Born in Buffalo New York on 20th February 1929, Beverly Louise Neill was a descendent of Kate Berry, the celebrated American Revolutionary War heroine, who warned the Continental Army that the British were approaching shortly before the Battle of Cowpens in 1871. Relocating to California with her parents, she started a course at Pomona College, but decided to quit a year later to pursue a career as an actress after becoming involved with a local community theatre.
At the age of 20, having changed her name to Amanda Blake and touted as ‘the young Greer Garson,’ she won her first movie role in Stars in My Crown (1950) a drama about a Civil War Veteran’s who becomes the gospel minister of Walesburg, a lawless town where he struggles to gain acceptance. In 1950, she also featured in Duchess of Idaho with Esther Williams and Lena Horne, as well as the film noir Counterspy Meets Scotland Yard. A string of minor film and television appearances ensued in productions such as Scarlet Angel (1952), Sabre Jet (1953), A Star is Born (1954), The Glass Slipper (1955) and High Society (1955). It seemed that in spite of her feline beauty and seductive husky voice, Blake was never to be a major leading lady or a huge Hollywood star.
Above: Gunsmoke – Miss Kitty Season 7 Episode 3 (1961)
In 1955, she accepted a part on a new television series called Gunsmoke. Originally a radio programme, set in Dodge City, Kansas during the 1870s, Blake was cast as Miss Kitty Russell, the feisty dancer and later, the proprietor, of the Long Branch Saloon. She would appear on small screens across America as Miss Kitty for nineteen seasons until she asked to be written out in 1974, remarking that, ‘nineteen years is a hell of long time for someone to be stuck behind a bar.’ The show ran for one more season after Blake’s departure, with the final episode airing on 31st March 1975.
Blake accepted a limited number of other television and TV movie roles, and even reprised the role of Miss Kitty in Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge in 1987. However, she discovered that her real passion was not acting, but animals, publicly stating in an interview that she would never again wear fur as ‘There’s a difference between an Eskimo killing a seal for survival and some dumb broad strolling down Fifth Avenue in a leopard coat.’
Moving to Texas in the mid-1960s, Blake helped to found the Arizona Animal Welfare League in 1971 and by 1985, she was also heavily involved with the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), a charity set-up by the former animal-trainer Pat Derby, which was dedicated to the protection of abused performing and exotic animals. Married four times, with her third husband Frank Gilbert she frequently travelled to Africa, where they worked alongside conservationists and created a breeding programme for cheetahs in America, becoming the first people to successfully breed the big cats in captivity. Speaking out about her cheetahs, Blake told reporters, that her ambition was ‘to save the species. The cheetah isn’t surviving in its native habitat. Future generations might not be able to see one.’
A lifelong chain smoker, Blake was diagnosed with oral cancer in 1977 and recovered following surgery, but went on to become an ardent supporter of the American Cancer Society, culminating in the receipt of its annual award for courage, presented to her by President Ronald Reagan on 29th March 1984.
Above: Amanda Blake accepts the American Cancer Society Courage Award (1984)
Blake’s fourth and lasted marriage in April 1984, to Mark Spaeth a property developer and member of the Austin City Council, rapidly ended in divorce. In 1985, Spaeth, passed away from pneumonia, a complication of AIDS. At that time, little was known about the condition or its precursor, HIV. Having returned to California to live at the PAWS sanctuary in Galt, Blake complained of feeling unwell and, worried that her cancer was back, she went for tests. Her cancer fears were confirmed and she told by her doctor that she also had hepatitis; she died on 16th August 1989.
Speculation as to the cause of her death became rife when her doctor, Lou Nishimura, told People Magazine in November 1989, that Blake had not died of cancer as previously claimed in a statement by her family, but from liver failure as a consequence of AIDS. Given the ignorance that surrounded the disease at that time, Blake had chosen to confide in only a few close friends.
Following her cremation, as she wished to be forever at one with the creatures who had brought her so much joy, Blake’s ashes were scattered across the nature reserves of the Performing Animal Welfare Society in San Andreas. She requested that her estate be auctioned off, with all the proceeds donated to the charitable foundation. It was because Blake’s family contested her will, suggesting that she was mentally unfit, that Dr Nishimura spoke out, and the truth about her death came to light. In her honour, PAWS created the Amanda Blake Wildlife Memorial Refuge in 1997. Located in Herald, California, it is a place where animals who would otherwise be used for hunting, or kept as pets in often unsuitable environments, can roam safely and freely
“Perfectly” Amanda: Gunsmoke’s Miss Kitty: To Dodge and Beyond – Beckey Burgoyne (2010)