Sue Lyon

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Sue Lyon
Lyon in the film Tony Rome (1967)
Suellyn Lyon

(1946-07-10)July 10, 1946
DiedDecember 26, 2019(2019-12-26) (aged 73)
Alma materLos Angeles City College
Santa Monica College
Years active1959–1980
(m. 1963; div. 1965)
Roland Harrison
(m. 1971; div. 1972)
Cotton Adamson
(m. 1973; div. 1974)
Edward Weathers
(m. 1983; div. 1984)
Richard Rudman
(m. 1985; div. 2002)

Suellyn Lyon (July 10, 1946 – December 26, 2019) was an American actress who is most famous today for playing Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita in Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film adaptation of Nabokov's eponymous novel, for which she was awarded a Golden Globe.[1]

Lyon's early career flourished with appearances in such high profile films as John Huston's The Night of the Iguana (1964), John Ford's 7 Women (1966), the Frank Sinatra detective flick Tony Rome (1967), and the George C. Scott comedy The Flim Flam Man (1967), but her career dropped off in the 1970s and she retired from acting after making Alligator, which was released in 1980.

In 1991, Lyon featured prominently on the artwork for Welsh rock band Manic Street Preachers single 'Stay Beautiful'.

Early life[edit]

Suellyn Lyon, called Sue, was born on July 10, 1946, in Davenport, Iowa.[2] She was the youngest of five children of Sue (Karr) Lyon and her husband; the father died before the girl's first birthday. Sue worked as a child model[3] in Dallas. Her mother soon took the family to Los Angeles, where she thought there would be more opportunity. [4]

Playing Lolita[edit]

With only two acting credits, at the age of 14, Lyon was cast in the role of Dolores "Lolita" Haze in Stanley Kubrick's film Lolita (1962).[5] She was chosen for the role[6] from 800 teenagers. Lyon co-starred with James Mason, then aged 53.[7] Nabokov, who wrote the novel and much of the screenplay, described her as the "perfect nymphet".[7]

Lyon got the role as the original choice, British actress Jill Haworth, was unavailable. Haworth had co-starred in Otto Preminger's 1960 film adaptation of Leon Uris' novel Exodus, and was under contract to him. Preminger refused to allow Haworth to play Lolita.[8] The role was then offered to child star Hayley Mills, but her father John Mills refused permission for her to do it.[9] Hayley Mills was under contract to studio owner Walt Disney, who not only refused his permission for her to appear in the film, but told the press that he did not want her to see the finished film.[10][11] Other young actresses considered for the role were Joey Heatherton and Sandra Dee.

The film trade magazine Variety reported on August 10, 1960 that James Mason was set for the part of Humbert Humbert and that Tuesday Weld was "likely" to be cast in the title role. On September 28, 1960, the Los Angeles Times reported the casting of Lyon.[10]

Lyon's age[edit]

Although Vladimir Nabokov originally thought that Sue Lyon was the right selection to play Lolita, years later Nabokov said that the ideal Lolita would have been Catherine Demongeot, a young French actress who had played the child Zazie in Louis Malle's Zazie in the Metro (1960). The tomboyish Demongeot was four years younger than Lyon.[12]

In Nabokov's novel, the character Lolita is 12 years old.[13] Lyon was 14[3]–15[13] during most of production, and a month shy of her 16th birthday when the film premiered.[14][13][15] Although Kubrick raised the age of Lolita to dampen down the backlash from censors and pressure groups in a time when the Production Code was still in force, his Lolita was still considered one of the most controversial films of the day because of the scandalous relationship at its heart.[16]

In the opening paragraphs of the novel, Nabokov writes, "She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock." The adolescent Sue Lyon was 5'3 inches tall (160 centimeters) and had a developed bust, whereas the Lolita in the novel is a flat-chested 12 year old and likely pre-pubescent. Kubrick was counseled by people at the Production Code Administration that he had to cast an actress with developed breasts or he would run afoul of the Hays Code.

