Dina Merrill, a beautiful, blonde actress with an aristocratic bearing known as much for her wealthy origins, philanthropy, and marriage to actor Cliff Robertson as for her work in film and television, died on Monday at her home in East Hampton, N.Y. She was 93.
Her son, Stanley H. Rumbough, told the New York Times that Merrill had Lewy Body dementia.
Her parents were Post Cereals heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, and her second husband, Wall Street’s E.F. Hutton.
In 1983, on the occasion of Merrill’s musical comedy debut in a revival of Rodgers and Hart’s 1936 musical ”On Your Toes,” the New York Times gushed, “Long regarded as the essence of chic, the epitome of class and such a persuasive purveyor of charm and charity that she could have a rightful claim to fame as an eloquent spokesman — and fund-raiser — for a slew of worthy causes, Miss Merrill has evoked instant recognition and elegant associations, more so for her persona than for her stage and screen performances.”
As Merrill hit the feature scene in the late 1950s, she was marketed as a replacement for Grace Kelly and certainly shared that actress’ elan. Merrill played nurse Lt. Duran, the love interest of Tony Curtis’ character, in Blake Edwards’ 1959 popular submarine comedy “Operation Petticoat,” and in 1960’s “Butterfield 8,” in which Elizabeth Taylor’s prostitute character has a relationship with a married man played by Laurence Harvey, Merrill played Harvey’s wife. Reviewing the latter film, the New York Times said that in her role Merrill is “lovely and simple.”
Also in 1960, the actress had a supporting role in Fred Zinnemann’s critically hailed “The Sundowners,” starring Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr as a couple trying to make their way in rural Australia.
Merrill had the lead female role opposite Burt Lancaster in John Frankenheimer’s 1961 effort “The Young Savages,” a social-issues film about poverty and crime in which Lancaster plays an assistant district attorney from the streets and Merrill his limousine-liberal wife — who in one (for the time) harrowing scene is threatened by gang members at knifepoint.
In Vincente Minnelli’s 1963 film “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” the actress played an elegant potential mate for Glenn Ford’s widower who is disapproved of by the titular Eddie.
Merrill, who, by the 1960s, was spending more time working in television than on films, also appeared in the 1965 Bob Hope comedy “I’ll Take Sweden”; in starring roles in 1973 Western “Running Wild” opposite Lloyd Bridges and 1974 family film “Throw Out the Anchor!” opposite Richard Egan; and in supporting roles in 1977 Muhammad Ali biopic “The Greatest,” Robert Altman’s 1978 film “A Wedding,” Sidney Lumet’s 1980 film “Just Tell Me What You Want,” and John Cusack-James Spader thriller “True Colors.” She was also among the many celebrities with small roles in Altman’s 1992 Hollywood satire “The Player.”
Merrill made her feature debut in the 1957 Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn office comedy “Desk Set” and her last credited bigscreen appearance in the 2003 poker-themed film “Shade,” starring Sylvester Stallone.
The actress’s relatively recent TV credits include A&E’s 2002 remake of “The Magnificent Ambersons” and a guest gig as a judge on A&E’s legal drama “100 Centre Street” the same year. In 1984 she had a series regular on the brief thriller series “Hot Pursuit.” She had a role in “Roots: The Next Generations,” among other TV movies and miniseries, and she guested on a wide variety of series beginning with “Four Star Playhouse” in 1955 and “Playhouse 90,” and on through “Dr. Kildare,” “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Night Gallery,” “The Odd Couple,” “The Love Boat” and, of course, “Murder, She Wrote.”
She and husband Cliff Robertson appeared as guest villains on “Batman,” she as Calamity Jan, he as Shame. They also starred together in the 1968 telepic “The Sunshine Patriot,” directed by Joseph Sargent.
In addition to the 1983 appearance in musical “On Your Toes,” Merrill appeared onstage in 1991 among the rotating cast in the Off Broadway staged reading of the play “Wit and Wisdom.”
Nedenia Marjorie Hutton was born in New York City. Her mother, Post Cereals heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, inherited $250 million in 1914 — $5 billion today — and was at one time the richest woman in the U.S.
She attended Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Conn., the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She made her Broadway debut in 1945 in the play “The Mermaids Singing.”
In 1991 Merrill and third husband Ted Hartley, a former actor she married in 1989, merged their company, Pavilion Communications, with RKO to form RKO Pictures, an entity that owns the copyright to the films of the RKO Radio Pictures movie studio.
She and Hartley created the Hartley Merrill International Screenwriting Prize, for which the couple received a special prize at the Hamptons Film Festival in 1998 for their support of screenwriters in developing nations.
Merrill was presidentially appointed to the board of trustees for Washington, D.C.’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. She was also a trustee of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.
Among her philanthropic pursuits was the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and the New York Mission Society and a director of the Paley Media Center.
Merrill received a lifetime achievement award from her alma mater the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 2005.