Betta St. John, who originated the role of Liat in Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific, passed away June 23. She was 93. The news was confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter by St. John's son, Roger Grant.
Born Betty Jean Striegler in Hawthorne, California, Ms. St. John was one of the Meglin Kiddies troupe of child actors, singers, and dancers alongside Shirley Temple. At the age of 10, she made her uncredited film debut in 1939's Destry Rides Again alongside James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, which she followed up with a background role as an orphan in 1943's Jane Eyre opposite Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. Ms. St. John narrowly avoided a minor role in the seminal classic film The Wizard of Oz due to a family vacation, but all was not lost.
When Ms. St. John turned 16, she turned her focus toward the stage, playing Louise in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel on Broadway and in the touring company before being cast as Liat in South Pacific. While Ms. St. John was of European descent, she played the Polynesian Liat in both the Broadway and the London companies of the musical, before being replaced by France Nuyen for the film adaptation. (Editor's note: South Pacific, like many plays, musicals, and films of its era, has an unfortunate history with racially inappropriate casting of white actors that has not carried through to most modern stagings.)
After South Pacific, Ms. St. John appeared in a selection of films, including The Robe, Dream Wife, and All the Brothers Were Valiant, as well as the 1954 film adaptation of the operetta The Student Prince.
Ms. St. John starred in two Tarzan films, including the first color entry, 1957's Tarzan and the Lost Safari, and in 1960's Tarzan the Magnificent. She continued to act sporadically until leaving the entertainment industry in 1965.
Ms. St. John married the English actor Peter Grant, who played Lieutenant Cable opposite her in the London production of South Pacific, in 1952. The pair remained together until his death in 1992. Together, the pair had three children, Roger, Karen, and Deanna.
Ms. St. John is survived by her children, and her grandchildren. Services will be private.