Janet Landgard, actress who caught Burt Lancaster’s eye in The Swimmer – obituary

Janet Landgard in The Donna Reed Show
Janet Landgard in The Donna Reed Show - Disney General Entertainment Content

Janet Landgard, the actress, who has died aged 75, was enjoying a steady career on television when she won the big-screen role of Julie Ann Hooper in The Swimmer (1968), which starred Burt Lancaster as a man in the throes of an existential crisis as he traverses his neighbourhood in suburban Connecticut by way of the garden swimming pools.

Written and directed by the Oscar-nominated husband-and-wife team, Frank and Eleanor Perry, who adapted it from John Cheever’s New Yorker short story, the film ripped up the American Dream and threw it in the bin.

One of the first people Lancaster’s character, Ned, meets is a young woman, Julie Ann, who used to babysit his daughters. She tells him she had a schoolgirl crush on him – “I was married to you, in my head” – and joins him for a while. There is a strong sexual charge to their encounter, but when he makes unwelcome advances she leaves him to continue his voyage alone.

Janet Landgard with Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer
Janet Landgard with Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer - Alamy

While critics were divided – Roger Ebert called it “brilliant and disturbing”, but Variety wrote “not a lot of people will understand this film” – it eventually acquired “cult classic” status, and Burt Lancaster said it was his own favourite of all his film roles.

In 2014 Janet Landgard recalled: “The Swimmer was a perfect opportunity for me to go against the roles I was offered on TV. They were all so immature. To work with an actor of Burt Lancaster’s stature was like gold dust for me.”

Janet Alice Landgard was born on December 2 1947 in Pasadena, California, where she attended the local high school. When she was 14 her grandmother suggested modelling, and began taking her to auditions. By the time she was 16 she was signed to the William Adrian Modelling Agency and was a regular on magazine covers and in television commercials.

She also had a couple of small acting jobs on TV, and in 1963 she appeared in an episode of the sitcom The Donna Reed Show; this led to a recurring role – 11 episodes over two years – as the girlfriend of one of the main characters, Jeff, played by Paul Petersen, with whom she appeared on the cover of Teen Screen magazine.

They remained good friends for the rest of her life, and when she died, Petersen described her as “the best TV girlfriend my alternate ego, Jeff Stone, ever had. Janet was gorgeous, inside and out.”

It was one of the first sitcoms to place a woman at the heart of the show – Donna Reed’s character is a housewife, but also a strong figure in the local community – and it was a “wonderful experience” for Janet Landgard too, she recalled:  “I used the money I saved from the show to buy an MG sports car, and I drove it for years.”

With George Maharis in Land Raiders (1970)
With George Maharis in Land Raiders (1970) - United Archives GmbH/Alamy

The publicity was enough to see her showcased as one of Hollywood’s brightest new talents, alongside the likes of Raquel Welch and Barbara Parkins, on the TV special The Hollywood Deb Stars of 1965, which featured Gloria Swanson as honorary chairman. Other TV spots followed, including one as hostess on the game show Dream Girl of ’67.

But Janet Landgard’s star did not continue to rise. There were more film roles – opposite Telly Savalas in the western Land Raiders (1970), in the TV movie The Deadly Dream (1971) with Lloyd Bridges and Janet Leigh, and as “Girl” in the horror film Moonchild (1972) – but, tired of the roles on offer, she left Hollywood behind to focus on family life.

She became a keen racing fan, described by Paul Petersen as “a real outdoorswoman... she gave me a share in her racehorse, Pioneer Prince.”

In 2014, Janet Landgard took part in Chris Innes’s making-of documentary, The Story of The Swimmer. Details of her survivors were not immediately available.

Janet Landgard, born December 2 1947, died November 6 2023

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