Producer James B. Harris explained that 14 year-old Sue Lyon looked older than her age: "We knew we must make [Lolita] a sex object [...] where everyone in the audience could understand why everyone would want to jump on her." He also said, in a 2015 Film Comment interview, "We made sure when we cast her that she was a definite sex object, not something that could be interpreted as being perverted."

Harris said that he and Kubrick, through casting the older Sue Lyon, changed Nabokov's book as "we wanted it to come off as a love story and to feel very sympathetic with Humbert."[17]

Sue Lyon was cast so that the relationship of the onscreen Humbert Humbert and Lolita would not look sexually perverse. Ironically, months after Lolita was released, the Hays Code was amended in October 1962 to allow "sex aberrations" on screen.[10]

Critical reaction[edit]

Stanley Kubrick's Lolita had its world premiere on June 13, 1962 at Loew's State Theatre in New York City, two days after its press screening.[18][19] Lolita was released in West Germany on June 21 and had its London premiere on September 6. It was released in France on November 5.[20]

Lolita (1962) theatrical release poster featuring Sue Lyon in heart-shaped sunglasses 

West Side Story was number one at the box office that week, and would be succeeded by the Cary Grant-Doris Day comedy That Touch of Mink the week of June 27. In an article published in The New York Times on June 24, a fortnight after he had reviewed Lolita, Bosley Crowther compared it to That Touch of Mink, arguing that both films emphasized cruelty towards men.

In Crowther's original New York Times review, he noted that the screenplay of film changed the tenor of the story, and Lyon was not the child of the book. It became a more conventional tale of an older man and younger woman. He wrote, "She looks to be a good 17 years old, possessed of a striking figure and a devilishly haughty teenage air." He went on, "The distinction is fine, we will grant you, but she is definitely not a 'nymphet.'"[14]

Dwight McDonald, in a review in the September 1962 issue of Esquire Magazine, called the film disappointing.[21]

Pauline Kael defended the casting of Sue Lyon in the part, noting that American girls in the early 1960s often looked much more physically mature for their age than did girls of comparable age in the past. A fan of Kubrick's adaptation, Kael wrote, "The surprise of Lolita is how enjoyable it is; it's the first new American comedy since those great days in the 40's when Preston Sturges recreated comedy with verbal slapstick.... At times it's so far out that you gasp as you laugh.[22]

A contemporary review in Variety was dismissive of the production in its opening lines, "Vladimir Nabokov's witty, grotesque novel is, in its film version, like a bee from which the stinger has been removed. It still buzzes with a sort of promising irreverence, but it lacks the power to shock and, eventually, makes very little point either as comedy or satire."[23]

The Variety staff review ended with an appraisal of Lyon:

"Sue Lyon makes an auspicious film debut as the deceitful child-woman who'd just as soon go to a movie as romp in the hay. It's a difficult assignment and if she never quite registers as either wanton or pathetic it may be due as much to the compromises of the script as to her inexperience."

In 1962, MGM Records released a 7" vinyl single recorded by Lyon, singing the lyrics "Ya ya" in Nelson Riddle's Lolita Ya Ya, a send up of yé-yé singers. The B-side had her singing "Turn off The Moon".[24] Both songs were co-written by producer James B. Harris' brother, J. Robert Harris. Neither song charted.

Sue Lyon attended the 35th Academy Awards. The picture's sole nomination was Vladimir Nabokov for Oscar for Best Screenplay Adapted From Another Medium, but he lost to Horton Foote, who adapted To Kill a Mockingbird for the screen.

