Janet Leigh returns to Tahoe where she got her break 54 years ago

STATELINE, Nev. - For Janet Leigh, returning to Lake Tahoe must seem more like a time warp than a homecoming. Her first connection to the area was a chance encounter 54 years ago that forever altered her destiny.

A simple twist of fate for Leigh - then Jeanette Helen Morrison - led to one of Hollywood's great discoveries and a 50-year career that's the stuff of film legends.

Leigh will be honored April 8 by the Lake Tahoe Pioneering in Film Festival and the American Film Institute for her enduring legacy to motion pictures. The April 7-9 event will include her films ''Psycho'' and ''The Manchurian Candidate.''

Leigh's chance discovery started on a winter break visit with her parents, who worked at nearby Sugar Bowl Ski Ranch ski resort, when she was photographed by the lodge photographer.

''I had never seen snow before,'' she said during a recent phone interview. ''I guess he caught just the right expression.''

A month later, the image caught the attention of famed actress Norma Shearer, who was a visitor at the lodge. Shearer arranged for a screen test with MGM Studios.

That forever changed Jeanette Helen Morrison into the film legend known as Janet Leigh. Within days she had signed a 7-year contract. Within weeks, she was making her movie debut in 1946 opposite Van Johnson, the highest paid actor in Hollywood at the time, in ''The Romance of Rosy Ridge.''

Now, with more than 50 movies to her credit including her enduring performance as the beautiful shower-stabbing victim, Marion Crane, in Alfred Hitchcock's ''Psycho,'' Leigh is a cinema icon.

Her latest film, the mystery-comedy ''A Fate Totally Worse than Death,'' is slated to be released in the fall. Cast with Christopher Lloyd, she said the two of them were the only ones in the film older than 20.

''It's a fun kind of twist for me,'' she said. ''It appealed to me because it's not at all what you would expect me to play. This is a complete departure.''

Her Cinderella beginning in Hollywood was a very different experience than that of her two actress daughters, Jamie Lee Curtis and Kelly Curtis.

Competition today is ''just awesome, just unbelievable,'' Leigh said. ''Jamie and Kelly did bit parts. I never did that. I started out as the lead ingenue.''

She says MGM was behind her, training her, promoting her and protecting her. It was all part of the movie studios' process she calls building a ''house of brick.''

The result was a career in which Leigh was cast with many other screen greats including Angela Lansbury, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Jerry Lewis, and her former husband, Tony Curtis. After 50 films, the list of actors she has appeared with reads like a Hollywood who's who.

She captured the dazzling excitement of her Hollywood years in her autobiography ''There Really Was a Hollywood.''

She's also written ''Behind the Scenes of Psycho,'' her acclaimed first novel, ''House of Destiny,'' and her soon-to-be released novel ''House of Secrets.''

Leigh also is working to preserve old films. She says a much greater effort needs to be made to prevent the classics from disintegrating due to age and poor storage.

''When I was a child, I saw the world through movies. I learned about different cultures and different histories. Most of us did,'' she said. ''I used to think that once it was on film, it was forever. But 15 years ago, I was being honored at a festival and they showed my first film. I just about cried. It was in deplorable condition.''

''There is no question that motion pictures have been one the most effective mediums for cultural expression this last century,'' she says. ''There are so many masterpieces, so many wonderful films out there that we don't want to forget. That's why we have to preserve these films now. They are part of our cultural heritage.''


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