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Conversations with Elizabeth Wilson — Part II

Here’s another excerpt from my chats with the distinguished actress Liz Wilson. I’m glad that people appear to have enjoyed the first installment so much. — B.K.

EW: Early on, my height posed a problem, because when I started out trying to get work in the theater in the mid-1940s, I was almost 5’10”. Most of the men in those days were shorter. There was a famous agent—a short one—and as I was leaving his office one day, he said, “God made you too tall to be an actress.” In Picnic, it was okay to be a little taller. But my height definitely affected my career (early on).

BK: But how wonderful that you got to repeat your stage role in Picnic in the 1955 movie version. It’s so wonderful in terms of the atmosphere—all the grain elevators and the shots of the countryside, and the casting of the locals. James Wong Howe photographed it so beautifully, on location in Hutchison, Kansas—right?

EW: Yes. I think I told you why we filmed it in Hutchison. The people in Independence, Kansas, where Bill Inge was from, didn’t approve of all the sexuality in the play, so they said they didn’t want it done there. But Hutchison was even better. It’s a beautiful location. Independence is a strange, not very exciting little town. But Bill Inge never showed up on location. We never saw him.

I think Josh Logan put Eileen Heckart in the movie of Bus Stop because he felt guilty that she didn’t get to play her original role of Rosemary in the movie of Picnic. I liked Rosalind Russell personally, but she was so fucking miscast in the film. She was much too old.

BK: And not long after the movie of Picnic, you were on Broadway in William Marchant’s The Desk Set, a hit comedy with Shirley Booth. How did you get on with her? She was a complicated person, I’m told, by friends who worked with her.

EW: We bonded. I was living, at the time, with a wonderful man, a painter named Denver Lindley. In those days, the play would end at 11:00 and you would go out. You could have supper and even go to the movies. She was with me when we saw the movie version of Patterns, by Rod Serling, which I was in. She liked it very much. We were friends and went out together a lot, which thrilled me. She liked Denver, and Denver was such a classy gentleman.

Toward the end of the run of The Desk Set, we went to a party thrown by Doris Roberts, who even then, bless her heart, was working the room! That was just her style: she was born to make acquaintances and get another job. We were all sort of turning up our noses at her behavior. But she gave the party and Shirley was there, and I said “Oh, Shirley, could I have a photograph of you?” And she asked me, Brian, “Are you a friend or a fan?” And that was the end. That was it. She was as cool as anything after that. It broke my heart, but in a way, I understand: do you want to worship me, or do you want to be my friend?

I think she was a loner. Very insecure. I don’t think she was a happy lady.

BK: Was she tough in rehearsals?

EW: Well, the second lead was originally played by Glenda Farrell, and while we were in Boston, Shirley got her fired, because Glenda was too good. It broke our hearts. And Glenda was replaced by a woman who wasn’t good at all. Lou Gossett was in it, and he couldn’t stay in the same hotel we stayed in in Baltimore. We knew it was wrong, and we would go visit him. I grew up with the Daughters of the American Revolution, in Grand Rapids. My sister and I had to go to Children of the American Revolution, because Grand Rapids had that heritage. My mother and father, thank God, were very liberal. And after the scandal with Marian Anderson not being allowed to sing that concert in Washington, D.C., my parents said, “That’s it!” and we we were taken out of Children of the American Revolution.

BK: In anything I’ve ever read about her, whether it’s a biography of Inge or whatever, there’s never any sense of her being really friendly with most people. Probably she was a loner. My friend Clifford Capone, a costume designer, did a tour of Harvey with her. And he said she had this odd habit, in every city they played, of buying all of this couture—the dress, the bag, the shoes, the belt. Really expensive stuff. She couldn’t get enough of it, and Clifford said she had several homes stuffed with these outfits.

EW: Hmm. How strange.

BK: Did the Neighborhood Playhouse teach preparation for camera technique?

EW: No. When I did the movie Tunnel of Love, with Doris Day, Gene Kelly directed it. He said to me one day, “Elizabeth—the camera is in the balcony.” That went into my head. I didn’t have to project. It’s all in here. I learned as I went. The great film actors—you can see their thoughts. In the theater, you have to project all of that into a space.

BK: How did you deal with the varying sizes and acoustics of theaters? How long would it take you to gauge all of that?

EW: Whenever I was going on tour or to a new space, I would go onstage and I would do all of that privately. I would look out at the space, and somehow I could take that part of it in, and that was how much I had to communicate with. The worst place was in Los Angeles. The big theater.

BK: The Mark Taper Forum?

EW: The Mark Taper. We did Morning’s at Seven there. Well, honey, no one could hear us. You shouldn’t do a play there. You should have an orchestra or something.

BK: Last time, we talked about The Graduate. You had worked with Dustin Hoffman earlier, onstage. How was he on the set? Such a big opportunity for him. Was he apprehensive?

