TINSELTOWN TALKS: Cheryl Ladd's Grace Kelly Story

Cheryl Ladd arrives at the Kirk Douglas Award for Excellence in Film Presentation Honoring Robert De Niro on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012, in Santa Barbra, Calif. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

Despite the media attention surrounding "Grace of Monaco," the film that opened this year's Cannes Film Festival in May, Nicole Kidman wasn't the first blond beauty to depict popular 1950s movie star Grace Kelly.

Three decades earlier, former "Charlie's Angels'" star Cheryl Ladd appeared in "The Grace Kelly Story," a 1983 TV movie that dealt with an early slice of the actress-turned-princess's life.

Casting Ladd as Kelly was a true "light bulb" moment for Ladd's husband, writer/producer Brian Russell.

"Cheryl and I were in Monaco for a film festival in early 1981 and met Grace and her husband, Prince Rainer, at the palace," recalled Russell. "When I saw Cheryl and Grace standing next to each other in the reception line, 'ping!' it hit me," he said. "While there was a slight physical resemblance, I was mostly struck by the dignity and serenity they both possessed."

But when news of the planned movie reached the Monaco palace, the opposition was strong.

"They didn't want us delving into her private life," said Russell, who returned to Monaco in the summer of 1982 to meet with the princess. "We sat in the palace garden for about 90 minutes discussing the project. I told her it was not our intention to dredge up any dirt, but to tell her fairy tale story."

Kelly read the script.

"She started acting out the part in front of me and I could see she was warming up to the idea. ... She kept a copy of the script and made some suggestions, with the palace eventually giving the movie their blessing."

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Then, just a few weeks before filming was set to begin, Kelly suffered a stroke on Sept. 13, 1982, while driving on a mountain road, plunging her car down the side and dying the following day.

Ladd was devastated. "Although I only met her once, I felt I had lost someone really close and didn't want to continue with the movie."

To their surprise, several months later Ladd and Russell, who was executive producing the film, received encouraging news from Monaco.

"They wanted us to proceed because they knew we would treat the story with dignity," Ladd recalled. "So I eventually saw my way through it as a celebration of her life."

When broadcast in February 1983, critics responded well to "The Grace Kelly Story." But the best tribute came from Monaco.

"The word we got back was that in his bereavement, the prince would watch it over and over and thoroughly enjoyed it," said Ladd.

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Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 400 magazines and newspapers.

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