Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A Cowboy And A Doll

A couple of folks have died recently who, though better known for their screen work, were on my radar because of stage appearances late in their careers.
Jean Simmons


"Simmons is one of the most quietly commanding actresses Hollywood has ever trashed," wrote film critic Pauline Kael in 1960, regarding her performance in Elmer Gantry. At that point, Simmons was already in the waning portion of her career, a career which began in her teens, when she was plucked from her dance school recital in 1944, to play Margaret Lockwood's little sister in Give Us the Moon. She played a brat in David Lean's Great Expectations in 1946, a performance which brought her to the attention of Laurence Olivier (Simmons was to come full circle with Great Expectations 45 years later, when she played batty spinster Miss Havisham in a Disney remake). Olivier had trouble hiring Simmons, who was under contract to another producer at the time, and tested dozens of alternatives before finally prying our Jean out of her contract to play Ophelia opposite his own Hamlet. She snagged an Oscar nomination and landed on the covers of Time and Life. She was 19.

That pesky contract was purchased by Hollywood profligate and weirdo Howard Hughes, who had more on his mind than Jean's iambic pentameter. Though she had recently married Stewart Granger, a leading man 16 years her senior (Jean liked older men: her second husband was 17 years older than she), Hughes was blatant about his desire to bed the young actress. When she refused, he retaliated by putting her in a string of stinkers (he owned RKO at the time). Hughes further damaged Jean's career by refusing to allow her to appear in Roman Holiday, in a star-making role which then went to Audrey Hepburn, who won an Oscar.

Simmons had a substantial film career, playing both leading and supporting roles. She turned to television later in life, winning an Emmy for the mini-series The Thornbirds, and starring in the prime time Dark Shadows remake, playing the role film-noir siren Joan Bennett had played in the daytime soap version. She also turned to the stage, headlining the first national tour of A Little Night Music; she also played in the original London production. It was not her first musical role. Back in 1955, she played strait-laced Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls, opposite that musical icon Marlon Brando. She did her own singing in the role (so did he! The film was not well-received); here is a clip featuring one of the better known songs from the show:

Jean Simmons died this week from lung cancer at the age of 80.

If you are old enough, you will recognise this guy:

If you are not quite so old, you may recognise this guy:
They are both the same guy. It's Pernell Roberts, who had a long career of ups and downs. He started his work on the stage, winning a Drama Desk award in 1955 for Macbeth, but became a star with a big break in the early 60s, playing the eldest Cartwright boy in Bonanza.
He left the hit show after six seasons, after clashing with producers over a variety of issues. He disliked the habit at the time of casting white actors in non-white roles (remember Marlo Thomas as a Chinese girl?), and wanted to discard his toupee, which network execs vehemently opposed.

After leaving the Ponderosa, Roberts continued guesting on various episodic programs, and returned to the musical stage, where he displayed a rich baritone voice (he did a fair amount of singing on Bonanza, too). He is really on my radar for his connection with the disastrous attempt to musicalize Gone With the Wind, in which he played Rhett Butler (I wrote a bit about this show when Harve Presnell died; Presnell played the role in London, while Roberts played it in the states, when the musical was called Scarlett). Pernell returned to weekly television in the title role of Trapper John, MD, playing a character originated by Elliott Gould in the movies and by Wayne Rogers in the earlier TV hit M*A*S*H. The show ran a healthy seven seasons, and introduced Gregory Harrison as a young doctor mentored by Pernell.

Roberts died this week from pancreatic cancer. He was 81.