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The British beauty who went from Doctor in the House to Hollywood treasure
Shirley Eaton will always be remembered for one iconic image: the beautiful blonde covered in gold paint lying in James Bond’s bed. For this, her most famous role, she was only on screen for 16 minutes before her character, Jill Masterson, was killed in the most ingenious and eye-catching way. But the image endures largely because the Goldfinger publicity machine made sure of it.
Although she was overjoyed to get the part, the whole experience was tainted with disappointment. Ultimately she sued the filmmakers because she was unhappy with her billing. But it was at the premier that she discovered two shocking truths. Sitting in the darkened theatre she realised the gold-covered blonde slinking her way through the credit sequence wasn’t her – they’d replaced her with co-star Margaret Nolan.
But a worse shock was to come while watching her scenes in the film: the voice coming out of her character’s mouth was not her own – she’d been dubbed.
Shirley never found out why these decisions were made, but swallowed her pride and agreed to undertake a three-week promotional tour of America, which culminated in her image on the cover of Life magazine.
But Shirley was hardly an overnight success – she’d made 20 films before her golden moment. After her parents scrimped and saved to send her to Aida Foster’s stage school she made her acting debut aged 11 in a TV series called Parent Craft. It was 1951 and TV was in its infancy. Small stage, TV and radio roles followed, including a stint on The Light Programme with Max Bygraves, but Shirley really wanted to break into movies.
Her opportunity came when the makers of Prince Valiant needed a stand in who could ride a horse and looked enough like Janet Leigh for the long-distance shots. After this uncredited debut she was cast as a harem girl in You Know What Sailors Are, and made such an impression on producer Betty Box she was offered a small part in Doctor in the House. Before long, Shirley was cast in a series of roles in typically madcap British farces, which relied largely on her stunning good looks.
She worked alongside Dirk Bogarde in Doctor at Large and appeared in three of the early films in the Carry On franchise – Carry On Sergeant, Nurse and Constable. She worked steadily through the Fifties and Sixties and briefly joined the Rank Organisation, but resisted the way they treated their starlets and refused to be part of their ‘Charm School’.
It was The Naked Truth with Peter Sellers, Dennis Price and Terry Thomas that really got her noticed. So much so that when she married her husband, Colin Rowe, thousands of people lined the streets and it made newspaper headlines.
After Goldfinger, Hollywood beckoned and Shirley started to be offered more serious lead roles in movies such as Rhino and the underwater epic Around The World Under The Sea with Lloyd Bridges and heartthrob David McCallum.
Aged 32 Shirley made her last film, The Girl From Rio. She’d just had her second child, who’d been born prematurely, and decided she wanted to put her family first. Aged 80, she now works as an artist, sculptor and photographer living just a few minutes away from her childhood home in Edgware.