Sue Lyon, Star of ‘Lolita,’ Is Dead at 73

She was 14 when she was cast in the title role of Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film of the Nabokov novel. It remained her best-known credit.

Sue Lyon and James Mason in a scene from Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita” (1962).
Sue Lyon and James Mason in a scene from Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita” (1962).Credit...Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images
Neil Genzlinger

Sue Lyon, who at 14 was cast in the title role of Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita,” a film version of Vladimir Nabokov’s eyebrow-raising novel about a middle-aged man who becomes obsessed with a 12-year-old girl, died on Thursday in Los Angeles. She was 73.

Phil Syracopoulos, a longtime friend, announced her death. He said she had been in declining health for some time.

Ms. Lyon accumulated more than two dozen film and television credits from 1959 to 1980, but she was known primarily for one: Mr. Kubrick’s 1962 film of the Nabokov novel, which was adapted for the screen by Mr. Nabokov himself. Some 800 girls were said to have sought the part. When Ms. Lyon was cast, Mr. Nabokov, employing the word he used in the novel, called her “the perfect nymphet,” although he later said that the French actress Catherine Demongeot might have been better.

The film was memorably promoted with a photograph taken by Bert Stern in Sag Harbor, N.Y., showing Ms. Lyon in heart-shaped sunglasses sucking on a red lollipop, “despite the fact that neither the sunglasses nor the lollipop appear in the film itself,” as The New York Times noted years later. The trailer worked the tagline, “How did they ever make a movie of ‘Lolita’?”

The novel was scandalous when it was first published in English in 1955; the film, made when the restrictive Motion Picture Production Code still governed Hollywood, was less so — in part, some critics thought, because Ms. Lyon, whose character was aged slightly for the movie, seemed too mature.

“She looks to be a good 17 years old, possessed of a striking figure and a devilishly haughty teenage air,” Bosley Crowther said in his review in The Times. “The distinction is fine, we will grant you, but she is definitely not a ‘nymphet.’”

“Lolita” was memorably promoted with a photograph of Ms. Lyon taken by Bert Stern in Sag Harbor, N.Y.Credit...Poster Image Art/Getty Images

Mr. Kubrick, in an interview for the 1970 book “The Film Director as Superstar,” by Joseph Gelmis, acknowledged that he wasn’t able to capture the forbidden flavor of the novel adequately.

“Because of all the pressure over the Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency at the time, I believe I didn’t sufficiently dramatize the erotic aspect of Humbert’s relationship with Lolita,” he said, referring to the character Humbert Humbert, played by James Mason. Opinions of the movie, though, have improved over time.

Ms. Lyon was born on July 10, 1946, in Davenport, Iowa, the youngest of five children. Her father died before her first birthday; soon after, her mother, Sue Karr Lyon, took the family to Dallas. Three years later they moved to Los Angeles.

Ms. Lyon landed a few small television roles, including one in 1959 on “The Loretta Young Show,” where Mr. Kubrick first noticed her.

After “Lolita,” she appeared in “The Night of the Iguana” (1964), “Tony Rome” (1967), “Evel Knievel” (1971) and other movies, as well as an assortment of TV shows. Her most recent credit was in “Alligator,” a 1980 horror movie.

Ms. Lyon had brief marriages to Hampton Fancher, Roland Harrison, Cotton Adamson and Edward Weathers. Her marriage to Richard Rudman in 1985 ended in divorce in 2002.

Her marriage to Mr. Adamson in 1973 made news: At the time, he was incarcerated for second-degree murder and robbery. The wedding took place in a conference room at the Colorado State Penitentiary. A year later, when she announced that they were divorcing, she cited the effect the marriage had had on her career.

“I’ve been told by people in the movie business, specifically producers and film distributors, that I won’t get a job because I’m married to Cotton,” she said.

Ms. Lyon’s survivors include a daughter, Nona, from her marriage to Mr. Harrison.