EW: We were very close then. We both lived at the Chateau Marmont. We spent all our time together socially. I never had a crush on Dustin, but I loved him, and I think he felt very close to me. During filming, I think he was scared. It was such an incredible jump for him. And Annie Bancroft was not easy. It was amazing that Dustin’s character in The Graduate should come forth as unique and truthful; it’s an incredible performance. We rehearsed for two weeks, and because Gene Hackman got fired, because he hadn’t learned the few lines he had, we all tightened up. I think Mike Nichols supported Dustin as an actor.

There are certain people who are threatened by someone who isn’t as successful or who isn’t trying to be as successful as they are. I’m talking now about fame—people who knew you through the years and worked with you, and they moved on to great notoriety and you didn’t. And dear Hecky—Eileen Heckart—was one of them. And Dustin was one. I can’t complain and never will, about my career, because I never stopped working. But I never became a star like Hecky, and she dropped me, and Dustin dropped me. Has that ever happened to you?
BK: Not really. The people who are my friends have really been my friends, not just co-workers. What’s happened is that some people who thought I was no longer of use to them dropped me because they thought I was no longer of use to them. But they weren’t really my good friends anyway, just people I did favors for, so who cares?

I keep thinking of you as a young actress. I’m going to throw out some names from the movies, and I want you to tell me if you had a strong feeling about them, one way or the other, when you were young. Bette Davis?

EW: I admired her, but I wasn’t drawn to her. I saw her in Night of the Iguana. I didn’t think she was a very good stage actress.

BK: I’m not surprised. I can imagine her being rather awkward. But on film…amazing. Margaret Sullavan?

EW: Yes. I was drawn to her.

BK: Sylvia Sidney?

EW: I worked with her. She had this reputation for being a bitch. We worked together on a wonderful TV series, Morning Star, Evening Star. And dear Kate Reid, a special lady, was in that series. Kate and Sylvia were staying at the Chateau Marmont, and Sylvia had her two dogs with her and they smelled. People were complaining! And she raised pug dogs. I told her how much pugs mean to me and we bonded.

There were certain movie actresses I was drawn to, like Katharine Hepburn.

BK: And you worked with her many years later, in the movie Grace Quigley.

EW: When I was asked to be in the movie, I was doing You Can’t Take It With You in New York. Katharine Hepburn came backstage to see me and said some kind words and asked me to be in her movie. I wanted to do it, because of the subject matter. I’m a big hospice person. I believe that if someone is in pain, you should let them go. She believed in that, also. That was what the movie was about. We filmed it up in Harlem and upper New York State. She was great. While we were filming, she would come and sit with me in the house where I was and quiz me. I wouldn’t say we became friends, but she was very open and interesting and friendly, and curious about people. The problem on the movie was Nick Nolte. He was scared to death, and she knew it. It was very tricky. He had problems with lines. I was thrilled that she wanted me to be in it. I’m sorry it wasn’t a success. A movie about euthanasia. How brave of her. She was something else.

BK: Last time you told me a fascinating story about working with Gary Merrill in Morning’s at Seven. Tell me again.

EW: He didn’t have a big part; he was offstage most of the time. But the stage manager told me that when the phone would ring, and Bette Davis would be in town, and there was a chance she would be in town and come see the play, that he would totally flip out. Theres’s a leash with a hook at the end, a solid piece of wire, and you pretend that you have an animal at the end of the leash. Have you seen those? We were at the Lyceum Theater, and he would go out the stage door and walk back and forth with this leash. I witnessed him doing this. He would walk with this pretend dog, I don’t know … to try to get rid of his feelings? HIs anger and his fear?

I loved doing that play. It’s a great play. It was the most fascinating role for me: a troubled, mixed-up girl, sleeping with her sister’s husband. I had stopped sleeping with Teresa Wright’s husband when the play began, but there was a lot of talk about it. Then, at the end, I come out on the porch carrying a suitcase. There were two houses side by side—one where Nancy Marchand, as another sister, Ida, and her husband lived, and then the house where Teresa and her husband and I lived. And I said, “I’m leaving.” And they said, “Where are you going?” And I said, “I’m moving over to Ida’s.” And that, my dear, was the biggest onstage laugh I ever had. Some nights, I thought the theater would burst!

Part I of my conversation with Eilzabeth Wilson can be found here.

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  1. Oh, Brian, the more I read these Liz Wilson stories, the more I wish you’d do the book! She was, and through your writing remains, a fascinating woman with a phenomenal career. It’s so interesting to me that certain actors did not see her as a star. Would that every actor could have her career

    • Thanks, Judy. I’m glad you’re enjoying them. Much more to come, about Kim Stanley, THE BIRDS, etc. She was certainly a star in my life.

  2. How sad that Shirley Booth cut her off like that. It seems that almost every story you hear about Booth makes her sound extremely difficult to be around.

    • Very complicated, I think. But she had a magic all her own. Have you seen ABOUT MRS. LESLIE recently? She’s pretty remarkable in that.

  3. Really fascinating stories! So enjoyable that I felt guilty just reading them — like eating chocolate in bed…except non-fattening

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