LOS ANGELES: Shirley Temple Black, who lifted Depression-era America’s spirits as a bright-eyed, dimpled child movie star and later became a U.S. diplomat, died late Monday evening at the age of 85.
Temple Black, who lured millions to the movies in the 1930s, “peacefully passed away” from natural causes at 10:57 p.m., local time, at her Woodside, Calif., home.
“We salute her for a life of remarkable achievements as an actor, as a diplomat, and most importantly as our beloved mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and adored wife of 55 years,” said a family statement Tuesday.
As actress Shirley Temple, she was precocious and bouncy with a head of curly hair, tap-dancing through songs like “On The Good Ship Lollipop.” Out to disprove concerns that her previous career made her a diplomatic lightweight, Ambassador Shirley Temple Black was soft-spoken and earnest in postings in Czechoslovakia and Ghana.
“I have no trouble being taken seriously as a woman and a diplomat here,” Temple Black said after her appointment as U.S. ambassador to Ghana in 1974. “My only problems have been with Americans who, in the beginning, refused to believe I had grown up since my movies.”
Born April 23, 1928, Temple Black started her career in the early 1930s and was famous by age 6. She became a national institution, and her raging popularity spawned dozens of Shirley Temple novelties, as she became one of the first stars to enjoy the fruits of the growing merchandising trade.
She was 3 when her mother put her in dance school, where a talent scout spotted her and got her in “Baby Burlesk,” a series of short movies with child actors spoofing adult movies.
Studio executives took notice. Her song and dance number in “Baby Take a Bow” (1934) stole the show. Other movies in that year included “Bright Eyes,” – which featured her signature song “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” In 1935 she received a special Oscar for her “outstanding contribution to screen entertainment.”
She made some 40 feature-length movies in 10 years, starring alongside such actors as Randolph Scott, Lionel Barrymore and Jimmy Durante.
A superstar before the term was invented, she said she was about 8 when the adoring crowds made her realize she was famous. “I wondered why,” she recalled. “I asked my mother and she said, ‘Because your films make them happy.’”
She was such a moneymaker that her mother and studio officials shaved a year off her age to maintain her child image. Her child career came to an end at age 12. She tried a few roles as a teenager – including opposite future President Ronald Reagan in “That Hagen Girl” – but retired from the screen in 1949 at age 21.
The Screen Actors Guild gave her its 2005 Life Achievement Award.
“I have one piece of advice for those of you who want to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award,” Temple Black said in her acceptance speech. “Start early.”
Temple was 17 in 1945 when she married John Agar, who would eventually appear with her in two movies. Their five-year marriage produced a daughter. In 1950, she wed Charles Black in a marriage that lasted until his death in 2005. She and Black had two children.
Black’s interest in politics was sparked in the early ’50s when her husband was called back into the Navy to work in Washington. She did volunteer work for the Republican Party while attempting to make a comeback with two short-lived TV series, “Shirley Temple’s Storybook” in 1959 and “The Shirley Temple Theater.”
Seven years after that she ran unsuccessfully for Congress in California, then helped raise more than $2 million for Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign.
She was later named to the United States’ team to the United Nations and found that her childhood popularity was an asset in her new career.
In 1974, President Gerald Ford appointed her ambassador to Ghana and two years later made Temple Black chief of protocol. For the next decade, she trained newly appointment ambassadors.
In 1989, George H.W. Bush made her ambassador to Prague – a sensitive Eastern European post normally reserved for career diplomats. Temple Black had been in Prague in 1968, representing a group fighting multiple sclerosis at a conference, when Soviet-bloc tanks entered to crush an era of liberalization known as the “Prague Spring.”
In 1972, Temple Black was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. She publicly discussed her surgery to educate women about the disease.
Temple Black is survived by her children, her granddaughter and her great-granddaughters.