Fay McKenzie, an actor and singer whose film career spanned a century and crested when she was Gene Autry’s leading lady in five early 1940s horse operas, died on April 16 in Highland Park, Calif. She was 101.
Her death was confirmed by Bryan Cooper, a distant relative.
Ms. McKenzie made her screen debut in 1918, when she was 10 weeks old, cradled in Gloria Swanson’s arms in Station Content, a five-reel silent romance. Her last role was a cameo appearance with her son, Tom Waldman Jr., in Kill a Better Mousetrap, a comedy based on a play by Scott Ratner that was filmed last summer and has yet to be released.
In between, she appeared in five movies for director Blake Edwards (in one instance playing the hostess of the title bacchanal in The Party, a 1968 madcap comedy written by her husband, Tom Waldman, and starring Peter Sellers); co-starred with Don Barry in Remember Pearl Harbor in 1942; and was cast in dozens of B movies, revues and Broadway productions.
Despite her precocious start in motion pictures, she said she was discovered, in the Hollywood vernacular, only in 1941, when Herbert Yates, the president of Republic Pictures, spotted her in a bathing suit poolside at the home of her brother-in-law Billy Gilbert, the comedian renowned for his spasmodic sneezes.
After a screen test, Mr. Yates signed her to appear opposite Mr. Autry, the singing cowboy, in Down Mexico Way, followed by Sierra Sue, also in 1941, and Cowboy Serenade, Heart of the Rio Grande and Home in Wyomin’, all in 1942.
“I could sing, and that was something the earlier girls couldn’t do,” Ms. McKenzie was quoted as saying in an interview with westernclippings.com. “I could do more than smile and wave at the cowboy.”
Being a co-star, she recalled, contrasted with some of her roles as a teenager in low-budget silents, which were shot in three days without a script.
“They’d all ride one way and say this,” she remembered. “Then they’d all ride the other way and say that.”
Fay McKenzie was born in Hollywood, Calif., on Feb. 19, 1918, to Robert and Eva (Heazlitt) McKenzie. Her mother was a film actor, and her father was an actor and director with his own stock company. Fay went to Beverly Hills High School.
Her marriage to actor Steve Cochran in 1946 ended in divorce two years later. She married Mr. Waldman in 1949; he died in 1985. In addition to their son, she leaves their daughter, Madora McKenzie Kibbe, and two grandchildren.
Among her other roles were young Sarah Lincoln (the older sister) in The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln (1924) and Linda Clayton in the anti-cannabis film Assassin of Youth (1938). She also appeared in Burlesque on Broadway with Bert Lahr (1946) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).
While she could ride a horse, she wasn’t skillful enough to do stunts – although “you do everything – if you want to work,” Ms. McKenzie said. That resolve was severely tested on the set of one Western when she was asked to drive a buckboard.
“Oh, sure!” she recalled replying. “I thought I was going to perish,” she said. “I jumped on the wagon – a-raring to go. The horses took off, and I thought to myself, ‘Oh, Lord, this is the end of me!’ Then the director yelled, ‘Cut!’ and those horses stopped on a dime!”