabeth Theatre Group production, a 1983 revival of The Corn is Green starring Cicely Tyson, was short-lived and critically slammed. After that, Buffman and Taylor dissolved the partnership.

Even as her health failed, Taylor continued as a staunch advocate to wipe out HIV. “She continued her commitment to AIDS forever, until the day she died. She was fearless,” said Cinnamon, who convinced Taylor to appear in the 1988 Miami Beach fundraiser. “She was the most beautiful woman in the world. And with all that beauty, she was a down-to-earth, salt-of-the-earth broad.”

Miami Herald theater critic Christine Dolen and staff writer Luisa Yanez contributed to this report, which was supplemented with material from The Associated Press.

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