Janet Munro: Young, In Her Prime, And Tragically Taken Too Soon
British actress Janet Munro in 1967. (Photo by Photoshot/Getty Images)
Actress Janet Munro appeared in the Disney movies Darby O'Gill And The Little People (1959), Third Man On The Mountain (1959), and Swiss Family Robinson (1960). A charming screen presence who'd impressed TV audiences and film critics alike, Munro put her thriving career on hold to start a family in the '60s, then attempted to resume it as a mother of two. But Munro's second act was not to be, as she died of a heart attack at the age of 38.
As the daughter of Alex Munro, a Scottish comedian, Janet Munro seemed fated to become an actress. Alex Munro had been Alexander Horsburgh when his daughter, Janet Nellson Horsburgh, was born in Blackpool, England, near Liverpool, on September 28, 1934. A few years after Janet was born, her father changed his name to Munro. She would eventually adopt his stage name as her own.
When she was only eight, Munro's mother died. Her father was the head of entertainment for the Royal Air Force, and he brought her on the road with him. She wore a kilt and sang to entertain the troops. Then, when she was 10, she went to live with her aunt and uncle for a period of time until her father remarried. She then was raised by her stepmother, Lilias and her father.
Her Start In Acting
Janet Munro worked in a shoe shop after leaving school, but because she wanted to be an actress, she got a job with a repertory company. By the time she was 17, she stage manager for the company. She began appearing on British TV, starting with I Capture the Castle in 1954. She also had film roles in Small Hotel (1957), The Young and the Guilty (1958) and The Crawling Eye (1959). The young versatile actress came to Walt Disney’s attention with her performance in the episode “Pickup Girl” in ITV Television Playhouse, and he signed her to a five-movie deal. Her first role was in Darby O’Gill and the Little People, opposite Sean Connery in 1959. Almost immediately after the film, she was cast in The Third Man on the Mountain. She also made her debut on American television in 1959 in Berkeley Square for the Hallmark Hall of Fame. In 1960, Munro won a Golden Globe for “New Star of the Year.” She returned to Britain briefly to film Tommy the Toreador in 1959.
Her Final Work With Disney
In 1960, she starred in Swiss Family Robinson, which was filmed in the West Indies. Her next Disney film was to be Bon Voyage, but when production was delayed, Deborah Walley was cast in the role originally intended for Munro. Munro’s final work for Disney was The Horsemasters (1961), which was made for American television. With the end of her contract with Disney, she decided to take on more mature roles. She then filmed The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961), a science fiction film about the consequences when the United States and the Soviet Union detonate nuclear bombs simultaneously. However, her fans didn’t react too kindly to the change in roles. She did receive a BAFTA nomination for Walk in the Shadow (1962). In that film, she played the wife of a man, John Harris, who, because of religious beliefs, refused medical treatments for his daughter who had been injured in a boating accident.
Challenges In Her Personal Life
Meanwhile, she married twice: first to Tony Wright from 1956-1959 and then to Ian Hendry from 1963-1971. She met Wright at the Kismet Club in 1956 and they began dating. They married shortly after that. Reportedly, she wanted a lot of children but Wright didn’t want any. The couple separated in 1958, the same year she was chosen as “Miss English Television of 1958,” and by 1959, they were divorced. She was featured in two episodes of Armchair Theater, and worked with Ian Hendry in one of them. By 1963, she had married Hendry and had two miscarriages while trying to get pregnant. They eventually had two daughters, Sally and Alexandra.
Munro appeared in a few films in 1964, but when her children were born, she temporarily retired from acting to raise them. She returned to film to play a heavy drinking pop star in Sebastian (1968). In 1969, she had the lead in a series, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. British newspaper The Guardian said that she was "a revelation. She is no longer the B picture girl next door. She is a woman and her acting has power and experience of life." By 1971, her marriage to Hendry ended in divorce, and she admitted to being an alcoholic in 1972.
An Early Death
At the age of 38, on December 6, 1972, Janet Munro died under mysterious circumstances. Rumors circulated that she had choked while drinking tea at a London hotel. Later, her cause of death was revealed to be acute myocarditis, with chronic ischemic heart disease as the underlying cause.
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