sex symbol. Despite being cast in a wide range of roles during her heyday, Baker's beautiful features, blonde hair, and distinctive drawl made her particularly memorable in roles as a brash, flamboyant woman.
Early lifeBaker was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Virginia (née Duffy) and William Watson Baker, who was a traveling salesman. She spent a year at community college, and subsequently worked as a magician's assistant.
CareerBaker began her film career in 1953, with a small part in Easy to Love. After appearing in television commercials and training at New York's Actors Studio, she took a role in the Broadway production of All Summer Long. That appearance brought her to the attention of director Elia Kazan, who cast Baker as the title character in his controversial Baby Doll. Her Tennessee Williams-scripted role as a Mississippi teenage bride to a failed middle-aged cotton gin owner brought Baker instant fame as well as a certain level of notoriety. Baby Doll would remain the film for which she is best remembered; she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role. Two months prior to Baby Doll's release, she appeared in the supporting role of Luz Benedict II in Giant, opposite Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean.
She would go on to work steadily in films throughout the late fifties and early sixties, appearing in a variety of genres: romances, such as The Miracle co-starring a young Roger Moore and But Not for Me (both 1959); westerns, including The Big Country (1958) and How the West Was Won (1962); and steamy melodramas, including Something Wild (1961), directed by her then-husband Jack Garfein, and Station Six-Sahara (1962). While Baker was on location in Africa for the 1965 movie Mister Moses, an apocryphal story has it that a Maasai chief offered 150 cows, 200 goats, sheep, and $750 for her hand in marriageShe subsequently appeared with Masai warriors on the cover of Life's 1964 issue. In addition to her film acting, she also found time to appear again on Broadway, starring in the 1962 production of Garson Kanin's Come on Strong.
Baker's portrayal of a Jean Harlow-like movie star in the 1964 hit The Carpetbaggers brought her a second wave of notoriety. The film was the top moneymaker of that year, with domestic rentals of $13,000,000and marked the beginning of a tumultuous relationship with the film's producer, Joseph E. Levine. Based on her Carpetbaggers performance, Levine began to develop Baker as a movie sex symbol, casting her in the title roles of two 1965 potboilers, Sylvia and Harlow. Despite much pre-publicity, the latter film was not a success, and relations between Baker and Levine soured.
Following a protracted legal battle with Paramount Pictures and divorce from her second husband, Jack Garfein, Baker moved to Europe. Eventually settling in Italy, she would spend the next several years starring in hard-edged giallo thrillers, including Her Harem (1967), The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968), Paranoia (1969), and Baba Yaga (1973). During those years, film locations would take her all around the world, including Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Mexico. A lead role in Andy Warhol's Bad (1977) brought her back to American shores. The seventies also saw a return to the stage, where she appeared in productions of Lucy Crown and Motive.
By the eighties, Baker moved into character work, playing the mother of Dorothy Stratten in Star 80 (1983) and Jack Nicholson's wife in Ironweed (1987). In 1990, she played a villainess in the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Kindergarten Cop. Her film and television work continued sporadically through the nineties, and the 2006 DVD release of Baby Doll features a documentary with Baker reflecting on the impact the film had on her career.
Baker has also been featured in documentaries on several of her co-stars, including Clark Gable, Roger Moore, Sal Mineo, and James Dean, including the 1975 James Dean: The First American Teenager, and a 1985 BBC Radio 2 tribute marking the 30th anniversary of the actor's death. Also she appeared in the documentary Cinerama Adventure released along with the restored How the West was Won in 2008.
Baker has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1725 Vine Street. She has written three books: Baby Doll, An Autobiography, published in 1983, plus A Roman Tale and To Africa, With Love, both in 1985.
Personal lifeBaker has been married three times. Her first, to furrier Louie Ritter, ended before she enrolled in the Actors Studio in 1954. Her second marriage was to director Jack Garfein, a Holocaust survivor she met at the Studio and for whom she converted to Judaism (having been raised a Catholic). They had one daughter, Blanche Baker, born in 1956, and a son, Herschel Garfein, born in 1958. Garfein and Baker divorced in 1969.
Baker married her third husband, British theater actor Donald Burton, on March 10, 1978. The couple remained together until Burton's death from emphysema at their home in Cathedral City, California, on December 8, 2007.
Easy to Love (1953)
Baby Doll (1956)
The Big Country (1958)
But Not for Me (1959)
The Miracle (1959)
Bridge to the Sun (1961)
Something Wild (1961)
How the West Was Won (1962)
Station Six-Sahara (1962)
The Carpetbaggers (1964)
Cheyenne Autumn (1964)
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
Mister Moses (1965)
Her Harem (1967)
Jack of Diamonds (1968)
The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968)
So Sweet... So Perverse (1969)
A Quiet Place to Kill (1970)
The Fourth Mrs. Anderson (1971)
Captain Apache (1971)
The Devil Has Seven Faces (1971)
Silent Horror (1972)
Baba Yaga (1973)
The Flower with the Deadly Sting (1974)
The Body (1974)
Valentina, The Virgin Wife (1975)
Private Lessons (1975)
As of Tomorrow (1976)
My Father's Wife (1976)
Andy Warhol's Bad (1977)
The World Is Full of Married Men (1979)
The Sky Is Falling (1979)
The Watcher in the Woods (1980)
Star 80 (1983)
Red Monarch (1983)
The Secret Diary of Sigmund Freud (1984)
Native Son (1986)
Kindergarten Cop (1990)
Blonde Fist (1991)
Gipsy Angel (1992)
Deadly Measures (1995)
Just Your Luck (1996)
The Game (1997)
Nowhere to Go (1998)
Cinerama Adventure (2002) (documentary)
Flashes Festival (1965)
The Spider (1970)