Effect on Sue Lyon's psyche[edit]

Sue Lyon was 15 when the film premiered in June 1962,[14] too young to watch the film in a theater.[7] She became an instant celebrity and won a Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Newcomer—Female.[25]

Though Lyon rarely entered the public realm after the end of her film career in the 1980s, in 1996 she made an appearance. During this she said, "My destruction as a person dates from that movie. Lolita exposed me to temptations no girl of that age should undergo.[26] I defy any pretty girl who is rocketed to stardom at 14 in a sex nymphet role to stay on a level path thereafter."[26][27][28]

According to her daughter Nona Harrison, Sue Lyon suffered from bipolar disorder.[29]

Post-Lolita career[edit]

In 1960, Lyon was bound to a seven-year professional services contract to Kubrick, Lolita producer James B. Harris and production company Seven Arts Productions, when she accepted the part in Lolita.[30][31]

The Night of the Iguana (1964), in which she appeared opposite Richard Burton, was a Seven Arts picture. Lyon was featured on the theatrical release poster, embracing Burton. The movie was released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which Seven Arts had a deal with, as was 7 Women (1967), in which Lyon co-starred with first-billed Oscar-winner Anne Bancroft, to whom Lyon received second-billing. Lyon also was second-billed to George C. Scott in The Flim-Flam Man (1967) and Frank Sinatra in Tony Rome (1967).

After the Kubrick-Harris-Seven Arts contract expired, she did not again appear in A-list motion pictures. She appeared in the 1969 low-budget spaghetti western Four Rode Out, top-billed over former Bonanza star Pernell Roberts, whose career was in eclipse. In 1969, she also appeared in a TV version of Arsenic and Old Lace that starred Bob Crane of Hogan's Heroes and Helen Hayes. She also made the first of her two appearances on the TV comedy Love American Style that year, which is indicative of the drop-off in her acting career.

In the 1970s, her career likely was negatively impacted by an interracial marriage to African American football player Roland Harrison in 1971 and a subsequent marriage to imprisoned murderer Cotton Adamson in 1973. Racial intermarriage between white and Black people was rare in 1971, the year she co-starred with George Hamilton in Evel Knievel, a higher end B-movie. State laws banning interracial marriage were not declared unconstitutional in the United States until the Supreme Court's 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision.

Lyon and Harrison had a daughter, Nona Merrill Harrison, who was born in Los Angeles in 1972.[32][33]

A minor hit at the box office, taking in $4 million in rentals[34][35] (equivalent to approximately $30,093,673 in 2023[36]) against a $450,000 budget,[37] Evel Knievel was the last significant motion picture Lyon starred in. After her marriages to Harrison and Adamson, Lyon worked in supporting roles in B-movies, television movies and guest spots on TV series.

Grade Z movie star[edit]

Towards the end of the 1970s, she began appearing in Z movies, including two produced by Charles Band. In her first movie for Band, Crash! (1977), Oscar-winner Jose Ferrer played her husband, who is trying to kill her. She retaliates by using her occult powers to manipulate objects to kill him.

In her second film for Band, Lyon played the wife of Christopher Lee's astrophysicist character in the sci-fi movie End of the World, which received poor reviews after it was released in 1977 as part of a double-bill with another low budget sci-fi flick.[38] Lee later lamented his participation in the film, claiming he was misled as to the quality of the picture by producer Band.[39]

Lyon followed this up with a part in The Astral Factor, which was also known as The Astral Fiend on its initial release in 1978. Yet another low budget sci-fi flick, the Astral movie went through three directors. She then graced Towing, a low-budget comedy film based on newspaper columnist Mike Royko's expose of unethical vehicle towing companies. Also known as Who Stole My Wheels? and Garage Girls, the Chicago-based movie featuring one of the first appearances of actor Dennis Franz got one and one-half stars from critic Roger Ebert.[40]

She ceased working in the entertainment industry after a bit part in the 1980 B-movie Alligator. In 1984, a recut version of The Astral Factor re-titled Invisible Strangler was released, making it the last time Sue Lyon appeared in a motion picture.

