Born Marilyn Watts in Santa Monica, California - January 3, 1930, to Emerson Watts and Shirley Wood. Both hardworking middle-class but like so many others, thrown into financial struggle during the Depression era, and moved frequently until her father found steady work as a Certified Public Accountant.
Having interest in the cinema and show business at large as a child, which like many depression babies, inspired dreams of grandeur, she possessed both an active imagination and outgoing personality -- and with her elder brother Richard, she often spent entire days at the local movie theatres (for 11 cents) and knew just about every line in the movies to come through town.
By age 13, when her family moved to the greater Los Angeles area, Marilyn worked as an usherette in legitimate theatres (such as the Belasco and the Mayan), providing her the opportunity to see first hand the behind the scenes inner workings of live stage productions while simultaneously feeding her developing aspirations to be an actress. She continued to love the movies, yet not content to merely watch the stars on the screen - she wanted to meet them - and so, travelled by bus to Hollywood, collecting autographs of some of the greats.
One day on the beach, at age 15 (and beginning to blossom), she was approached by a boy who needed a model for a photo contest in the local paper. Agreeing to pose, the picture was submitted and won the contest. At 17, Marilyn's mother - eager for Marilyn to seek gainful employment, prompted her to audition at the famed "Earl Carroll Theatre" - a cabaret-restaurant which boasted: "through these portals pass the most beautiful girls in the world." Marilyn was selected to become a showgirl (although secretly still underage). Now officially considering herself working in show business, she fashioned herself the name "Mara Corday" - believing it to be more exotic or glamourous. Within the first year, "Mara" graduated from the ensemble line to principal showgirl, then on to performing skits with the shows comic star, Pinky Lee.
When the theatre closed upon Carroll's untimely death in a plane crash, Mara moved on to short stints dancing at Las Vegas' Last Frontier Hotel, "George White Scandals of 1950" and briefly (as a blonde), one of the six girls selected for the West Coast production of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." Due to the many publicity appearances during her tenure at Earl Carroll's, Mara became aquainted with various photographers and began to model professionally on a steady basis.
Appearing in a small theatre production of "The Time of Your Life", she was "discovered" by an influential Hollywood talent agent, Paul Kohner, and quickly signed to his agency. Mostly cast in a string of small "forgettable" roles in various television shows, it was not until Hal Wallis, a powerful producer saw Mara's photo in a magazine and screen tested her that she joined his small stable of actors in 1953.
Because Wallis' company was dissolved 6 months later, Mara's agent then took the screen test to Universal-International which had in place a "talent program" offering a wide array of training in the dramatic arts; ie: voice/diction, singing, dancing, even horseback riding - but most importantly, the opportunity to act in a quantity of films and various movie genres.
She was primarily given small parts until years of modeling paid off - her name and likeness on magazine covers saturated the stands and fan mail poured into the studio's publicity department. The studio, impressed and eager to capitalize on free publicity, took notice (of a girl who seemed to enjoy a strong following) and cast her with Lex Barker in "The Man from Bitter Ridge" - her first starring role.
The film did well yet didn't raise any eyebrows, though Mara was given her second starring role in the science-fiction thriller, "Tarantula", with the same director, Jack Arnold. This film grossed more money for the studio than any other that year - 1955. Mara was given the "star" treatment and Radio/T.V. interviews, personal appearance tours and photo layouts all followed.
When MCA took control of Universal-International, completely phasing-out the contract-player system (and beginning a gradual transformation of the studio into a theme park), all but a few select male stars received termination notices. While free-lancing proved financially rewarding for Mara, in some cases it was artistically devastating... of note: "The Giant Claw" - though now something of a cult classic (for its "cheese-i-ness").
On location in Mexico while filming "The Black Scorpion", her escalating romantic involvement with actor Richard Long reached a new plateau via a marriage proposal. After the birth of their first child, Mara embraced her new role as mother, yet appeared in another film - "Girls On the Loose." While the next three years produced two more children, she resumed working sporadically in television, but ultimately opted for full-time domesticity by the end of 1961.
She remained married to Richard for a tumultuous 18 years - until widowed in 1974; then appeared some years later in a few Clint Eastwood films, and now devotes most of her time to writing and project development.