When June Allison Harding was growing up in Emporia, her mother gave her some puppets.
By the time she was 12 years old, she was creating her own puppets and putting on shows for her little brother, John, and the children in their Ingleside Avenue neighborhood.
“June made all the puppets, crafting the heads out of papier-mâché, sewing their costumes and painting the scenery,” her brother, John Harding of Lenoir County, N.C., wrote in an email.
“She even convinced me to don a fake leopard skin top and play the off-stage giant in ‘Jack and the Beanstalk.’ ”
The puppets were more or less the symptom. What she really had wanted since she had played the Fairy Queen in a third-grade play was to be onstage herself, to be an actress.
Ms. Harding, who went on to work onstage, in film and on television, died Friday in hospice care in Deer Isle, Maine. The resident of Blue Hill, Maine, who was 81, had been in failing health for some time.
A memorial service will be held April 13 at 11 a.m. at Monumental United Methodist Church, 300 Southampton St. in Emporia.
Ms. Harding probably was best-known for her movie role in the 1966 Columbia Pictures film “The Trouble With Angels,” where director Ida Lupino cast her opposite Hayley Mills and Rosalind Russell. Lupino called Ms. Harding “a girl with a God-given quality in her face.” Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper called her the most serious challenge Mills had encountered.
Harper’s Bazaar did a spread on the three actresses. Beauty columnist Arlene Dahl interviewed Ms. Harding, who said she had no beauty secrets to impart, as she wore little makeup and did her own hair. The only thing Ms. Harding offered of interest was that she often stood on her head, which Dahl duly noted.
The Hollywood Reporter, in reviewing her performance, called her “an exceptionally vivid and convincing young actress” who handled her scenes with “competence and poignance.”
That April, her hometown honored her with a “June Harding Day.” Emporia Mayor George Lee gave her the key to the city.
She rode in an open convertible during a parade; went to her parents’ home atop a firetruck with a dozen happy, small boys; and later wore a pink chiffon dress to a dinner in her honor and to Pitts Theater, which screened her film in one of its East Coast premieres.
She later chose not to reprise her “Angels” role as Mills’ comedic sidekick Rachel Devery in the film’s sequel, “Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows.”
The Emporia native got her first chance at being in a bona fide play during her senior year at Greensville County High School, when the girl who was supposed to play the lead in “Cupid in Pigtails” fell ill.
“I got out of my classes for four days so I could learn lines,” Ms. Harding said in a Richmond Times-Dispatch interview. “A friend cued me.”
After graduating from high school in 1955, she earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts with a drama major from Richmond Professional Institute, now Virginia Commonwealth University. Her portrayal as the lead in the drama “Antigone” earned her the school’s Hodges Award as the outstanding young actress that year.
Then, it was off to New York. She studied acting under Lonny Chapman at The Theater Studio of New York. She took ballet and practiced yoga.
She did summer stock in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. In one musical, she recalled playing six different roles, complete with costume changes, and dashing offstage occasionally to work the stage lights.
In New York, she quickly landed a recurring role on the CBS soap opera “As the World Turns.” Ms. Harding appeared in the off-Broadway productions of “The Innocents Abroad,” “The Boy Friend” and “Cry of the Raindrop,” which won her a Daniel Blum Theater World Award.
Her performance in “Raindrop” led to an opportunity to read for a part in “Under the Yum-Yum Tree,” which later opened on Broadway. She went on tour with the troupe but was considered too inexperienced for such a long and exacting part and instead understudied Sandra Church, the lead in the Broadway production.
She played Art Carney’s 15-year-old and youngest daughter in “Take Her, She’s Mine” to acclaim.
Ms. Harding relocated to Los Angeles in the 1960s and almost immediately picked up roles in major network television series, including “Doctor Kildare,” “The Defenders,” “The Fugitive” and the Golden Globe-winning anthology series “The Richard Boone Show.”
With Boone’s show, Ms. Harding was able to play a different character every Tuesday and finally was able to stop being typecast as a teenager because of her youthful look.
For that show, she became an airline attendant, a sexy waitress, a dance hall girl, a pregnant youngster contemplating suicide, and a girl who had killed many men.
Ms. Harding married Gray Thomas in Los Angeles during the 1970s and continued to work in several made-for-TV movies and numerous series.
In 1972, she was among a group of famous Virginians honored at a reception at Virginia’s Executive Mansion during the Holton administration.
She retired from show business in the late 1970s and the couple moved to Maine. They separated years later.
Ms. Harding took up painting landscapes, still lifes, abstracts and animals — cats in particular. She sold her work at shows and online.
Her brother is her only immediate survivor.