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11 November 2011

Ursula Thiess

German film star Ursula Thiess (1924 – 2010) was dubbed by Life magazine as the ‘most beautiful woman in the world’. Howard Hughes offered her a long-term contract to RKO, but five years later she gave up her acting career after marrying Robert Taylor. The glamorous, luscious looking actress had only starred in a handful of Hollywood movies.

Ursula Thiess
Mexican collector's card, no. 160. Photo: publicity still for The Iron Glove (1954).

Unusual Beauty
Ursula Thiess was born as Ursula Schmidt in Hamburg, Germany in 1924 to Wilhelmine Lange and Hans Schmidt, who was the manager of a printing shop. In 1939, she refused to join the paramilitary Hitler Youth movement, and therefore the authorities of the Third Reich took her out of school and made her work as a farm laborer for one year. After that she began her entertainment career appearing on the stage and dubbing female voices in foreign films. She met and married German film producer Georg Otto Thiess in 1942. They would have two children, Manuela (1944) and Michael (1946), but the relatively unhappy marriage dissolved in 1947. In 1948, she began a modeling career in Berlin. As Ursula Thiess she was featured in many German magazines, and the photos of the unusual beauty appeared on several covers. She also had a small role in the German film Nachtwache/Keepers of the Night (1949, Harald Braun) starring Luise Ullrich. Film mogul Howard Hughes had spotted her and urged her to leave postwar Germany. The trip coincided with a cover shoot in Life magazine. The magazine called her the ‘most beautiful woman in the world’ and Hughes signed her for a long-term contract to RKO. Her debut film was as a half caste English/India(n) girl in the outdoor drama Monsoon (1952, Rod Amateau) opposite the frequently bare-chested George Nader. She was voted Most Promising Star of 1952 by Modern Screen Magazine along with Marilyn Monroe. She then co-starred with Robert Stack in the clunky adventure film The Iron Glove (1954, William Castle) and appeared opposite Rock Hudson in the more enjoyable Bengal Brigade (1954, Laslo Benedek). The following years she appeared with Glenn Ford in The Americano (1955, William Castle), and with Robert Mitchum in Bandido (1956, Richard Fleischer), set during the Mexican civil war of 1916. In these run-of-the-mill action adventure stories she was mainly a (highly) decorative element, supporting the leading men. She also was a popular pin-up in film fan magazines. At IMDb, Gary Brumburgh describes her as a ‘Glamorous brunette beauty’: “Gorgeous was too tame a word for this foreigner stunner.”

Ursula Thiess
German postcard by Kunst und Bild, no. A 955. Photo: Döring Film G.m.b.H. Publicity still for Monsoon (1952).

Ursula Thiess
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. D. 543. Photo: Universal International.

Blind Date
Ursula Thiess had met handsome film star Robert Taylor on a blind date in April 1952 after his marriage to actress Barbara Stanwyck had ended the previous year. They married two years later. When she was up to co-star with Clark Gable in The King and Four Queens (1956, Raoul Walsh) at Gable's request, she turned it down to focus on her family. The Taylors had two children Terry (1955) and Tessa (1959). They moved with Ursula's two children from her previous marriage, to their ranch in Brentwood, California, in 1956, and lived there until Taylor's death from cancer in 1969. She did appear in three episodes of her husband's TV series The Detectives Starring Robert Taylor (1959) during its first season, playing a police reporter who has a brief affair with Taylor's character. Ursula's two children, Manuela and Michael, had many adjustment problems adapting to their new life, and were often in trouble with the police, causing the family to suffer bad publicity as a result. Her son, Michael, who had served a year in a German prison for attempting to poison his natural father, died shortly before Robert Taylor's death, in 1969. He had committed suicide by overdose at the age of 24. Ursula discovered him dead when she stopped by his motel to drop him off some medication. After Taylor's death, she was obliged to sell their ranch. Thiess did some film and TV appearances before bowing out completely. Her last film was the completely overlooked Left Hand of Gemini (1972) with Richard Egan and Ian McShane. She moved to Bel Air, and married film distributor Marshal Schacker in 1973. They stayed married until his death from cancer in 1986. Ursula had undergone surgery for a benign brain tumor in 1979, but recovered to lead a normal life, often visiting Hawaii while her children pursued their careers. She wrote her autobiography, ...But I Have Promises to Keep: My Life Before, With and After Robert Taylor. In 2010, Ursula Thiess died of natural causes in an assisted living care facility in Burbank, US at the age of 86. She was survived by three of her four children, Manuela, Terry, and Tessa.

Ursula Thiess
German postcard by Universum-Film AG (UFA), Berlin-Tempelhof, no. FK 779. Photo: RKO-Radio Film.

House of Robert Taylor, Beverly Hills, LA
Beverly Hills House of the Taylor family, 510, Roxbury Drive, Los Angeles, USA.

Sources: Gary Brumburgh (IMDb), E.A. Kral (Beatrice Daily Sun), The Telegraph, Wikipedia, and IMDb.

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