Her career began in England where she appeared in David Lean’s “Great Expectations” and Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” (1948) where she received an Oscar nomination. When she came to the U.S. she had to battle Howard Hughes (who owned RKO studios at the time) for the right to make good movies. Winning that lawsuit awarded Simmons with several well-known movies that have become classics.
Her roles in “The Robe” (starring Richard Burton and the first film in Cinemascope), “Elmer Gantry,” “Gus and Dolls” and “Spartacus” made Simmons’ looks and acting ability a force to be reckoned with in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Later on in her career she moved on to television and stage plays where she garnished an Emmy for her role in “The Thorn Birds” (1983).
What made Simmons an actress who was constantly working was her soft-spoken voice and her range. She could emote with a glance, and make you empathize with her character’s plight even if she was in the wrong. In the ‘80s and ‘90s Simmons portrayed the mother figure in several television movies and miniseries besides “The Thorn Birds.” There was “North and South,” “North and South Book Two,” “A Small Killing” and the Masterpiece Theater adaptation of “Great Expectations” where she played Miss Havisham. For fans of occult movie and television themed shows her role in the 1991 remake “Dark Shadows” may be what she will be best known for. Running for only 12 episodes it told the tale of tormented vampire Barnabas Collins through flashbacks and the present-day simultaneously. This series which gave Simmons the opportunity to play a matriarch from the mid 19th century and from the early 1990s’ was a study in subtle acting as there was little to differentiate the time period besides the clothes and accents.
For the next several years Simmons mostly did voice-over work narrating shows such as “American Masters.” Her most recent completed work was as Hannah in the 2009 small film “Shadows in the Sun”: a London production in which a man helps a family in 1960s England find themselves and the love they have for each other.
Her quality and style of acting will be missed.