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In October 1958, well before she donned kittenish ears and an unforgettable, sparkling black bodysuit as TV’s original feline femme fatale, Catwoman, 25-year-old Julie Newmar starred on Broadway in a sex comedy called The Marriage-Go-Round. Her racy role of a seductive young Swede, for which she won a Tony Award, also nabbed the actress a high-profile photo shoot for LIFE magazine. “I was supposed to be on the cover,” Newmar, who turns 81 on Aug. 16, recalled in an interview with LIFE.com. “But you know what happened? The pope died!”
Pope Pius XII died of a heart attack on October 9, 1958, and the cover story on Newmar was downgraded to a feature deep inside the magazine; only one of Ralph Morse’s pictures of Newmar ever appeared in LIFE—and that one showed her from behind, her face barely visible in partial profile. Still, Newmar remembers the shoot, and the play, vividly. In many of Morse’s pictures, “I’m pretending I’m keeping this towel from coming off—which it couldn’t, because I had it held on with eyelash glue over each breast,” she said.
As it turns out, when the play’s producers were looking for someone to fill the role of Katrin Sveg, a young Swedish woman who wants a married professor of anthropology to father her child, Newmar wasn’t the first choice. “They couldn’t get [Swedish actress and bombshell] Anita Ekberg. I think the playwright actually wanted Brigitte Bardot, but Brigitte is French, of course, not Swedish.”
When LIFE learned that Newmar had been cast in the play, also starring film greats Charles Boyer (at left, with Newmar) and Claudette Colbert, the magazine sent Morse to photograph her. The assignment would only take him a few blocks from the LIFE offices to the play’s set, which had been made up to look like an academic couple’s apartment.
For Newmar, still early in her career, the LIFE photo shoot was, she admits, a little nerve-racking. “I see that one side of my mouth is turned down,” she noted of her expression in some of the pictures. “That tells me that I didn’t yet have the savvy I needed for this kind of attention—knowing how to really pose, tilt my head, those kind of things.”
The photo shoot was quick and throughly professional, Newmar assured LIFE.com, but the artificiality of some of the poses still makes her laugh. “You simply can’t lie or even kneel down in those positions and feel comfortable,” she said. “It has to be true. In some of these pictures, my look kind of says, ‘Hey, shorty, get off your knees and get this picture taken!'” (Photographer Morse, now 97, while one of the 20th century’s greatest photojournalists, is not the tallest of men.)
Of the last photo in the gallery above (#8), Newmar noted that she’s wearing “that old-fashioned makeup with the false eyelashes everyone wore back then, extending beyond the eye. It’s relaxed. It has that golden, glamorous feel of the 1950s. That’s my personal favorite. I have a mousepad with that picture on it.”