From Harrod to Hollywood

After arriving in New York, Dorothy June Smith paid the bills by working as a fashion model. It was during this time — before her acting career took off — that she adopted the name June Vincent.
June Vincent had her best movie role in “Black Angel” (1946), with Wallace Ford (center) and Dan Duryea.
By the 1950s, June Vincent was primarily a television actress. “City of Shadows” (1955), with Anthony Caruso (left) and Victor McLaglen, was her next-to-last film.
June Vincent attempts to shake Dan Duryea out of a drunken stupor in the film noir mystery “Black Angel” (1946).

HARROD — Our story begins on July 17, 1920. On that day a daughter was born to the Rev. Willis E. and Sybil Irwin Smith in the Allen County village of Harrod, where the same year the U.S. Census counted a population of 389. The Smiths named their little girl Dorothy June.

Now we leap ahead 30 years. Dorothy June Smith is all grown up, an elegant blonde dripping with furs and riding in a showy convertible. Pulling up to a stop light in Beverly Hills, California, she looks over and spies a familiar figure in the car in the next lane.

“Dix Steele! How are you?” she calls. Getting no reaction, she ventures, “Don’t you remember me?”

“Sorry,” the man in the other car responds, “can’t say that I do.”

“Well, you wrote the last picture I did,” she prompts, “at Columbia.”

“Oh,” he says sourly. “I make it a point never to see pictures I write.”

OK, so that’s a scene from a movie. The actor playing Dixon Steele is Humphrey Bogart. But it’s also a scene from Dorothy June Smith’s life. By 1950, when she appeared with Bogart in “In a Lonely Place,” she had made the unlikely journey from Harrod to Hollywood — some 1,934 miles, a figure that hardly suggests the psychic distance — and, as June Vincent, was established in an acting career that would eventually encompass 27 movies and more than 115 television appearances.

By the time Dorothy June reached Hollywood, she had already done some traveling. The Smiths lived a somewhat itinerant life, moving periodically as her father was called to a succession of different churches — from Dayton in 1918 to Harrod, then shortly after her birth to Medford, Massachusetts, and to Keene, New Hampshire, in 1931.

Dorothy June (“D.J.” to her friends) graduated from Keene High School at 16. By then she was acting in school productions and summer stock. She spent a year at Oberlin College then, with her parents’ blessing, was off to New York.

There she adopted her stage name and worked as a model to pay for acting lessons. Her break came in 1943, when she was hired as an understudy for a Broadway play called “The Family.” The actress she was understudying became ill after the first performance and the preacher’s daughter stepped in for the remainder of the run.

The show closed after seven performances, but not before the budding starlet was spotted by a talent scout who quickly bundled her off to Hollywood. She signed with Universal Pictures, which promptly handed her third billing in a lightweight entertainment called “Honeymoon Lodge.”

Vincent made eight pictures at Universal, the best of which — the movie that provided the best role of her career — was the last. In “Black Angel” (1946), Vincent went undercover as a nightclub singer, assisted by a smitten songwriter (Dan Duryea), in an attempt to clear her wrongfully-convicted husband of a murder charge.

“Black Angel” attracted little attention at the time, but in 1998 the Los Angeles Times called it a “gripping and melancholy mystery (that) epitomizes the broken-dreams mentality of (film) noir.”

By “In a Lonely Place,” Vincent’s film career was in decline. She made only two movies after 1953. But she became part of a pioneering generation in the burgeoning medium of television. Making her TV debut in the late 1940s, she would remain in demand for guest-star parts for 25 years.

She worked in early dramatic anthology series and in multiple episodes of “Perry Mason” and “Have Gun — Will Travel.” She turned up everywhere from “The Fugitive” and “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” to “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Bewitched.” She served as a foil for Abbott and Costello on both the big and small screens.

She played spies, jewel thieves and conniving women of all kinds. She also played a reporter, a prosecuting attorney, a couple of military officers and at least one countess. Her enduring image was that of a socialite or sophisticate, often of the “ice queen” variety.

TV Guide described her as the quintessential “other woman” and said she had made a career of playing home-wreckers.

The question sometimes asked about June Vincent is why she didn’t have a “bigger” career. The answer has something to do with not getting top material in her formative years.

More to the point, she didn’t want a bigger career. She wasn’t driven by stardom and had no interest in celebrity. Married in 1944 to William M. Sterling, whom she met when he was a Navy pilot during World War II, she had three children. Each time, she granted herself extended maternity leave. One such hiatus reportedly cost her the role of Robert Young’s wife in the long-running TV series “Father Knows Best.”

She was also uncommonly candid for an actress of her generation. She seemed to enjoy subverting the Hollywood myth machine. Her first picture had barely been released when she discovered that studio publicists were giving her age as 18. Vincent popped that balloon immediately.

“I’m 23,” she told the Boston Sunday Post.

Years later she confessed to a syndicated columnist that her hair was naturally brown, not blonde. Late in her career, temporarily between jobs, she consented to be interviewed for a story about unemployed actors while standing in line to collect her benefits.

She also told of turning down a regular role in a series.

“I tried to explain to the producers. I have children,” she said. “But they think I’m throwing away a golden opportunity to become a big name — which is exactly what I don’t want.”

She was last seen on television in 1976 and lived the last years of her long, quiet retirement in Colorado. Bill Sterling died in 2002, after 58 years of marriage. Hollywood’s June Vincent, formerly Dorothy June Smith of Harrod, Ohio, died Nov. 20, 2008, in Aurora, Colorado, at age 88.

No obituary was published.

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