Barbara Payton: The Tragic Fall of a 1950s Film Star

Barbara Payton: Death of a 1950s Movie Star
November 16, 2020 - 16:02 / Lucas Anderson

Barbara Payton was a promising young actress who suffered a tragic decline in the 1950s. This is Payton's story, from her rise as a bombshell Hollywood star, to her scandalous personal life and tragic death at the age of just 39 in 1967.

Barbara Payton's story is one that mirrors the fatal and tragic films in which she starred. 

The actress made it big in the movies by the early 1950s, but it all ended a few years later amid troubled dealings in her personal life. Not long after, she was dead at the age of 39. This is the story of her promising rise and tragic fall in the heart of Hollywood's golden age.

Barbara Payton: Bombshell of 1950s movies

Born in 1927, Payton rose to fame as a model who ended up in Hollywood, making a name for herself on the local club scene. It was there she earned her first contract from a studio in 1949, appearing that year in her first films—notably including the film noir Trapped.

Barbara Payton movies: Trapped (1950, with Lloyd Bridges)

Soon after, Payton emerged as a new "blonde bombshell," even testing for roles that Marilyn Monroe would land instead. But she had her big break in 1951, starring opposite gangster icon James Cagney in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.

The 1951 film helped make her a well-known name, and around the same time she co-headlined Westerns with Gregory Peck and Gary Cooper.

Barbara Payton movies: Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950)

But off-screen, Payton's tumultuous personal life took a toll and largely ended her career by the mid-1950s.

The downfall and death of Barbara Payton

In her short lifetime, Payton married five times and was notorious for her party lifestyle and high-profile affairs. Coinciding with her 1950s Hollywood rise, Payton became engaged to actor Franchot Tone, while also having an affair with actor Tom Neal.

Famously, the love triangle made for violent headlines: Neal once even knocked Tone into a coma. Payton married Tone in 1951, but they divorced soon after. It's suggested that tabloid press on the affair led to the end of work in Hollywood for Payton.

Barbara Payton and Tom Neal: Tabloid couple of the '50s

She then tried her hand at films in England before completing a film noir, Murder Is My Beat, in 1955. But despite not even being 30 years old, Payton's career was virtually over and she spiraled downward into alcohol and drug addiction.

She released an autobiography in 1963 and had a small part in 4 for Texas the same year. It was her final role. Four troubled years later, feeling ill, she moved in with her parents and at their home died of heart and liver failure. She was just 39.

Today, Payton is remembered as a star whose potential went untapped and was tragically lost too soon after showing flashes of brilliance in her early roles.