Personal life[edit]

In California, Lyon was friends with Michelle Gilliam, who was two years older than her. Gilliam would achieve fame as Michelle Phillips, after marrying John Phillips and becoming part of the pop music quartet the Mamas and Papas. According to Phillips, she shared the controversial novel Lolita with Lyon in 1960, the year before she auditioned for the part.[41] (In a 1962 interview with German TV as part of the film's promotion, Lyon said she and her mother had read it and discussed the novel after she was cast in the part.) In the year after Lyon’s death, Phillips alleged that her friend had lost her virginity to Lolita producer James B. Harris.[28]

Early in her career, starting in 1965, Lyon had a relationship with Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan.[42]

Lyon was married five times: briefly to Hampton Fancher, actor and filmmaker;[43][33][44] photographer and football coach Roland Harrison, with whom she had a daughter;[45] Gary D. "Cotton" Adamson, a convicted murderer;[46][47][45] and Edward Weathers. She married Richard Rudman, an engineer, in 1985. Their marriage ended in divorce in 2002.[7]

Her third marriage, in 1973, to Adamson, took place in a Colorado state prison, where he was incarcerated.[48] He had been convicted of robbery[49] and second-degree murder. The union was contentious and ended in 1974.[45] She said at the time that people in the film industry had told her he had a negative effect on her career.[45]

Discussing her divorce from Adamson, Lyon said, "I've been told by people in the movie business, specifically producers and film distributors, that I can't get a job because I'm married to Cotton. Therefore, right now we can't be married."[50]

Allegation of underage affair with producer[edit]

In 2020, Michelle Phillips told journalist Sarah Weinman that producer James B. Harris became emotionally involved with Sue Lyon during her stay in England to shoot Lolita and that Harris had become her first lover when she was 14 years old. When contacted by Weinman, the 92-year-old Harris refused to respond to the allegation with an affirmation or denial. At the time Stanley Kubrick's Lolita was in production, the age of consent in the UK was 16 years old and 18 in Lyon's home state of California.[51] Harris was nearly 18 years older than Lyon, and a married man.


Lyon died in West Hollywood on the morning of December 26, 2019, at the age of 73.[52] While no specific cause of death was given, she was reported to have been in poor health "for some time".[4]

"To be pretty and to stay pretty are two different things. You can't take anything for granted, and it's foolish to think you can. You have to think ahead of how to build health and happiness. You have to learn to avoid what is going to hurt you or someone else." — Sue Lyon, 1967[52][33]



Year[53] Title Role Notes[54]
1962 Lolita Dolores "Lolita" Haze Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Newcomer
1964 The Night of the Iguana Charlotte Goodall
1966 7 Women Emma Clark
1967 The Flim-Flam Man Bonnie Lee Packard
Tony Rome Diana Pines
1969 Arsenic and Old Lace Elaine Dodd TV movie
Four Rode Out Myra Polsen
1970 But I Don't Want to Get Married! Laura TV movie
1971 Evel Knievel Linda
1973 Murder in a Blue World Ana Vernia
Tarot Angela
1976 Smash-Up on Interstate 5 Burnsey TV movie
Crash! Kim Denne
1977 End of the World Sylvia Boran
Don't Push, I'll Charge When I'm Ready Wendy Sutherland TV movie, made in 1969
1978 The Astral Factor Darlene DeLong Re-released in 1984 as The Invisible Strangler
Towing Lynn
1980 Alligator NBC Newswoman (Final film role)


Year Title Role Notes
1959 Letter to Loretta Laurie 1 episode ("Alien Love"[55])
as Suellyn Lyon
1960 Dennis the Menace Blonde with Valentine Card (uncredited) 1 episode ("Miss Cathcart's Sunsuit")[56]
1969–1974 Love, American Style Barbara Eric
2 episodes ("Love and the Extra Job/Love and the Flying Finletters/Love and the Golden Worm/Love and the Itchy Condition/Love and the Patrolperson",
"Love and the Medium/Love and the Bed[57]/Love and the High School Flop-Out")
1970 The Virginian Belinda Ballard 1 episode ("Experiment at New Life")
1971 Men at Law Bunny Phillips 1 episode ("Marathon")
Night Gallery Betsy 1 episode ("The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes/Miss Lovecraft Sent Me/The Hand of Borgus Weems/Phantom of What Opera?")
1978 Police Story Caroline 1 episode ("River of Promises")
Fantasy Island Jill Nolan 1 episode ("Reunion/Anniversary")


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External links[edit]